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Sunflower crop finds fit in Kansas farmer’s rotation

12.04.2017
In what could have been devastating turn of events, Lindsborg, Kansas, farmer Karl Esping rose above. After suffering first a heart attack and then a crippling Easter freeze to his wheat crop, he found a crop to help him heal: sunflowers.
 
“I was in the house for weeks,” Esping said of his heart attack. “I got to reading about sunflowers. Since we lost the wheat crop, we decided to try sunflowers no-tilled right into the wheat stubble. We haven’t looked back since.”
 
That was 10 years ago. Now sunflowers have become a part of his crop rotation on his McPherson County farm. Esping plants anywhere from 300 to 500 acres of sunflowers into wheat stubble each year.
 
“It all depends on the year,” Esping said. “I’m a big believer in no-till for saving of the moisture and the healthiness of the soil.”
 
He plants oil-type sunflowers, used most often to produce cooking oil.
 
Esping has been farming off and on since he was in grade school, and even found the motivation to farm while holding down a full-time job at the local cooperative for 25 years. Things changed when he had the opportunity to join with his father-in-law and combine their farms during the mid to late-90s.
 
“My wife is the fifth generation and my oldest son the sixth generation to be involved with this farm,” Esping said. “It’s a family deal and family is very important to us.”
 
Esping and his wife Wanda’s oldest son, Aaron, and his wife and children, are involved in the farm. Another son is a computer engineer in Fargo, North Dakota, where he lives with his family. His daughter and her family live near Alma, Kansas, and manage a cowherd.
 
“We’re all involved one way or another with agriculture,” Esping said.
 
The health benefits of sunflower oil push Esping to keep growing the crop. Sunflower plant’s roots also benefit the soil.
 
It’s a good alternative crop, he said. “It’s something we need to look at as an alternative and put in your crop rotation.”
 
Leadership
Esping is also involved with the Kansas Sunflower Commission and the National Sunflower Association. He is starting a term as president of NSA, the first from Kansas to do so.
 
“I’ve been chairman of the Kansas Sunflower Commission for eight or nine years,” he said. “I’ve been on the executive committee (of NSA) now for four years.”
 
The National Sunflower Association consists of producers and industry members throughout the major sunflower producing states. Board representatives live in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Colorado, Kansas, and Texas. The NSA board of directors meets four to five times a year.
 
“We develop markets, foreign markets, domestic markets and as things go on international markets are very important as well as domestic,” he said. “Export markets are very important to us.”
 
Research is also important to NSA, and the group works cooperatively with North Dakota State University and the Agricultural Research Service.
 
“The majority of our time and effort goes into research for seed, production, herbicides and insecticides that will help the industry,” Esping said.
 
NSA has projects with NDSU, the ARS, Kansas State University, Texas A&M University, Colorado State University and many others, according to Esping. There’s also new interest coming from the University of Nebraska.
 
Esping is proud of his work with the two groups. NSA Executive Director John Sandbakken, added that Kansas is an important sunflower production state for the organization.
 
“With Karl as president, the High Plains region has a voice on the national scene for sunflower producers,” he said.
 
One reason Esping rose through the ranks of NSA was because of his advocacy for the crop.
 
“He’s passionate about the crop because he realizes the profit potential. It’s a good crop to have in your rotation,” Sandbakken said. “Karl is always outspoken, a good leader and someone not afraid to take a position and back that up.”
 
Record setting
Sunflower production for 2016 was record setting, Sandbakken said.
 
“In the United States we set a brand new record for the U.S. for oil type sunflower seed production per acre, and that’s our second year in a row for doing that,” Sandbakken said. “I think it’s a combination of having better genetics all the time and working to create better hybrids with our research programs.”
 
Since sunflower production is smaller, the level of stocks has not been a huge issue, according to Sandbakken.
 
“The previous two years we had very low stocks and so it was good to rebuild those and the thing is you want to have a steady supply of your customers demand,” he said. Production in 2015 and 2016 put sunflowers in a good position to service customers and add new ones, Esping added.
 
“As far as volume, North and South Dakota were record setting years and Kansas had a good crop. So did Colorado and Texas,” Esping said. “Like a lot of commodities, we have an ample supply, and we all know what that’s done to prices.”
 
Esping said he’d debate all day that sunflowers have been as profitable as any other crop, and it does have its positives.
 
“We have a large crop to deal with and we’ll have to work our way through that,” Esping said. “It’s a great substitute, especially for western Kansas for those in or near the Ogallala aquifer where there are water restrictions or have just run out of water.”
 
Esping suggested putting corn on half a pivot and sunflowers on the other because it will save some water.
 
“They are a dry weather crop,” Esping said. “That’s where our education process becomes so important; to get people to realize that we can make money and reduce our inputs.”
 
He recognizes the importance of corn, especially in southwest Kansas.
 
“There’s a lot of four-legged mouths to feed out there. That’s pretty important to the economy,” he said. “As long as you’ve got corn and a little bit of water, more native water you can use that. Use sunflowers for a few years to get caught back up.”
 
His suggestion for the future?
“Grow more sunflowers,” Esping said.
Kylene can be reached at kscott@hpj.com or 620-227-1804.

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