Sunflower Fits Well in South Central Montana
Monday, February 5, 2018
filed under: Hybrid Selection/Planting
When she was six years old, Michelle Erickson-Jones decided she wanted to be a farmer when she grew up. It was a dream the Montana-raised farm kid kept chasing, even while living in the big city.
“I went to Ohio for college and earned a degree in history with a minor in political science. I came back to Montana after college and worked part-time on the farm and part-time for UPS,” Michelle recounts. “I returned to school for my MBA, and my UPS career took me to Seattle for several years where I eventually took a job with Amazon Fresh.
“I have two younger brothers and a younger sister. I thought one of them would come back and farm; but in 2012 no one was ready to come back to the farm. My dad called and said he had an opportunity to lease more land and needed help. I was happy to come home and become a full-time farmer.”
Michelle is thriving on the farm, which is just outside Broadview, Mont., about 30 miles north of Billings in south central Montana. In 2014 she married her husband, Travis Jones. He brought a strong ranching background to the Erickson operation. With help from Michelle’s dad, Bart Erickson, they now run a small cow-calf operation and grow winter wheat, malt barley, safflower, corn, alfalfa, forage grains — and sunflower.
“Sunflower has been an important part of our crop rotation for about five years now,” she says. “People had said sunflower was a crop that would grow well here, and we thought [it] would be a good fit for our rotation. The only problem was there were no crushers or any kind of facility that would handle them near us. The closest crushers were in Fargo, N.D. That’s a long way to send a crop.”
Which meant not many people in her area were planting sunflower. But in 2012, Safflower Technologies started contracting with farmers, including Michelle’s dad and cousin. Then, the company bought an abandoned elevator in Broadview, just two miles from Erickson-Jones’ farm.
“That got more people to plant sunflower,” says Michelle.
The number of growers in the Broadview area quickly grew from five to 10, and acres grew to nearly 5,000. Erickson-Jones has continued to make mid-oleic sunflower a regular part of her family’s nearly 10,000-acre operation. The sunflower they grow goes to the bird food market. Michelle says they’ve stuck with mid-oleics for a number of reasons, but the number-one reason is Montana’s short growing season.
“We plant Pioneer mid-oleic 80s. They work well in our short growing season. Most high oleics require a longer growing season, and we just can’t risk the early frost,” she explains.
Michelle says the average first frost date is mid- to late September, but she says it’s not uncommon to have a frost in August.
“That early frost makes it a struggle to grow a late-season crop. Two years ago we lost half our corn crop because we had a frost in late August. We try to be in the field by May 15. We have pushed it back all the way to June 15, but you start to risking weather issues if you wait that long.
“But we keep sunflower in the rotation because we do like the benefits,” says Michelle. “Sunflower fits our rotation and breaks up our hard ground. We often follow sunflower with malt barley. We have also done hay barley and peas after sunflower and have had good luck.
“[Sunflower works] well in our sandy loam soil. We only get an average of 13 inches of rain a year, so the fact that sunflower can tap into that moisture and root down and let the nutrients come back up has been a big help to our other crops.”
Michelle is quick to point out that sunflower does require more management than other crops they raise, and growing sunflower means committing to a longer busy season on the farm.
“It’s still pretty weird to get into the combine in mid-November and turn on the heat!” she observes. ?“Before we started planting sunflower, we were used to finishing the wheat harvest in August, and then we didn’t touch our combines again until the next summer. Adding sunflower into our rotation means we are busy from mid-March until mid-November. That makes for a very long year, but it’s worth it when we see the benefits of planting sunflower.”
The benefits, Michelle says, include improving long-term rotations and better soil. The most difficult part, she emphasizes, is finding a market for sunflower. But, “the market for sunflower is increasing every year,” she says optimistically.
And every year, Michelle and her family discover new ways to make sure their sunflower crop is the best one possible. She says cutworms have been a problem in the past, so they’ve made it a habit to spray for them ahead of the crop. After losing half their crop one year to banded sunflower moth, they’ve sprayed for that insect as well and haven’t had any issues since.
Michelle says those challenges are just part of life as a farmer; but for her, there are additional challenges, too. Many of them come from being a woman doing what many consider a man’s job.
“Farming takes quite a bit of physical strength, and there are many things men have an easier time doing. But I get by,” she affirms.
Michelle shares about the day-to-day work as a farmer on her blog, bigskyfarmher.com. She’s built a loyal following there, and her Facebook page has nearly 900 followers. For her, it’s a way to educate and advocate for agriculture.
“I try to provide educational content on my blog. There area lot of questions about agriculture. Farmers are 1% of the population. I try to provide a glimpse of what it’s like to be a farmer. I do that with photos of the day-to day-operations. I explain what we’re doing in the photos and answer questions about farming.
“I have friends who have blogged about their farms, and I’ve always like to write. I came home to the farm from a corporate career and went to college in Ohio at a non-ag school. So I have a wide base of friends, many of whom have never set foot on a farm. I figured I have a good story to tell,” Michelle says.
The response to her blog and social media pages confirms that. Michelle fields messages from old friends as well as people she’s never met. She takes each question seriously and sees each one as an opportunity to educate.
“I recently had a message from a friend from high school. We hadn’t talked in years, but she and her husband were considering buying a house that was next to a corn field. She had questions about pesticides and her kids’ health. I was able to give her good information to help them make their decision.”
Michelle also advocates for agriculture beyond her keyboard. She is a member of the National Association of Wheat Growers board and also serves as the current president of the Montana Grain Growers — the first female president in that organization’s 61-year history.
“There are some barriers and some ideas that a woman shouldn’t have that job,” she says. “When we go to Washington, D.C., to talk policy, many people assume I am a staff member rather than a farmer.”
But Michelle Erickson-Jones is the real deal, living out her childhood dream of being a farmer. And along the way, she’s sharing her passion for agriculture with people around the world.
— Jody Kerzman