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Relax Major Leaguers, We Have Seeds

Thursday, September 15, 2005
filed under: Utilization/Trade: Confection-Non-oil

If there’s any consumer more fearful of not having any sunflower seeds, it’s baseball players.

A decline in confection supply last year, spurred by poor growing conditions in the Northern Plains, resulted in a short crop. With sunflower seeds a staple in Major League Baseball dugouts, the prospect of a run-out made national sports news. The Washington Post ran a feature on the sunflower seed shortage coupled with the Washington Nationals’ home opener.

ESPN magazine pointed out in an article that the thought of a seed shortage “has to frighten MLBers, who consume nearly 300,000 bags of seeds each season, about 60 bags per team, per game.” Jose Valentin, who plays third base for the L.A. Dodgers, quipped in the ESPN article that “a dugout without sunflower seeds is like a liquor store without alcohol.”

The sunflower seed link to baseball took hold years ago, as use of smokeless tobacco declined, and is now frowned upon in the game. Now, sunflower seeds are such a fixture of the game, according to the Washington Post, that bags of seeds are actually included as exhibit props at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Thankfully, baseball players and other sunflower seed lovers didn’t run out. To help ensure supply, the shortage of confection sunflower in 2004 prompted confection sunflower processors to contract acreage in non-traditional growing areas, including areas of south Texas close to the Mexican border.

How big is Texas? Well, at one point this year, sunflower was being harvested in the southern end of the state, blooming in another, and planted in the northern end, all at the same time, says Mike Williams, general manager of Red River Commodities Inc. in Lubbock.

Red River has always contracted some confection acreage in south Texas (and some in California), although the supply crunch led to a few more acres in Texas this year. In fact, including other processors, Williams estimates the amount of contracted confections in Texas increased about 300% this year. “Yields and quality were good, they met grower expectations,” he says. “Dryland probably ran about 900 to 1,000 lbs per acre, and irrigated production in the high teens.”

CHS Sunflower contracted some confection acreage in Louisiana. “Actually, some growers there contacted us,” says Chris Bohn, the company’s purchasing manager. “They had heard about the shortage, had grown them in the late ‘90s, and wanted to get back into ‘flowers again.” Dahlgren’s & Co. also contracted some confection acreage in California, “just to help bridge the gap,” says Tim Petry, field production manager.

While confection processors might look to non-traditional growing areas to help ensure supply, those areas will never take the place of the mainstay production region of the Plains. Production in other areas of the country is limited by the availability of crop insurance and competition from other high-value crops. Processors also want production close to their manufacturing facilities. “Freight cost is becoming more of an issue every week,” says Petry. “Sunflowers put some miles on them before they get to the consumer, and the increase in fuel costs is definitely a factor, and even more so when you consider export markets.”

Sunflower growers in the Plains responded to high confection prices by increasing their planted acreage of confections this year (see table), and processors are cautiously optimistic about a rebound in the quantity and quality outlook of the new confection crop. “As an industry, we want to regain the confidence of customers in our supply,” says Petry, “and I think we’ll be able to do that.” – Tracy Sayler

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