Cultivated sunflowers are one of the five largest oilseed crops in the world. Sunflower production was 7-9 percent of world oilseed output between marketing years 1999/2000 and 2008/09. Sunflowerseed oil, the principal product of sunflowerseed processing, accounted for 8-11 percent of world vegetable oil trade between 1999/2000 and 2008/09.
In 2008/09 (September-August), sunflower production in the United States had a farm-gate value of $669 million and was concentrated in the northern Midwest. About a quarter of sunflowerseed is used in birdseed, and another 10-20 percent is sold directly for snacks and baking products. The remaining seed is crushed into oil and meal. Historically, seed was produced for export to Europe, but today, only a small amount is exported; instead, today's sunflower crop is almost entirely consumed domestically.
Sunflower oil is widely used in parts of Russia, Europe, and the Middle East, and U.S. production began with immigrant groups from these regions. With the introduction of high-oil-yielding Soviet cultivators in the late 1960s and the development of oilseed crushing capacity in the United States, sunflower production increased to over 200,000 acres by 1970. Acreage continued to rise throughout the 1970s, fueled by strong prices, improved varieties (including Argentine and hybrid seed), and ready export markets in Europe and Mexico. Planted acreage peaked at 5.6 million acres in 1979.
Through the 1970s, sunflowers were touted as one of the most promising growth crops. However, U.S. sunflower production declined by more than two-thirds in the 1980s as foreign sunflower production expanded and U.S. farmers increased production of alternate oil crops (primarily soybeans).
During the 1990s, sunflower acreage rebounded largely as a result of the Food Agricultural Conservation and Trade Act of 1990 that included sunflower and other minor oilseeds in the Marketing Assistance Loans/Loan Deficiency Payments program. Sunflowerseed producers became eligible for Direct Payments and Countercyclical Payments in 2002 and the Average Crop Revenue Election Program in 2008. However, sunflower production has not regained levels seen in the late 1970s, largely because of decreased export prospects. For more information, see link below:Provisions of the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990
Sunflower varieties are separated into two types: oil and confection (non-oil). Oil-type sunflowerseed is selected for specific characteristics such as oil yield, the amount of oleic acid in the oil, and the protein content of the meal (the residual left after extraction of the oil). Oil-type sunflower seeds are black with thin hulls. Oil-type seeds contain 35-55 percent oil (as compared with 18 percent for soybeans) and about 20 percent crude protein by weight, depending on the seed variety and irrigation use. Confection sunflower seeds are relatively thick and large, with striped hulls that are only loosely attached to the kernels. Approximately 90 percent of U.S. production is oil-type sunflowerseed and 10 percent confection.
Sunflower production is concentrated in the northern Midwest, where the shorter growing season makes corn and soybean production less attractive (see 2007 Census of Agriculture maps for Oil Varieties and Confection (Non-Oil) Varieties). Sunflowers are able to thrive in these dry and windy areas because of a deep root structure. In 2009, 44 percent of production was in North Dakota, 28 percent in South Dakota, and the rest, scattered throughout California, Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas. Sunflowers can also be grown in a double crop rotation in the southern Midwest, Delta, and South, but widespread adoption has yet to take place.
In the northern Midwest, optimal planting time is May 1-20, but planting can extend into June (see Usual Planting and Harvesting Dates for U.S. Field Crops). Further south, in States such as Texas, sunflowerseed can be planted several months later, providing additional sources of seed in years with poor growing conditions in the Northern Plains. Most production is contracted prior to planting. Typically, buyers provide specific types of hybrid seed and agree to purchase the crop at a set price. Quality standards also affect the future payment, especially for confection seed. Sunflowers are harvested between late September and early November.
In the northern Midwest, sunflowers are often planted in rotation with small grains such as wheat, barley, and oats, as well as with potatoes, sugar beets, and dry peas. Ideally, crop rotations include sunflowers every 3-4 years to limit the risk of disease and insects. Because sunflowers are susceptible to the disease Sclerotinia (white mold), other susceptible crops (such as canola, soybeans, dry beans) should not be rotated with sunflowers.
Producers apply nitrogen, potassium, and potash (potassium carbonate) in the spring. Pesticides and herbicides are commonly applied because pests, weeds, and disease can be significant problems. Recent improvements in sunflower varieties that are resistant to Sclerotinia wilt (stalk and head rot) have reduced pesticide use, though disease resistance lags improvements in other major crops, such as corn and soybeans.
The majority of oil-type sunflowerseed is crushed in North Dakota and western Kansas to separate oil from meal. The amount of crush is primarily determined by demand for sunflowerseed oil because the share of revenue from oil is larger than that from meal.
Two major crushing technologies are used to process sunflowers in the United States. All crushing plants use a continuous feed expeller, which presses the oil from the seeds by mechanical pressure. This process retains 3-10 percent of the oil in the meal. Afterwards, most crushing plants use a solvent extraction process where the remaining meal is washed with a hexane solution to dislodge nearly all the remaining oil. Solvent extraction reduces the oil content of sunflower meal to 0.5-1.0 percent, increasing the value of the meal and producing larger amounts of high-value sunflower oil.
Multiple small confectionary processing plants are located throughout sunflower-producing States to take advantage of local distribution. Some of the seed is roasted, much like peanuts, while some is dehulled and the kernels sold as confectionary "nuts." Food processors purchase sunflower kernels to sell directly to consumers as packaged snacks or as an ingredient in other food products. Most hulls are used as turkey bedding, though some are ground into pellets to provide fiber in animal feed.
