Article Archives
Canada’s Sunflower

Saturday, March 23, 2024
filed under: News

sunflower in field
Photo credit: Manitoba Crop Alliance
        Canada has never been among the world’s major producers of sunflower.  Yet our neighbor to the north has a long and distinguished history with this crop, dating back to the latter 19th century when groups of Mennonite immigrants (Germans from Russia) arrived in the fledgling province of Manitoba — and brought with them the open-pollinated striped sunflower varieties they’d grown in their gardens back home. They were called “Russian Peanuts,” a term that endured and expanded as additional immigrants of German-from-Russia background moved south into the Dakotas and continued growing, roasting and munching those tasty, healthy seeds.
        Fast forward several decades, and by World War II sunflower as an oilseed crop had established a foothold in Manitoba.  A group of southern Manitoba farmers came together in 1944 and incorporated Co-op Vegetable Oils (CVO).  As was reported in the December 1977 issue of The Sunflower, “Manitoba farmers had grown 5,000 acres of sunflower the previous year (1943), all of it being shipped to Ontario for processing. 
        “High freight rates induced the Manitobans to form their own co-op, CVO, with the intention of constructing a processing plant nearer the sunflower growing area.  Altona was chosen as the site, and in 1946 the plant opened for business with a 20-ton capacity.”
        The Altona plant was expanded several times, and by 1966 it was processing 300 tons of sunflower seed daily.  In 1975 CVO merged with two Saskatchewan vegetable oil processing facilities to form CSP Foods.  By 1977, the Altona plant’s capacity was up to 600 tons of raw seed per day, with the ability to process sunflower, soybeans and rapeseed.
        CSP Foods later morphed into CanAmera Foods, 50% of which was owned by the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool and Manitoba Pool Elevators, with the other 50% by Central Soya of Canada.  Bunge N.A. acquired CanAmera in 2002 and later changed the name to Bunge Canada.  Bunge built a new canola processing plant at Altona in 2014, capable of 2,500 metric tons daily.  The “old” plant next door was shut down.
Pioneering Research
        Research went hand-in-hand with growth in Canadian production.  Most of the sunflower researchers were employed by Agriculture Canada or a provincial agricultural agency.  Eric Putt, considered by many to be the “grandfather of the sunflower crop” in Canada, was a plant breeder in Ontario for almost two decades prior to being named director of Agriculture Canada’s Morden, Manitoba, research station in 1965.
        As the Western Producer reported upon Putt’s death in 2004, “Under Putt’s guidance, several scientists were assembled at the Morden research station to concentrate on sunflower development.  The breeding program improved yield and quality as well as resistance to diseases for the crop, which at that time was grown mainly for crushing for edible oils.”  The development of varieties with good rust resistance was among Putt’s most notable and globally important achievements. 
        Worthy of note as well:  The 2nd International Sunflower Conference took place at Morden in August 1966.  Fourteen years later, Eric Putt received the V.S. Pustovoit Award, the highest honor bestowed by the International Sunflower Association.
        A number of other Canadian sunflower researchers gained prominence and have contributed greatly to growers and the industry in general, right up to the present day.  Among them was Waldemar (Wally) Sackston, McGill University (Montreal) plant pathologist and the second Canadian recipient of the Pustovoit Award (1982).
        Several confection (nonoil) varieties were developed and released by Eric Putt and his colleagues during the 1940s, ’50 and ’60s.  The open-pollinated variety “Peredovik,” of Russian origin and with dramatically higher oil content, was licensed in Canada in 1964.  Writing in the monograph Sunflower Science and Technology (first edition 1978), Putt stated that with the development of Peredovik, “all sunflower germplasm in the Canadian breeding program except for some lines with specific genetic characters, such as disease resistance and recessive branching, became obsolete.”
        Peredovik, it should be added, was vital to the emergence of a U.S. oil sunflower processing industry in the Red River Valley in the mid-1960s, and it remained a popular variety until the advent of sunflower hybrids in the 1970s.
1979: His 37th Year of Growing Sunflower
Peter Friesen with tractor
Pioneer Manitoba sunflower producer Peter Friesen is shown here in 1979 next to the two-row horsedrawn unit he used to plant his first sunflower crop in 1943. Mr. Friesen passed away in 2004 at age 94.
      In the early summer of 1979, I (Don Lilleboe) traveled to Manitoba to gain a better understanding of sunflower in that province and to generate articles for The Sunflower.  One of the growers whom I met was the late Peter Freisen.  A kindly, soft-spoken man, he shared with me his memories of being a pioneer sunflower producer.  Here are excerpts from the article I wrote about him later that year:
        “When some of us in the U.S. refer to sunflower as a relatively ‘new’ crop, Peter S. Friesen has reason to smile:  He’s grown sunflower every year since 1943.
        “The southern Manitoba farmer is one of a number of growers who began producing sunflower the same year that a farmers’ cooperative was organized at Altona, Man., for the purpose of processing oilseed sunflower.  Under contract with Co-op Vegetable Oils, Ltd., Friesen grew planting seed for commercial use by other growers the following year. . . .
        “A horse-drawn two-row corn planter provided the means for putting the crop in, Friesen reflects. . . . Horses also pulled a two-row cultivator, which he steered with his feet since the animals had a tendency to walk somewhat errantly at times.
        “Then, as now, Friesen planted his sunflower crop in 36-inch rows, utilizing a four-row sugarbeet planter for a number of years following the retirement of the old two-row unit.
        “Most of the combines in his area carried homemade header attachments back then, according to Friesen.  They may not have been as long or saved as much seed as their modern counterparts, but the principle was the same, he adds.
        “Friesen’s two brothers did a great deal of custom harvesting in the 1940s, often having to work later into the fall or early winter in order to service all their customers.  Cabs on combines were non-existent then, and in an attempt to keep a bit warmer, one would often walk behind the combine on those cold days while the other drove.
        “A heavy snowfall early one autumn prevented Friesen from entering the field to combine his crop.  The solution?  ‘We hitched two horses to a sleigh, drove along the snowbanks and cut the heads off the stalks.’  Filling the sleigh with sunflower heads, Friesen and his sons drove back to the farmyard, pitchforked them into the waiting combine, threshed them and hauled the seeds to Altona.
        “Three to four cents a pound was a common price received by farmers during the 1940s — a price which in those days meant a fair profit.  Sunflower’s consistent value as a cash crop since those early days, along with his belief that the crop has provided a means of keeping his land continually productive while simultaneously maintaining and improving it, have both been key elements in Peter Friesen’s 37-year-long involvement with its production.”
Sunflower in Manitoba Today: An Overview
        We plan to carry more articles about the Canadian sunflower sector in future issues of The Sunflower, including interviews with current growers.  In the meantime, we asked the Manitoba Crop Alliance (MCA) to enlighten as to the industry’s overall footprint as of 2023/24.  MCA is a commodity organization representing wheat, barley, corn, sunflower and flax farmers in Manitoba.  Among the groups coming together to form MCA in 2020 was the National Sunflower Association of Canada (NSAC).  Darcelle Graham, NSAC’s former executive director, is the chief operating officer of Manitoba Crops Council.
        Our thanks to Madison Kostal, research and production coordinator, and Morgan Cott, extension agronomist/special crops, for Manitoba Crop Alliance, for responding to our questions and for providing the accompanying graph. — Don Lilleboe
Manitoba SF acreage

