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Confection Sunflowers in Colorado

Leon Zimbelman watches another load of large stripped confection sunflower being unloaded at his Prospect Valley grain handling facility. He wonders if these seeds will end up in the dugout of the Colorado Rockies’ baseball team or maybe go to Spain and be consumed by someone watching a bull fight. Zimbelman marvels how these millions of sunflower seeds being stored at his facility end up being such a popular snack for so many people around the world. He also smiles and shakes his head in wonderment in how that stripped sunflower seed has changed his life.

Zimbelman has been farming in the Keenesburg area for a good many years and started planting confection sunflower in 1988. He did that for a number of years before he started to store and condition confection sunflower for Red River Commodities which has processing facilities in ND, TX and Colby KS. He contracted with area farmers to grow confection sunflower and added other conditioning and storing facilities in Flagler and Burlington CO. He now has about 75 farmers that grow sunflower for him under contract. Some of the acreage is the oil type sunflower which is contracted to the ADM crush plant at Goodland KS. Most of that oil ends up in potato chip bags. NuSun® sunflower oil is a preferred oil for the potato chip industry.

The confection sunflower seeds are further processed by Red River Commodities where they size, clean, roast and salt the seeds for consumers all over the country. A large portion are kept raw and exported to Spain, Turkey and a multitude of other countries.

Leon just doesn’t grow and store sunflower. He is an active leader in the sunflower industry. He is president of the Colorado Sunflower Administrative Committee which is a grower checkoff organization. He is also 2nd vice president of the National Sunflower Association (NSA) which consists of five state grower checkoff groups and industry members. Zimbelman remarks that it is so exciting to see the progress that is being made in sunflower market development and research. “When I started growing sunflower I had one herbicide to choose from to control weeds. Getting more weed control tools was a high priority for the NSA and today I have a good number to tools in the tool box,” said Zimbelman. Another area of great change is the larger seed size of the confections. “Our export markets such as Spain, Turkey and part of the Middle East asked for larger and longer sized seeds. The hybrid seed companies went to work and now the vast majority of what we produce is the jumbo sized seed,” says Zimbelman.

The other big change in his life since becoming involved in sunflower is the many close working relationships that have developed. He smiles when he mentions the name of Bob Majkrzak, president of Red River Commodities. “Bob has more ideas coming out of his head in a day than most of us have in a life time.” Then there is Ron Meyer of CSU at Burlington. “Here is a guy that volunteers his time to our checkoff group and will go to the end of the earth to meet with a farmer who has a production question. There are so many dedicated individuals in this industry who have become very good friends,” says Zimbelman. His farming and storage business also involve his wife Margie and daughter Jennifer. “It is a real family project,” says Leon.

So what’s the future of sunflower and for Zimbelman in Colorado? “I think it is very bright. We can produce a super quality confection or oil sunflower here and we have excellent processing plants nearby. For me I love working with the area farmers. They are a super group of individuals who want to do the best they possibility can,” says Zimbelman. Needless to say the baseball players in Denver and the teenagers in Spain are mighty happy for that.

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