The sunflower harvest across the eastern plains of Colorado is just almost complete now, and experts are calling it a very profitable year for our farmers.
This is due to good yields above 3,000 pounds per acre in some fields, and an expensive drought in the Dakotas, where most of the sunflower in the United States is produced.
Sunflowers are native to Colorado, and Ron Meyer, agronomist with the Colorado State University agricultural extension, said it is the perfect crop for our climate. It is very tolerant to drought, and thrives in the heat. He says that makes them less expensive to grow.
“There are about 100,000 acres of sunflower grown in eastern Colorado, and so that makes it about a $30 million industry," said Meyer.
Meyer also said that more farmers are expected to grow sunflowers in the future, as water becomes less available and the fear of more frequent drought becomes more real.
"The lower value of wheat and corn is also making sunflower an appealing option to farmers when deciding which crops to add to their rotation," Meyer said.
Colorado sunflowers are used in three different markets: snack foods, bird seed, and cooking oil. Meyer said all three of those markets are very strong right now.
"The elevation in some areas, like Kit Carson County, help produce very big, and long sunflowers, that are especially sought after by Europeans. Buyers from Spain come here and buy up a good amount of our seeds for their snack foods," said Meyer.
He said that bird seed is very popular in the winter months, and Colorado ships sunflower seeds to the east coast of the U.S. during that time.
9NEWS visited the only sunflower oil producer in the state, Colorado Mills, in Lamar. They say they buy sunflower seeds from between 120 and 150 local farmers and process 30 million pounds of seeds every year.
The only other oil crushing plant in our area is in Goodland, Kansas.
Colorado Mills produces high oleic sunflower oil.
"That is not only the healthiest kind of sunflower oil on the market, but it is also proven to be healthier that olive oil," said Kevin Swanson, marketing direct of Colorado Mills. "We extract the oil through a crushing process, instead of using solvents, that way the oil is all natural, and it leaves some of the oil in the byproduct, which we make into a healthy livestock feed."
Seven to ten thousand gallons of oil are extracted and refined every day at Colorado Mills.
“You know, 15 years ago we exported most of our sunflower oil. That has stopped. We are now using it in the United States because of some health reasons," Meyer said. "So sunflower oil is high in antioxidants, low in saturated fat, and contains no transfat, so it’s a very healthy oil. And as a result of that, the demand in the United States has just sky rocketed for that oil.”
“Some of our refined oils, when they are a finished product, are going to snack food companies like Frito-Lay, Kettle Brand chips, for instance, Snyders the pretzel company, and Raquelitas Tortillas in Denver,” said Kevin Swanson.
Colorado Mills has also started distributing individual bottles of their high oleic sunflower oil to local Colorado supermarkets.