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Your West Coast Hybrid Seed Source

Thursday, February 1, 1996
filed under: Fertility

If factoring strictly acreage, California would be considered a “minor” sunflower state. But if the issue is value, the Golden State’s sunflower stock takes a big step up the chart.

That’s because a good 90 percent of this nation’s hybrid sunflower seed production is located in the Sacramento Valley of northern California. In 1995, that translated into roughly 25,000 acres (up significantly from 1994). From those fields have come the hybrids which U.S. sunflower producers — as well as farmers in such diverse global regions as Europe and China — will plant in 1996 and beyond.

Virtually every company retailing sunflower seed in the United States is represented in the Sacramento Valley. Two companies — Cargill and Pioneer — have their own facilities in the region and also contract directly with farmers to produce their respective hybrids. The nation’s other seed suppliers operate under agreements with California-based firms — Vaccaro Seed/California of Chico and SeedTec International of Woodland being the most prominent — to arrange and supervise hybrid seed production on their behalf.

Though hybrid seed fields comprised the vast bulk of those 25,000 acres in 1995, the California seed industry also includes blocks of “foundation” sunflower seed. Foundation seeds are the parental lines of inbreds. Their offspring — the male and female inbreds — are planted in the next year’s seed production fields to produce the actual hybrids planted the year after that by farmers in the Upper Midwest, High Plains and other sunflower growing areas.

Why has the Sacramento Valley evolved into the mecca of hybrid sunflower seed production during the past two decades? There are several reasons, most of which center around a climate which is consistently favorable for high-value seed production.

Environmentally, this valley is relatively risk-free compared to regions which deal with temperature and precipi-tation extremes and the possibility of hail and other potentially disastrous vagaries of Mother Nature during the growing season. From spring through autumn, it is very dry. Warm daytime temperatures cool off at night as ocean air flows into the long valley from the San Francisco Bay area.

“All of our seed production fields are under irrigation, so we don’t have a concern about lack of moisture or too much moisture,” notes Ken Scarlett, general manager of SeedTec. “Also, since we’re normally quite dry throughout the summer, we don’t have most of the diseases that affect sunflower.” Because there’s virtually no rainfall from mid-April to mid-November, the sunflower plants — and seeds — never have moisture on them. That, plus the fact that all irrigation is of the furrow variety (no overhead systems), contributes to the usual absence of disease.

Timing of production is another asset. Typically, the sunflower planting season gets under way during the latter half of March. Such fields can be harvested by mid-August, thereby allowing the seed companies to initiate a more-orderly crop receiving/processing phase (which can extend into late October or early Novem-ber to accommodate late-harvested fields).

Proximity to good water shipping facilities provides another advantage for the Sacramento Valley, says William A. (Bill) Vaccaro. Since a significant amount of California-grown hybrid sunflower does move into export, the ports of Sacramento, Stockton and San Francisco are strategically located for this industry.

Vaccaro also credits state and local governmental agencies as being a real asset for the hybrid seed industry. “The California Crop Improvement Association (CCIA) does an excellent job of verifying genetic purity, and it meshes well with crop improvement agencies and regulatory organizations in other states and foreign countries,” he says. California counties where hybrid sunflower is produced do a good job with phytosanitary inspections as well, Vaccaro adds. Most of the hybrid sunflower produced in California is inspected and certified by CCIA.

One of the most elemental — and crucial — challenges of seed production is isolation: eliminating cross-contamination of a hybrid production or foundation seed field by other sunflower sources, i.e., another seed field, wild sunflower, volunteers or the occasional confection sunflower field. There are two ways to achieve this essential isolation between fields: (1) by distance or (2) by time of flowering. In both approaches, the goal is to guarantee that the only pollination which will occur within a given field is between the appropriate male and female parent plants in that field.

With distance isolation, CCIA stipulates that hybrid production fields must be at least 1.5 miles from any other seed field or other source of pollen. Foundation seed blocks of restorer and maintainer lines also must be a minimum of 1.5 miles from other sunflower fields, while the male-sterile foundation seed blocks are required to be isolated by at least three miles from any potential contamination source. “You have to know your area — where the wilds are, where they’re not,” says SeedTec’s Scarlett. “We’ve had to cut down wild patches — and even have asked homeowners to cut down or bag [ornamental] sunflower plants in their front yard.”

In those instances where it becomes very difficult to contract fields with the necessary distance isolation, the seed companies will opt for time isolation. That’s where one field is planted early and another nearby field planted considerably later — perhaps 30 to 40 days. The first field thus will be well past pollination by the time the second enters the flowering period. A contamination-free environment is thereby maintained while simultane-ously allowing the planting of more sunflower fields within a concentrated geographic area.

“We’d like to see a minimum of 35 days [difference in planting dates in cases of time isolation],” says Kevin Crerar, plant and production manager for Pioneer Hi-Bred at Woodland. “But that’s affected by the maturity of the two [inbred] lines. Bloom date information is critical. You might need up to 45 days in some instances.” While two planting periods would be more common under time isolation, a company can achieve up to three if necessary, Crerar says, starting in late March and finishing planting the last fields toward the end of June.

Though the respective companies try to concentrate most of their contracted production in different parts of the Sacramento Valley, there is a certain amount of overlap — including some instances where two companies are competing for the same grower’s acreage. To alleviate isolation problems and keep each other informed of field sites, the companies gather in early February for what’s euphemistically referred to as a “map pinning party.” On a large map , now located at CCIA headquarters in Davis, representatives of each company place colored pins depicting the location of all the fields for which they have contracts or verbal commitments as of that date. This pin map (see above photo) is updated periodically throughout the remainder of the winter and spring.

As helpful as the map is, however, those pins are not the final answer. Logistics change on a daily basis as planting season approaches. One grower may decide to switch fields, thereby causing a rippling effect on isolation in his area. Another in the same vicinity may decide to grow for a different company, further complicating the situation. And the companies themselves may scramble for late additional acreage due to revised requests from their sales department or outside clients.
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