Who’s Laughing Now?

Producer tells how growing sunflowers in his regions is easy and profitable and offers tips for a successful harvest.

When other farmers hear Mark Keller talk about raising sunflowers at the southern end of the Red River Valley near Tintah, Minn., the reactions range from skepticism to amusement. However, it’s really Keller who’s laughing – all the way to the bank. 

Keller planted a sunflower crop for the first time in 2015. It was an oil-type variety and it yielded about 2,800 pounds per acre. The following year was his best so far as his confection crop yielded more than 2,500 pounds per acre and his oil type sunflower crop yielded more than 2,800. That year, he says his returns on sunflowers were better than corn or soybeans.

“If I can raise 2,800 to 3,000-pound ’flowers, they can pay just as well as me raising over 200-bushel corn – and with less inputs, so there’s more bang for the buck,” he says.

This third-generation producer farms 2,300 acres in Traverse County, where younger farmers have little experience growing sunflowers, he says, and the ones who did in the ’70s and early ’80s write the crop off as too risky. But Keller was willing to try.

“There’s another option out there to diversify your farm. In my area, we’re corn, soybeans, sugarbeets, a little wheat and very few sunflowers. Most farmers don’t have any experience with sunflowers,” he says.

“Those who had sunflowers back in the ’70s or ’80s had all the diseases and insects – it turned into a train wreck, and they swore they’d never do that again. But with new technologies and varieties it’s much better,” says Keller.

He also argues sunflowers could be a fit for land not suitable for corn or soybeans. “Some farmers struggle growing soybeans and other crops because there are so many issues. Why waste your money on planting corn, or where iron chlorosis is too hard on the soybeans? When sunflowers are a better fit,” says Keller.

Although, at first, Keller planted sunflowers to diversify his farm, he soon discovered sunflowers can take the heat, while other crops will take a hit when drought conditions prevail, and sunflowers can mine nutrients as well as moisture from deeper in the soil profile.

Furthermore, Keller says he’s watched other crop markets decline and prices fall, whereas sunflowers are holding their own. Also, because input costs are generally much lower than other crops, sunflower offers a good return on investment, he adds.

These last few years, Keller’s mission has been to increase the number of farmers growing sunflowers in his region of the Red River Valley, and to help them discover the ease and profitability of growing the crop. “Most farmers in my area laughed about growing sunflowers. Now I get more and more guys asking how to grow them – I tell them it’s not hard,” says Keller.

As the owner of Keller Ag Service, a seed dealer, many turn to Keller for advice on sunflower agronomics, markets, contracts, and prices. At the time of this interview Keller’s oilseed crop looked excellent, and if the weather cooperated, could be another record-breaking harvest.

“I’ve had my rows closed for two weeks already. I planted at 22 inches and I’ve never seen it that thick, that fast,” he says.

Keller is growing 235 acres of oil-type sunflowers under contract for the NuSun® market. He’s also hoping for a better return on investment by using variable-rate technology for seeding and crop inputs across his fields.

Keller often fields questions about harvesting sunflowers. He offers the following tips for those growers just starting out as well as those looking to maximize yields.

Setting Smarts

At the end of the day, and no matter the brand, a successful harvest really comes down to farmers knowing how to set their combine harvesters for sunflowers.

Keller says producers must put the work in to determine the settings that provide the best results. This is often trial and error, he warns. Input from other sunflower growers in the region as well as advice from seed dealers is also advantageous, says Keller. “Be on top of your settings. That’s the biggest thing. The combines will do it, but you’ve got to put a little time and effort in.”

More Wind?

One setting that’s important to get right is air speed. “You need a lot of wind or high fan, which is hard to comprehend because you think sunflowers are light, but if you don’t [have enough wind] you get too much trash,” Keller says. “Higher [fan] speeds and more wind actually do a better job mainly because, to conserve time, most farmers run their corn and soybean sieves when they harvest their sunflowers,” he says.

“Farmers aren’t going to stop and redo their sieves, and that makes a bigger gap in the back for corn and ’beans to fall through. If they’re doing oil sunflowers versus confection, that creates a bigger space, so you need more wind in the back in order to get more debris out the back,” he says.

This pays off big at the processor, Keller says. “We’re talking a lot of money. Sunflowers are always higher in foreign material, no matter what, versus other crops. If you can be under 10 percent and down to five, you’re doing a darned good job,” he says.

Desiccate for Timing Convenience

Keller recommends desiccating sunflowers, which takes all the worry out of drying the crop as well as harvest timing. “You can pick your [harvesting] window easier,” he says.

Harvest is busy for growers, says Keller, as they are sometimes harvesting corn, soybeans and sugarbeets within a short time frame, and often in the same month. Finding an opportunity to harvest sunflowers can be challenging.

“If someone asks me ‘when do I combine flowers?’ I tell them you can pick that window when you desiccate, to work around some of the other crops – that helps a lot,” he says.

Header Investment

Having a decent header for the combine makes a big difference to the bottom line, says Keller. “You’ll have less header loss if you don’t run these all-crop heads.” Last year, Keller invested in a specific sunflower head instead of using a straight head and bolting pans on it, or putting an after-market kit on a grain head.

“If you’re going to raise enough sunflowers, invest in a sunflower header if you have the acres to justify it. You will have less header loss. If you raise enough acres of soybeans, you buy a draper head, if you’re going to raise ’flowers, invest in a good sunflower header.”


A Man and His Machine

Mark Keller trusts his combine’s twin rotor design to do the best job at harvest. “The two rotors offer twice the cleaning capacity and does a gentler job on the crop with less foreign material than combines with one rotor,” he says. “The twin rotor design is important. When I custom combine for growers, they actually see the foreign material drop.”