sunflowers
Market disruptions from the Russia-Ukraine war have added uncertainty for California sunflower growers and seed producers. (Photo: PlutMaverick / Shutterstock.com)

By Ching Lee, Assistant Editor, Ag Alert

Reprinted with Permission from California Farm Bureau Federation

As California farmers prepare to plant this year’s sunflower crop, the Russia-Ukraine crisis clouds long-term prospects for their biggest market—and for production of the oilseed.

Virtually all sunflowers grown in the Golden State are harvested as planting seed used by other farmers who grow sunflowers. Most sunflowers are grown for their seeds, which are crushed to make cooking oil. Russia and Ukraine are top producers, with 55% of the world’s sunflower acreage, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has affected seed companies’ ability to get seed to those markets, said Garrett Driver, North America supply chain manager for Nuseed, a global seed company that sells sunflower seeds worldwide.

“They certainly were anticipating the arrival of that seed,” he said. “Then Putin invaded Ukraine.”

Some early shipments arrived undisturbed. But Driver said some were in transit as the invasion unfolded, and now many seed companies are trying to assess what the total impact to their business will be.

Because there’s no way to move product from ports or warehouses to farmers in Ukraine, he said seed companies expect “a pretty significant reduction in planted acres this year.” Sanctions against Russia also will prevent seeds from being delivered to Russian farmers for planting.

“Of course, this is coming on the heels of two years of COVID and all the other supply chain and logistics challenges,” Driver said. “This is just another problem to put in the bucket.”

The sunflower market has been “red hot since the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” according to the National Sunflower Association. Traders, the group said, are worried the conflict will affect crop movement and trigger “a mass scramble by importers to seek alternative shipments.” As such, U.S. and Canadian growers “stand to gain from the Black Sea trade disruptions,” the association said, adding it expects “plenty of volatility in the coming days.”

With strong demand for sunflower oil even before Russia attacked Ukraine, Driver said he expects American farmers will pick up some of the slack by planting more sunflowers this year and potentially next year. But he said the increased acreage won’t be substantial because of limited milling capacity in the U.S. for the oilseed.

“You’re not going to see traditional corn growers stop growing corn and grow sunflowers instead,” he said.

The Dakotas are the nation’s leading producer of sunflowers, with 78% of U.S. acreage. Together, the two states planted a little more than 1 million acres last year. That’s compared to 16.8 million acres in Ukraine and 15.4 million acres in Russia.

In California, farmers are on track to begin planting sunflowers next week. Acreage here reached 46,000 in 2021, up from 44,100 acres in 2020, according to USDA. But with the state’s ongoing drought and curtailments on water for farming, people in the business say competition for land and water to grow sunflowers and other annual crops remains fierce.

Sutter County farmer David Richter has been growing sunflowers for 18 years. He said his cropping plans remain “up in the air” because he doesn’t know how much water he will get on his Sacramento River Settlement contract. But he said he’s going to try to plant sunflowers because they use the least amount of water compared to other field crops he usually grows.

“I’m stretching a limited supply of water the best I can with crops that don’t take a lot of water, such as sunflowers,” he said.

Compared to corn, wheat or safflower, sunflowers historically have been a higher-value rotational crop for California farmers, said Dan Howe, location manager for Remington Seeds in Colusa County. The company works with farmers to produce seeds for seed companies, and in recent years, he said there has been an upward trend in the company’s sunflower acreage in the state. But this year, land and water availability has reduced plantings.

D.J. Ehresman, a Remington agronomist and field representative, said the company is on the verge of finalizing contracts with growers, with about 90% of its acreage “set in stone.” Those contracted fields stretch from Chico to Stockton. Due to reduced surface-water allocations, he said growers with access to wells will “play a pretty big role” in producing sunflowers this year.

Howe said he is not aware of any seed companies making major cropping changes to the current growing season, as most of them are moving forward as though “we have a relatively normal sales season.” However, he said he also thinks “a good chunk” of Russia and Ukraine’s 2022 crop won’t be planted and that seed companies are positioning themselves for that.

“You can’t have a conflict between the two largest sunflower-growing countries in the world and there not being an impact,” he said. “The question is how big and how long. That’s the uncertainty of it all.”

Even though there has been no impact so far to the crop California growers will be planting this year—the seeds of which will be sold to farmers worldwide to produce the 2023 crop—Howe said some of those seeds may end up sitting in a warehouse if the Russia-Ukraine war continues.

“This ripple effect—where does it go? How long does it last?” he asked.

Because most sunflower seeds are bred to be sown for a specific region, Howe said certified seed to be grown in Russia and Ukraine are not typically sold to other regions such as the United States. If they’re stored properly, seeds that haven’t been treated with fungicides or insecticides could be sold for two to three years. He estimates about 75% to 85% of the sunflower seeds produced in the state are exported, with the rest marketed to U.S. farmers.

Driver of Nuseed said he thinks sunflower seed production in California could rise as seed companies that had production in Ukraine and Russia now look for alternative locations.

“The demand that was forecasted prior to this invasion and conflict was pretty strong for sunflowers globally,” he said. “We are seeing an uptick in overall acreage around the world. I think both of those are driving more production here in California.”