Sunflower crops could set records in the nation's top two producing states this year, helping to blunt a drop in nationwide production and ensure a healthy supply for processors in the United States and Canada.
The good year for growers in North Dakota and South Dakota in turn might help keep consumer prices down for foods that use sunflower oil although worries remain about the weather-delayed harvest.
"Any time that the crop stands out there longer, obviously there's potential (for damage)," said John Sandbakken, international marketing director for the National Sunflower Association.
The last official estimate Nov. 9 said less than one-third of the crop had been harvested in the Dakotas, which produce 75 percent of the nation's sunflowers.
Sunflowers are used primarily for cooking oil. Production nationwide is expected to be down 13 percent this year, because of a drop in planted acres due to competition from highly profitable crops such as soybeans and spring flooding in North Dakota that prevented some fields from being seeded.
Tom Young, who farms near the central South Dakota town of Onida, said some farmers are just starting to get into the fields to harvest the crop because of a wet fall.
"I'm not even half done," he said. "It wasn't too many years ago we were done by the first weekend of pheasant season, the third week of October."
But all indications are that the crops are still in good shape. The Agriculture Department is projecting an average sunflower yield of 1,809 pounds per acre in South Dakota, which would be a record for the second consecutive year. The estimate for North Dakota is 1,557 pounds, only 29 pounds shy of the 2005 record. Without the high yields, U.S. production would be down even more.
Sandbakken said stocks were high coming into the marketing year that began Oct. 1, so he does not expect the smaller crop to have a big influence on prices in the short term.
"We're in a pretty good position," he said. "That's one of the things we want to do, is have a consistent supply."
Most of the nation's oil sunflowers are used domestically, but exports to Canada have been growing. Sandbakken estimated shipments to Canada in the past marketing year at just short of 80,000 metric tons, beating last year's record of 60,000 metric tons.
"Consumers in Canada are very health-conscious, and their laws on trans fat labeling and saturated fat labeling are even more stringent than in the U.S.," Sandbakken said. "Sunflower oil fits in perfectly."
The sunflower association the past three years has been running a promotional campaign north of the border, touting sunflower oil. The NuSun variety developed by federal scientists in North Dakota and trademarked by the sunflower association _ and which accounts for 75 percent of production _ is low in trans fatty acids that can elevate levels of harmful cholesterol.
There are some potential problems with this year's crop. The association says oil content in the Northern Plains crop so far is below average, some fields in northeast Kansas might not have matured before the first frost, and the fungus sclerotinia has damaged crops in northwest Minnesota and northeast North Dakota.
Young said farmers in wet areas who have limited crop-drying capacity might have to decide which crop to finish harvesting this fall _ sunflowers or corn _ and which to leave in the fields over winter. Crops that spend the winter in the field often have reduced yields.
However, "generally speaking, everybody's got a real decent above-average (sunflower) crop," Young said.
If the yields play out, Sandbakken said, "we'll have ample supplies to meet customer demand."