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25 Years of Sunflower Research

Monday, February 3, 2003
filed under: Research and Development

Can you imagine the industry relying on hybrids grown in 1978?

Crop research seems like a slow, tedious process, and it often is, with progress that is not always linear, limited by factors such as weather and inadequate research materials and methods.

However, can you imagine today’s sunflower growers having to rely on hybrids grown 25 years ago?

That point was made by Don Lilliboe, who served as editor of The Sunflower magazine for over two decades, and continues to advise and produce the publication today. Lilliboe gave his perspective on sunflower research progress, at the National Sunflower Association’s Sunflower Research Forum, held recently in Fargo. This year marks the 25th year of the annual research forum.

Sunflower research actually goes back to the 1890s, but the focus then was mostly the use of sunflower for silage and livestock feed. “We weren’t actually crushing sunflower until the latter ‘60s, and in the 1970s, research was fresh ground.”

One of the first broadleaf crops to arrive in the Northern Plains, whose acres then were dominated by wheat, interest in learning more about the new crop was incredibly high. Much of the research presented was basic production information. “The first sunflower meetings drew tremendously in the late 1970s, with crowds of over a thousand,” says Lilliboe. “The papers were more generalized then; research wasn’t as advanced as it is now.” Lilliboe notes that there seems to be a resurgence in research pertaining to agronomic factors; this might be due in part to the growth of sunflower production in the High Plains in recent years.

In reviewing the topic matter of research papers presented in the annual forum over the past 25 years, Lilliboe says it is evident how the industry has matured, from basic production information to much more technical research. Based on his own tongue-in-cheek observations, Lilliboe says sunflower research papers over the past 25 years could be described as fitting into several different categories:

“Come and go topics”— Research that ebbs and flows with sunflower pests and trends.

“Been there, done that”—Research conducted once, with sufficient information and conclusions gathered that further studies aren’t needed.

“Perennial topics”—Some research issues continue to be on the front burner, including Sclerotinia and blackbird control.

“New age research”—Some of the most important sunflower research industry topics today, including NuSun, Clearfield sunflower, and Express-tolerant sunflower, as well as technology such as marker-assisted selection, global-positioning, and Internet-based information, were unheard of 25 years ago.

Lilliboe says research is an important leg of the tri-legged stool that is the sunflower industry. “Those legs are growers, industry, and researchers, and none of those legs can stand unless all are in place and are strong.”

Research can be compared to history, in that it is a continuum. “You folks are an important part of the continuum that was there before you and that will go on after you,” he says, referring to crop scientists who research sunflower. “You have built upon the research foundation laid by others, and others in turn will build upon the foundation that you have built.”

Proceedings from the 2003 Sunflower Research Forum will soon be posted online at Click on the link “Research & Statistics,” then the link to the research forum database. —Tracy Sayler

(Photo description) Don Lilliboe’s name is nearly synonymous with sunflower: he was the eyes and ears of the industry for over 20 years as editor of The Sunflower magazine. Lilliboe gave his perspective on covering over two decades of sunflower research progress, at the National Sunflower Association’s annual Sunflower Research Forum, held recently in Fargo. This year marks the 25th year of the annual research forum. Here, Lilliboe peruses the first issue of The Sunflower in which he was editor. Dated December, 1977, it was then published by the Sunflower Association of America, the precursor of the NSA. On the cover of that issue is Dave Zimmer, at the time USDA-ARS sunflower research leader in Fargo, and one of the first scientists in the nation to recognize the potential of sunflower as a major oilseed crop in the U.S.
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