Sunflower Flourishes on Friskop Farm
Sunday, January 1, 2023
filed under: Optimizing Plant Development/Yields
Sugarbeets have played a very prominent role on many Red River Valley farms for decades — and the Friskop farm several miles west of Wahpeton, N.D., is among them. Gary Friskop has been a stockholder in Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative for a quarter century and counts beets as a primary component in his continued agricultural success.
But the Richland County producer also makes this eye-opening statement: “Sugarbeets have always been ‘king’ around here as far as cash crops. But for the past six years, my net profit on sunflower has actually been better than that on sugarbeets.”
That’s certainly no knock on beets, whose input costs are substantially higher than sunflower, corn, soybeans or wheat. It’s simply an affirmation of the success Friskop has had in producing and marketing prolific sunflower crops.
Back in the late 1970s, blooming sunflower fields lit up the Richland County landscape. In 1979, the peak year for U.S. sunflower acreage, the southeastern North Dakota county contained 198,000 acres of ’flowers — approximately one-fourth of the county’s total harvested cropland that year.
But insect and disease issues in sunflower, coupled with a boom in corn and soybean acreage, changed that scenario dramatically. As of 1989, only 13,000 Richland County acres were planted to sunflower. The 1999 number was 21,600; in 2003, just 4,500. Shortly thereafter, USDA-NASS stopped breaking out sunflower acreage for Richland, instead lumping it in with “Other” counties in the state’s southeastern district.
Gary’s father, Arvid, first established the family farm with about 400 acres “and a lot of cattle,” Gary says. But then State Highway 13, which runs through their farm, was widened from two lanes to four along the stretch from Wahpeton west to Interstate 29. “Highway 13 went right through the middle of all my dad’s feedlots,” Gary recounts. “It took him out of the cattle business. But he got good money for the feedlots, and he turned around and invested it in more farmland. That’s basically how we got our start into production grain farming.”
In the latter 1970s, Arvid Friskop grew hybrid sunflower seed for SIGCO Research, based in nearby Breckenridge, Minn. But with acreage of commercial sunflower expanding exponentially in the late ’70s, necessary isolation for the inbred seed fields became increasingly difficult to achieve in Richland County. “Our main crop around here at the time was wheat — and the second major crop was sunflower,” Gary notes. “You could take a section of land, and it would have a quarter section of wheat and maybe one of soybeans. But also, every section had one or two quarters of sunflower.”
That proved unsustainable. Like numerous other area growers, the Friskops, after producing commercial oil sunflower for a few years, left the crop in the early to mid-’80s due largely to pressure from the sunflower midge and diseases such as Sclerotinia. By that time, SIGCO Research had also transferred its seed production program to California for the above-noted reasons — plus concerns over an early frost or wet harvest conditions in the Red River Valley reducing seed quality and germination percentage.
Gary graduated from North Dakota State University with an agronomy degree in 1980. He and his dad inserted sunflower back into the farm’s rotation in the early 2000s, growing confections under contract with Wahpeton-based GIANTS Seeds for about a decade. More recently, Gary switched to producing oil sunflower under contract with SunOpta (now Sunrich Products LLC). And, as noted previously, it has been a profitable “homecoming.”
Another big plus in the past couple years has been the return of Gary’s son, Tim (also an NDSU graduate), to the family operation after serving as a U.S. Marine Corps navigator for several years.
The Friskops also farm land near Hankinson, about 30 miles to the southwest. Their Wahpeton vicinity fields are generally heavier soils, while the Hankinson acreage consists of sandier ground.
Whenever possible, ground prep on the Wahpeton fields is done the previous fall, as Friskop wants all his crops seeded by the first of May if possible. (He used to plant sunflower in late May or early June “because that seemed to help with the midge problem ‘back in the day.’ ”) For fall field prep, Friskop works the heavier ground with a Case IH vertical disk; on the sandier fields, he leaves sunflower stalks and other crop residue standing until the following spring to minimize soil erosion. “We don’t need our ground blowing down to South Dakota,” he quips. “I like to keep it here!”
In terms of in-season production management, Friskop considers himself a “conventional” sunflower producer. He plants Clearfield® hybrids, applying Prowl® and Spartan® for his pre- herbicides, followed by Beyond®. “That’s it unless we still have weed issues, in which case we’ll cultivate once or twice as needed,” he says.
While Friskop obviously soil tests and sets aggressive sunflower yield goals, he doesn’t necessarily fertilize “by the book.” Between residual and applied nitrogen, he seldom goes above 100 units per acre. “A lot of times, the nitrogen will only make them grow taller. The ideal sunflower to me would be about three feet high with a nice big head on it,” he says.
Despite the lower-end nitrogen rate, he regularly achieves between 1,800 to 2,200 lbs/ac. His 2022 ’flowers “surpassed my expectations in both yield and quality,” he reports, yielding almost 3,000 lbs/ac, with good test weight. And again, given that productivity and very attractive contract and open-market pricing, the net on sunflower outdid that on sugarbeets. Friskop’s 2022 soybeans yielded “just above my crop insurance guarantee, which is the ‘worst-case’ scenario. I basically broke even on them.”
Though virtually no other sunflower fields dot his Richland County locale, “we haven’t had any trouble with blackbirds — which you’d think is crazy since I’m raising sunflower on ground not too far away from cattails. But we’ve never had a problem.”
One reason for his sunflower success, Friskop believes, is a rotation interval of at least four to five years between sunflower crops. Consistently strong seed emergence and plant stands are also critical, he relates. “Every year I always wonder, ‘Do I dare go any deeper with them?’ I want to put them in good moisture. And I’ve never had a problem with the stand.” He shoots for around 21,000 plants per acre in his 30-inch rows, planting at a depth between 1.5 to 2.0 inches, depending on spring topsoil moisture.
Also contributing to sunflower’s productivity on the Friskop heavier soils is the crop’s penetrating taproot, utilizing deeper nutrients and moisture and generally helping “mellow out the ground,” Gary affirms. “There’s some land around here that’s so heavy, so tough — and sunflower really does well on that ground. With soybeans in there, you’d get 30, maybe 35 bu/ac; but it would be no problem getting 2,000-lb sunflower.
“I always put sunflower on ground where soybeans won’t do real well — the heavier, higher-pH type soil,” he adds.
Friskop contracts 1,000 lbs/ac with Sunrich Products (formerly SunOpta), selling the balance on the open market. The Act of God clause in his sunflower contract is definitely an attractant. “The last thing I need in my life is more stress, more risk; we’re taking enough the way it is,” Gary states.
“And, ’flowers are not as risky as some of our other crops; I just don’t think they are. They’ve always done well for us.” — Don Lilleboe