The sunflower industry in the United States initially evolved to export seed to Europe, which was the world's largest export market. Two-thirds of U.S. sunflowerseed production between 1970 and 1985 was exported. In subsequent years, U.S. exports of sunflowerseed declined as global competition for sunflower exports increased (primarily in Argentina), and Europe, the primary importer of sunflowerseed, rapidly increased its own production (for more information, see Oilseeds: Background for 1995 Farm Legislation, link below). Global increases in planted acres and yield improvement, coupled with increased crush capacity near production areas, dramatically decreased world trade in sunflowerseed from 2000 onward. By 2008/09, U.S. sunflowerseed exports were primarily sent to Canada, Japan, and Mexico.Oilseeds: Background for 1995 Farm Legislation
Between 1980/81 and 2000/01, sunflower oil exports averaged a quarter of a million metric tons annually, or 76 percent of U.S. sunflower oil production. The Export Enhancement Program (EEP) and the Sunflowerseed Oil Assistance Program (SOAP) supported strong U.S. sales of sunflower oil to developing markets by providing credit guarantees, export subsidies, and food aid. SOAP last operated in 1996 and, though EEP remained active through 2007, EEP program support for sunflower oil exports fell into disuse years earlier.
With the end of government support programs, U.S. sunflower oil producers faced strong competition from other exporting nations, especially the rapidly maturing Argentine sunflower industry. In 2008/09, only 91,000 metric tons of sunflower oil were exported from the United States, representing 31 percent of U.S. domestic production. The industry has grown recently, owing to the adoption of mid-oleic sunflower varieties, which produce trans-fat-free oils. Production for mid-oleic sunflower oil production is buoyed by support from some of the largest companies in the frying food industry.
As exports of crude sunflower oil have declined, exports of refined oil have risen. Since the late 1990s, the U.S. sunflower industry added refining facilities to retain a higher share of value-added processing. In 2003/04 the United States exported 24,000 metric tons of refined sunflower oil, and by 2008/09 that total reached 81,000 metric tons, the majority of which was shipped to Canada.
Exports of confectionary seed remain steady, despite increases in world production, because U.S. seed is valued for its consistently larger size and uniform quality. Spain and Turkey are the primary destinations of U.S. in-shell confectionary seed exports, with a handful of Middle East and European countries importing the remainder. Half of U.S. shelled seed exports go to Germany and the United Kingdom, and the remainder are sent to other countries in the EU-27, Canada, and Mexico.
Roughly one-quarter of all sunflowerseed production is used to produce birdseed. The 2006 National and State Economic Impacts of Wildlife Watching survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that people spent $3.35 billion feeding wild birds, up 64 percent from 2001. Consumers spent $2.7 billion on commercially prepared bird food, up 33 percent from 2001, with the rest spent on bulk wild bird food. Sunflower seeds are considered a premium birdfeed ingredient because of their high oil content and thin hulls. Most birdfeed uses oil-type sunflowerseed, though small confection seeds are also used.
Confectionary sunflower seeds are a familiar component of snack products. Approximately 10-20 percent of U.S. sunflower production is used in shelled kernels, whole seeds, and nut and fruit mixes containing sunflowerseed. Kernels are also used in processed foods, such as granola bars and breads. Confectionary sunflowerseed competes with nut crops such as peanuts, almonds, walnuts, cashews, and specialty grains such as millet and flax used in the production of multi-grain breads.
Domestic demand for sunflower oil has increased in recent years as processors have built refineries and large buyers have committed to future purchases. Food processors use the oil for frying foods (including potato chips) and in salad and cooking oil, margarine, and dairy substitutes. Sunflower oil is preferred in many high-quality dining establishments for its neutral taste. A small supply of high-oleic oil is used in industrial frying applications where high temperatures require good oxidation stability. A small amount of oil is also used in cosmetics, resins, and lubricants.
Linoleic, high-oleic, and mid-oleic sunflower oils are sold in the United States. Until recently, linoleic oil was the predominant oil. Linoleic oil must be partially hydrogenated to maintain its stability in various uses, a process that also creates trans fats. Plant breeders began developing mid-oleic seed after research uncovered a link between trans fats and heart disease. Today, the majority of the sunflower oil supply is mid-oleic, which does not require hydrogenation. Mid-oleic oil has no trans fats, low monounsaturated fat, and a neutral taste. It is also more durable than most other vegetable oils when used in industrial frying. Such qualities make food processors willing to pay a premium for sunflowerseed oil over soybean oil.
U.S. prices for sunflower oil generally move in unison with other vegetable oil prices, with sunflower oil commanding a premium. It is a common practice for those trading sunflower oil to hedge in the soybean oil futures market. Strong demand for sunflower oil in edible uses raises its price and limits its use for producing biodiesel.
Livestock, typically beef and dairy cattle, consume sunflower meal as part of a feed ration. Sunflower meal is consumed near crushing plants in North Dakota and Kansas in feedlots, and to a lesser extent in dairy operations. Export demand for sunflower meal is limited, with small amounts shipped to Canada.
The price of sunflower meal is generally discounted from other protein meals, partly because of its lower protein content (28-38 percent vs. 44-49 percent for soybean meal). High fiber content and limited availability of lysine (an important nutritional component in swine and poultry production) also limit demand. Retaining the hulls increases fiber content and meal volume, but lowers overall feed energy value, which results in lower prices.
For More Information
USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS)
- Oil Crops Yearbook tables
USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Commodity Statistics (Click on "Sunflower Seed")
- National Statistics
- Link to Quick Stats, which contains data on planted and harvested acreage, yield, production, and value at the National, State, and county levels for both oil-type and confection (non-oil) varieties
- Links to all recent reports on acreage, monthly marketings, prices, production, stocks, and value
- Links to Sunflower county maps