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Larry Kleingartner Bids NSA Adieu

Monday, January 2, 2012
filed under: Research and Development

It is time! After 33 years at the helm of the National Sunflower Association it is time to pass the baton to new leadership.

Last year at this time I advised the National Sunflower Association board of directors that I would be stepping down at the end of 2011. I wanted to give the NSA board of directors sufficient time to search for a new executive director. So the end of 2011 has now arrived. I am pleased to report that the board of directors has appointed John Sandbakken to the position of executive director. John has been on the NSA staff for the last 16 years and the two of us have developed a close working relationship during that time. I will stay on in a lesser role working on special projects related to production research.

It has been a challenge and a pleasure to lead this organization over the last 33 years. It has been a roller coaster of feast and famine and no two years have been alike. This industry started in an era when farmers were looking for an alternative crop to the wheat-fallow system which was well established in the middle 1970s. At the same time Europe had a significant demand for sunflower seed for their crushing industry. These two factors came together at the same time resulting in a dramatic growth industry. Like most growth industries problems ensue and competitors quickly surface. The sunflower industry was no exception.

During much of the last thirty years the sunflower industry has been adapting to changing conditions. For a long time this industry exported 80 percent of the sunflower oil it produced. But with the development of oleic based sunflower oil the domestic market now dominates and oil exports are negligible. Initial production was centered in a small region adjacent to the Red River which separates North Dakota and Minnesota. Now the crop is grown over a huge geographic area from the Prairie Provinces in the North to the most southern tip of Texas.

Weed control methods have changed from double incorporated preplant herbicides to herbicide resistant hybrids in no-till systems. There were no fungicides labeled for most of the last 30 years. Today fungicides are an increasingly important part of production systems.

One of the great delights of working for the NSA over the years has been the innovative nature of board members, farmers, researchers and the support industry. I have been blessed by working in an environment where new ideas are highly encouraged. I have been surrounded by staff members with great energy and ‘can do’ attitudes. Never in my 33 years did I hear that a particular idea ‘was tried and didn’t work’. New ideas were molded into action plans with a great deal of input from all sectors. If there was not across board unity, the plan simply did not get off of the ground. Of the many new projects that were developed, no one person was singled out for special accolades. And not one person demanded special recognition. It was a team approach. It was an industry wide project and personalities were secondary.

It has been unfortunate that sunflower missed out on GMO or transgenic technology. Not having GMO technology has been a real negative for the sunflower industry. Acreage declined sharply as farmers flocked to this new technology in other crops. Sunflower was on the cusp of the technology. But the explosion of GMO negatives worldwide put it on the shelf. There was weed, insect and Sclerotinia resistance work in the pipeline. This all came to a crashing halt with the image of GMO products being compared to ‘Frankenfood’. The technology has remained on the shelf due to European intransigence and a large block of the world’s sunflower producers unable to pay for the technology.

With the door shut on GMO, leaders of this industry again came up with alternative ideas. A SNP Consortium has been developed to access the newest genetic technology at the lowest possible price. The Consortium has eight hybrid seed company members. The USDA ARS is a key partner. The goal is to utilize the newest breeding technology without spending millions of dollars in the process. A second consortium is underway to develop an efficient process for doubled haploid breeding. If the research presently underway is successful, the breeding time to bring a new hybrid to market will be reduced by 50 percent. It is these kinds of initiatives that bring competitors together and farmers and industry working hand in hand with one common goal.

There are going to be many more challenges and changes ahead for this industry. Underlying all of this is demand for a broad array of products from several types of sunflower oil, hulled seeds, confection inshell and birdfood. The list of products continues to increase annually.

I am confident that new ideas, initiatives and consortiums will continue to be developed as this industry adjusts to the times at hand. I am also confident that John Sandbakken along with the many leaders throughout the combined industry will continue to meet the challenges head on and take advantage of new opportunities.
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