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30 Years Ago - A Look Back

Monday, November 25, 2019
filed under: Historical

Oilseed Issues on Front Burner As ’90 Farm Bill Debate BeginsBy John Gordley — “As 1990 begins, the need to address problems facing the U.S. oilseed sector is on the list of New Year’s resolutions for Congress — as well as for producer groups and industry.  And with both a major farm bill and a new agreement on international trade to complete by year’s end, 1990 will be a critical year for the future of the U.S. sunflower industry.

“This past year, 1989, has seen continued erosion of U.S. oilseed production and exports, despite repeated efforts by sunflower and soybean producers and industry to reverse the trend.  The 10/25 acreage substitution plan failed to [compete] with the wheat program in the Northern Plains, and the low ARP and overplanting option for 1990 suggest the same result, regardless of market prices.

“Oilseed groups have moved from seeking access to program crop acreage to asking for program benefits as well.  The National Sunflower Association led the effort to get USDA to allow planting of oilseeds and other crops on underplanted acres under the 0/92 and 50/92 programs for 1990, with full payment.”
Sunflower a Winner on Their Balance SheetBy Don Lilleboe— “Ken Mehrkens doesn’t have to reflect very long before coming up with a concrete example of how his marketing partner’s timely decision-making put several thousand dollars in their pockets.

“Preoccupied with the barley harvest this past August, ‘I was in the field, not paying attention to what the market was doing.  My main 
concern was getting that crop in,’ recalls the Thief River Falls, Minn., farmer.  Fortunately, his partner had a different focus that month: keeping tabs on the market and looking for a selling opportunity.  It came, the barley was sold — and a healthy profit resulted. ‘In comparison with today’s market, there was a $10,000 difference,’ Mehrkens smilingly observed three months later.
Mehrkens’ valuable marketing partner is his wife, Connie.  As on many family farms around the nation, the Pennington County couple pool their individual talents and available time to make their farming operation more efficient and profitable. . . . 
“Though northwestern Minnesota’s declining sunflower acreage during the past several years may suggest otherwise, the Mehrkens’ balance sheet shows that in most years, there’s definitely profit in this crop.  ‘We feel sunflower saved us economically last year (1988),’ Connie states.  Adds her husband: ‘There’s no question about it.  Our grain crops, corn and beans were dried out, but the sunflower came through like gangbusters.’  The Mehrkens’ average 1988 sunflower yield was in the neighborhood of 2,500 pounds. Through forward contracting, they were able to bring their average selling price to about $12 per hundredweight — and that doesn’t include oil premiums ranging from 66 to 75 cents per hundredweight.

“The Mehrkens’ sunflower coffers in 1989 — the second straight extremely dry year in the region — were not quite as overflowing, but still definitely profitable. Their sunflower crop averaged about 2,150 pounds per acre (compared to 30-bushel soybeans).  ‘We contracted some ’flowers last May at $10.25 plus oil,’ Connie reported in November, adding that ‘right now that looks very good with the market being around $8.85-$8.90.’ ”
‘The Real Advantage Is in the Survivability’By Don Lilleboe — “Quite a few folks around North Dakota’s Stutsman County thought Fred Kirschenmann was operating with less than a full deck of cards during the latter 1970s when it came to his farming philosophy.  Some probably still have their doubts; yet Kirschenmann’s success during the past decade now has many doubters re-evaluating their perceptions of his gambling demeanor.

“The 54-year-old Kirschenmann is among the Northern Plains’ most experienced and articulate organic farmers.  Among with feeding 100 head of cattle, he and his family successfully raise several organic crops — sunflower among them — on their farms near the south central North Dakota communities of Windsor and Streeter. . . .

“Any successful organic farming enterprise must stand on three interrelated legs, according to Kirschenmann.  ‘Rotation is key.  That’s number one,’ he explains. ‘You have to find a rotation that works well for your own farm in terms of your expectations, what you need to accomplish — and what will work in terms of a sustainable program.

“ ‘The second thing is a soil fertility-building program.  You can’t just take nutrients out of the soil.  The way we (farmers in general) have been doing it is by paying money for the inputs and putting them in.  If we stop — or reduce — doing that, we have to find a substitute.’  For organic farmers, that substitute normally takes the form of legumes in the rotation and/or green manure.

“The third vital leg of an organic farming system, according to Kirschenmann, is cropping diversity — both for fertility management and weed control. He suggests, for example, that in terms of weed control, an organic grower could work with a rotation of wheat/oats/flax/fallow.  ‘But it’s not sufficiently diverse in nutrient uptake and [soil building] to work very long.’ 

“Sunflower has fit in well within Kirschenmann’s own rotation pattern. ‘Sunflower not only reaches down and brings up more nutrients; it also helps break up the soil,’ he observes. ‘And mechanical weed control works well with sunflower.  It’s very aggressive.  You can raise sunflower — without a weed problem — in fields where you can’t raise soybeans, because sunflower is so aggressive in those early stages of growth.’ ”                               
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