Health benefits of sunflower oil in combination with growing consumer awareness of the benefits of nutritious foods are strengthening the domestic market for sunflower oil. Because it's naturally low in saturated fat, sunflower oil is a good choice for consumers desiring to reduce risk of heart disease. Sunflower oil is a non-GMO offering that may be desirable or in demand for certain market segments.
Sunflower oil is also the highest of leading oils in alpha-tocopherol, a form of Vitamin E, a nutrient associated with decreasing heart disease risk and bolstering immune function.
Grant Ozipko, oilseed portfolio manager for Syngenta Seed, says consumption of vegetable oil around the globe is growing at about 4 percent annually.
"That may not sound like a large number," Ozipko said. "But when you add up all the acres dedicated to producing vegetable oil, that figure hasn't been growing as quickly as demand. That's helping in-crease domestic demand for sunflower oil."
Sunflower researchers have been developing new sunflower varieties for a number of years. The newest member of the sunflower family produces an oil called Nutrisun, which is not yet widely available. The hybrid seed is under patent and has been identified as a replacement for partially hydrogenated oils or tropical oils with a higher saturate level. Nutrisun is used in baking, margarines, ice cream, chocolate and other products that require a "solid" oil. Nutrisun is 18 percent stearic acid, 72 percent oleic acid, 5 percent linoleic acid and 5 percent other saturates.
NuSun was developed through traditional breeding methods and is currently the "standard" sunflower oil in North America.
High oleic sunflowers is a new and growing segment of sunflowers grown for oil. High oleic hybrids offered by the sunflower industry provide growers a good option to grow healthy oil products and potentially capture value by growing them.
Severe flooding in North Dakota during the 2011 growing season reduced the number of sunflower acres under cultivation, putting a strain on North American sunflower inventory.
"The situation helped drive some local pricing and demand for sunflower products last year," Ozipko said. "Food manufacturers may have specific requirements for a certain amount of sunflower oil used in making their products. That helps drive demand, too."
Of the approximately 2 million acres of sunflowers produced in the U.S., about 1.5 million acres are used for oil production. For many years, North Dakota has led the nation in sunflower production. However, that state's cycle of wet weather could push South Dakota ahead in terms of sunflower production in 2012.
"Sunflowers can be a good crop to consider in your rotation if you want to better manage your workload," Ozipko said. "Sunflowers tend to be one of the last crops planted. They're frequently planted in mid-May or well into June. In fall, they're harvested later. So they can help growers manage both their spring and fall workload."
Sunflowers do require some "extra care" because they're very sensitive to weed pressure. Pre-emergent weed control is essential to realizing an optimum sunflower harvest. They may also require fungicide or insecticide application during the growing season.
"When growers consider commodity prices, they can use a typical rule of thumb for calculating sunflower market prices," Ozipko said. "Look at new-crop soybean prices, which, for example, have been about $13.50 per bushel. Figure that sunflower prices are twice that, or $27 per hundred weight. That's a good guide for growers to help decide if sunflower production is a good option for them."
Growers who become adept at bumping oil content with diligent agronomic practices can reap even greater profits with sunflower oil premiums. For every 1 percent increase in oil content over 40 percent, growers typically receive a 2 percent premium of market value.
"Sunflower production differs somewhat from other crops because you don't just focus on the overall yield," Ozipko noted. "If you're good at increasing oil percentage, you can capture extra value on your crop."
Sunflowers lost acreage in recent years because of high corn and soybean prices and the wet cycle. With a robust demand for sunflower oil, which may continue to grow in the near future, sunflower acres may begin to rebound.
"At one point, sunflowers acreage was between 5 and 6 million," Ozipko said. "The demand for sunflower oil is expected to recapture some of those acres. The sunflower industry is always looking at new varieties to improve either oil content, disease resistance or yield performance. Producer contracts are a good way for growers to secure premiums and take advantage of this growing market."