ARCHIVED  September 1, 1997

Sunflower grows into region’s top cash crop in sales

FORT COLLINS – If you traveled the main roads and byways of Larimer and Weld counties in 1980, you would have field after field dominated by corn and sugar beets. Travel those same roads today, and you’ll see acres and acres of bright golden sunflowers, a crop that was too small to measure in 1980 but today ranks as the largest single cash crop in Northern Colorado. You’ll also see farms competing with strip malls and housing developments, new organic vegetable farms competing for niche markets and farmers coping with rising land prices and looking for ways to add value to their products. In 1995, sunflowers accounted for 25 percent of the total value of crop production in Larimer and Weld counties at $70.8 million, followed by corn for grain at $45.8 million (15 percent), hay at $45.1 million (15 percent) and alfalfa hay at $41.9 million (14 percent). Those numbers come from The Northern Colorado Business Report’s Leading Agricultural Indicators, prepared for the newspaper by University of Northern Colorado economist John Green. Winter wheat ranked next at $29.3 million (10 percent), followed by corn for silage at $23.4 million (8 percent), sugar beets at $15.8 million (5 percent) and dry beans at $9.6 million (3 percent). Potatoes, barley, other hay, spring wheat, oats and sorghum accounted for the remaining 5 percent of value at $14.8 million. Contrast those 1995 crop statistics with 1980, when corn for grain was the leading crop at $48.7 million (19 percent), followed by sugar beets at $41.3 million (17 percent), corn for silage at $34.6 million (14 percent), hay at $31.9 million (13 percent), winter wheat at $30.4 million (12 percent) and alfalfa at $26.2 million (11 percent). The remainder of the crop production value came from dry beans at $15.4 million (6 percent), barley at $7.2 million (3 percent) and other crops, mainly other hay and potatoes, at $11.2 million (5 percent). Sunflowers took off when a sugar-beet plant in Goodland, Kan., converted to seed oil production, and suddenly there was a market for the bright yellow flowers and their seeds, according to Bob Hamblen, a Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Service extension agent for agriculture and farm management in Larimer County. “That has been one of the biggest boons to sunflower production as a whole,” Hamblen said. “It opened up a new opportunity and opened up a market that was somewhat close.” Sunflowers also are coming into increasing play in crop rotation patterns in dryland wheat farming, especially in eastern Colorado, and that trend is pushing westward, Hamblen said. Wheat farmers alternate wheat with sunflowers to help control weeds and get away from the traditional wheat/fallow mono crop pattern. Sugar beets, once the staple crop of the Colorado Front Range, were affected by closures of processing facilities, and though they have enjoyed several resurgences in the past 15 years, Hamblen said he doubted they would ever regain their historic predominance. Barley producers, likewise, are less of a fixture along the Front Range nowadays, despite their proximity to two of the nation’s largest breweries in Coors and Budweiser. Barley for beer is now grown as far away as Idaho. Some farmers are turning to specialty hay and alfalfa for horses, Hamblen said, while organic vegetable farming, once viewed by many as being “on the fringe, now has established itself as a niche market.” “As land prices continue to escalate, farmers as a whole are realistically looking at what types of crops and alternatives they could move to get a higher return per acre than the traditional corn, pinto beans, alfalfa, barley-types of crops.,” Hamblen said. Like Sekata sweet corn packaged for grocery chains or wheat farmers buying a Longmont bakery, many Northern Colorado farmers are looking for ways to add value to their basic commodities, and Hamblen predicted that trend would continue. “You tend to see that value-added aspect starting to come out, trying to claim a greater share of that food-chain dollar, other than just the raw commodity,” he said, adding he expects Colorado farmers to follow Midwestern farmers in self-funding food processing and marketing facilities to help grow their portion of the food dollar.

FORT COLLINS – If you traveled the main roads and byways of Larimer and Weld counties in 1980, you would have field after field dominated by corn and sugar beets. Travel those same roads today, and you’ll see acres and acres of bright golden sunflowers, a crop that was too small to measure in 1980 but today ranks as the largest single cash crop in Northern Colorado. You’ll also see farms competing with strip malls and housing developments, new organic vegetable farms competing for niche markets and farmers coping with rising land prices and looking for ways to…

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