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40-Year Career in Sunflower

Tuesday, November 1, 2011
filed under: Marketing/Risk Management

Few folks within the U.S. sunflower industry can claim to membership in the “40-Year Club.” John Swanson ranks among them.

Swanson retired earlier this year as sunflower product manager for Croplan Genetics. That post capped an wide-ranging career during which he served, at various times, as a production fieldman, domestic and international salesman of edible sunflower, new product development manager, general manager of a planting seed division, and finally, as the first and only (until his retirement) sunflower product manager for Croplan Genetics.

Not inconsequentially, Swanson continued to grow sunflower and other crops on his farm near Mentor, Minn., during that entire four-decade period.

Tack on his active involvement in various industry organizations (he’s been a director of the National Sunflower Association for more than a decade and also serves as chairman of the Minnesota Sunflower Research & Promotion Council), and it’s clear that John Swanson has played a very substantive role within the nation’s sunflower industry.

That role began in the winter of 1970/71. After graduating from North Dakota State University in 1968 with a degree in mechanized agriculture, Swanson served in the U.S. Army. Following his discharge, he returned to earn a second bachelor’s degree (in ag education) from NDSU. That led to a vocational ag teaching position at the high school in Climax, Minn., not far from his Mentor home.

Swanson also was conducting a night class for area farmers. Clark Dahlgren, president of Dahlgren & Company, a pioneer in U.S. confection sunflower, stopped by during one winter evening’s class. “Clark asked if I’d come in to Dahlgren the next day after classes were done — and they offered me a position,” Swanson says. Until that point, “the only thing I knew about sunflower was a senior report I’d written at NDSU on sunflower in Kenya!”

Swanson was hired as a fieldman for Crookston-based Dahlgren, contracting confection acres and working with growers on what also was, for most of them, a brand new crop. The company’s goal that year was to contract 71,000 acres — “71 in 71.” All were in northwestern Minnesota and eastern North Dakota.

Swanson raised his own first crop of sunflower that same year. “I figured if I wasn’t willing to do it myself, I wasn’t willing to tell somebody else how to do it,” he recalls. “I did a lot of experimenting on our farm over the years. Some things worked well, some didn’t.” Field days were held annually at the Swanson farm, where visitors could view herbicide trials, plant population comparisons, early fungicide testing and a variety of other experiments.

One of Swanson’s early assignments was to develop planter plates for sunflower, as well as improved combine harvest attachments — the Alpha and Omega tools of the production season. Until then, growers were using corn plates for ’flowers, and the results were quite variable. “They were planting six pounds of confection seed per acre — but the distribution was terrible,” Swanson remembers. “There might be clumps of three, four or five plants; then a three- or four-foot skip.”

Ron Hagemeister of Interstate Seed & Grain in Fargo also was working on sunflower planter plate development. “I was using a flat-drop plate, while Ron was taking a different approach,” Swanson relates. “An engineer at Lincoln Ag Products (manufacturer of plastic planter plates for several crops) asked if we could work together rather than independently.” They did, and eventually came up with the colored plate system that quickly caught on across the sunflower industry. “By the second year we had 100% ‘buy-in’ that it would be the system: the size 1, 2, 3 and 4 oil and size 10, 15 and 20 confection.”

Full sunflower hybrids — made possible by the discovery of cytoplasmic male sterility and genes for fertility restoration — were just being developed as of the early ’70s. Dahlgren was marketing two “partial hybrids” at the time, and together they enjoyed a large market share. But they were not rust resistant, and that, coupled with the emergence of full hybrids, triggered their departure.

Flowering across fields was very uneven prior to the appearance of hybrids, Swanson recalls, which simultaneously contributed to uneven drydown. “We tried to use bees — and not always with consistent results,” he says. “Sometimes they’d show definite increases in yield; sometimes you didn’t see anything. I think it depended on the variety and/or the native population of bees in the area.”

Weed control in sunflower essentially boiled down to cultivation. When Elanco labeled Treflan on ’flowers in the ’70s, “we did some trials, and it worked great,” Swanson says. He and Dahlgren colleague Ernie Taus encouraged its use in sunflower to such a degree that nearly 100% of their contracted acres were treated with the herbicide — and Elanco recognized them with an award for their support.

Swanson’s career moved in a new direction in 1974 when Dahlgren made him general manager of its edible sunflower division. There he oversaw confection seed sales (kernel and in-shell), birdseed sales and, as well, those of redwood products. “Redwood products” consisted of bird feeders and planter pots. “We were the number-one buyer of redwood in North America at the time,” he says. At one point the company employed nearly 100 people in Crookston to build the feeders and pots. They were a natural fit for the birdseed market, and Dahlgren placed flyers inside its birdseed bags, offering discounts on feeders. “We were shipping one to two semi loads of product a day to our catalog sales,” Swanson remembers.

That position led to international sales of confection sunflower products. Swanson’s first overseas trip took him to an importer in Spain. “They had a translator when I came there, and she was not very good,” he recalls. “The guy doing the negotiations asked her to leave, and he then asked me, in Spanish, ‘Do you understand what I’m saying?’ I didn’t know much Spanish at the time, but he said, ‘We’ll negotiate without her.’ They each wrote out the sales terms on a piece of paper — Swanson in English and the importer in Spanish. “We signed it — and the last I heard, Dahlgren is still selling to that company.”

The next move come in the mid-1980s when Dahlgren asked Swanson to serve as new product development manager. While some ventures worked out very well, not all did. Dahlgren promoted an early line of sunflower butter, for instance — but it didn’t go far due to oxidization issues that really shortened shelf life. “It turned green with chlorogenic acid, and we didn’t know at that point how to solve the problem.”

One concept that really gained momentum, though, was the use of sunflower kernel in salad bars. It was not solely a Dahlgren project; other confection companies pushed it as well. Swanson recalls one memorable step forward:

“I was on an airplane going to California and ended up sitting next to a food writer. We had gotten two restaurants in Crookston to put sunflower seeds on their salad bars, and they liked it. That was our ‘field testing program.’

“I’d taken some pictures, and told the food writer all about it. She said, ‘Wow, that’s great!’ And I said, ‘Well, do you think we could get into some of the better restaurants in California?’ After she answered affirmatively, he said he’d take her to dinner if she’d write about this “new Midwest craze.” She did — and they ended up at a fairly classy restaurant where the writer knew the chef. Long story short, they returned to the restaurant the following night, complimented the chef (a second time), and Swanson said, “You know, you’re missing something here.” By the next day, sunflower kernel was on the restaurant’s salad bar, and the food writer penned a second article whose title was something akin to “West Now Catching Up to the Midwest.”

Over the course of his career, Swanson estimates he has traveled to 65 countries on six continents and to every U.S. state. Most of his foreign travels occurred during his time in international edible sales. In the mid-1980s, however, after working through two six-week back-to-back trips abroad, he decided he needed to make a change. The extensive travel was tiring enough in itself; but being away from his family and farm for such extended periods drove the point home. The next day, the company hired an assistant to assume much of the travel.

Dahlgren later made Swanson general manager of its planting seed division, i.e., hybrid seed sales. That lasted until 1993, when the seed division was split up and sold. Pioneer bought the research (germplasm), while Land O’Lakes — which was looking to grow its seed business — was interested in the sales group.

Swanson brought along Dahlgren’s corn and soybean genetics, and Land O’Lakes hired him as corn and early soybean manager. Sunflower was quickly added to the mix, however, and he became sunflower product manager for Croplan Genetics (the seed division of Land O’Lakes). His new employer allowed Swanson to remain in Minnesota rather than move to its Iowa seed headquarters, and he immediately began by establishing corn, soybean and sunflower test plots at Mentor.

“The first year (at Croplan), with changing products, we still had about 85% of the market share in sunflower that we’d had the year before at Dahlgren,” he recalls. “That was pretty good, considering we had different hybrids.”

Out of the blocks, Swanson was essentially handling Croplan’s sunflower hybrid development, research, seed production, sales and marketing. “I don’t have a formal degree in breeding, and I’ve never called myself a breeder; but I probably have as many hybrids in the market worldwide as many breeders — and maybe more than some,” he states. “I basically took lines from different companies from which we were allowed to make crosses, and out of those crosses selected for germplasm to fulfill the market needs.” One of those hybrids was Croplan 803, which Swanson says was, until recently, the number-two selling sunflower hybrid in North America. Croplan 3080, another hybrid he developed, still has a significant market share.

From the perspective of one who has been in the industry since the early 1970s, what, in John Swanson’s view, are some of the major accomplishments and current challenges of the U.S. sunflower industry?

The development of a domestic market for sun oil ranks toward the top of the achievement list, Swanson says. “We struggled for the first 30-some years to develop a domestic market for sunflower oil,” he notes. “We always depended heavily upon exports and government export assistance programs.” The development of the NuSun mid-oleic sector has been a major step forward, he affirms. “It’s important for the sunflower industry to be a consistent, reliable supplier for those people who are using [NuSun oil],” he says. “On the other hand, those people need to be consistent users, too. They can’t come and say they want all the acres we can grow — and then buy a cheaper oil that comes along.”

Challenges? “The main problem we have today is, in many ways, Sclerotinia,” Swanson states. “And it has been for a number of years. We are making very good strides in finding ways to test and find lines that have more tolerance. Unfortunately, the best tolerance generally hasn’t brought along the best yield, oil or overall agronomics.”

Sclerotinia’s multi-gene nature “makes it just about impossible to breed for ‘immunity,’ ” Swanson continues. “But we’re making progress. With the SNP (single-nucleotide polymorphism) consortium program involving USDA, NDSU and industry, we have an opportunity to take the knowledge we have of our breeding lines, combine that with the knowledge offered by SNP, and make crosses ‘on paper’ [rather than much more inefficient field cross methods]. We must have the yield and other agronomics along with the disease resistance.”

Whether developing new markets or improved disease resistance, the key to future sunflower industry growth, Swanson says, is to take more risk out of growing this crop and make it increasingly competitive with crops like corn and soybeans.

Referring back to his days as a fieldman and promoter of sunflower in new growing areas, “a lot of times I would start out saying, ‘It’s a blooming good crop,’ ” Swanson illustrates. “The terminology works a couple ways. There’s no crop that’s prettier than sunflower when it’s blooming. But economically, it’s been a ‘blooming good crop’ too. I think it still has great potential yet to be developed.”

— Don Lilleboe
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