What have recent years’ sunflower acreage and production trends in Manitoba looked like?
        Total sunflower acres in Manitoba have floated around 70,000 acres for the last number of years, with the majority of those acres being oilseed.  Of the Manitoba acreage, oil-type varieties constitute about 80% and nonoils (confections) the remainder.
How does the Manitoba production level compare with other Canadian provinces?
        About 90% of Canadian sunflower production is from Manitoba. The remaining acreage is found in southern Alberta, Saskatchewan and southern Ontario.
How would you summarize current sunflower management recommendations and strategies in Manitoba?
        Conventional to minimum till are most common practices in Manitoba, especially prior to sunflower, in order to both clean up the field (weeds) and to warm up the soil. Weed control mainly relies on herbicide applications, with more focus going into a good preplant or pre-emergent application and targeting hard-to-control weeds prior to crop emergence.
        Sunflower is a late-planted crop in Manitoba, with farmers not considering planting them until at least mid-May.  Most of the grain acres are seeded/ planted by that point in Manitoba in a normal year.  Sunflower planting populations have not changed in many years: confections typically get planted at 16,-19,000 plants/ac and oils around 22,-25,000 plants/ac.
With what other crops does sunflower typically compete for acreage in Manitoba?
        Sunflower mainly competes with other oilseeds for acreage. Soybeans have “stolen” a lot of the sunflower acres over the last 10-15 years, as they have been reintroduced into Manitoba successfully.  Canola has been and will remain a staunch competitor for acres.
How much Canadian sunflower is processed and consumed domestically versus being exported?
        On average for all sunflower, 40% goes to exports and 60% is for domestic food and industrial usage.
        Exports recently have been valued at $30 million-plus annually, with the great majority of exports (95%) going to the United States.  Other minor customers include Japan and Costa Rica.
        Canada imported about $62 million of sunflower seeds in 2023, of which 46% was from the United States. 
What areas of production research are Canadian sunflower scientists presently focused on?
        There is currently a large gap in research being done on sunflower in Canada.  Almost all of the research being done on sunflower is being spearheaded by Manitoba Crop Alliance — either directly or in partnerships with groups like the Manitoba Diversification Centre and PAMI (Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute).
        Dr. Ahmed Abdelmagid has recently taken on the oilseeds pathologist position at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and has a strong interest in sunflower.  However, he is currently responsible for running the pulse pathology lab due to a vacancy and has not had the time or support to do a lot of research.  We have established a relationship with him and hope to develop research for sunflower in the future.
        One of the biggest projects supported by the Manitoba Crops Alliance is our own internal confection breeding program. This program was initiated by the National Sunflower Association of Canada, and was continued after NSAC amalgamated with corn, flax, and wheat and barley to form the MCA.
        Manitoba Crops Alliance has, since 2011, funded a Confection Sunflower Variety Development program to address the gap in adaptable confection hybrids for our Canadian climate.  This program works directly with a contract breeder based out of Fargo, N.D., Michael Hagen.  Over the past decade, MCA and our breeder have grown a summer and winter nursery making selections that fit best in the Manitoba climate.  As of March 2024, MCA will be registering two hybrids for variety registration and will tender the hybrids for licensing. 
What key challenges confront Manitoba and other Canadian sunflower producers at present, and looking toward the future?
        Weed control is a major issue in sunflower and one of the primary reasons for declining acres.  With the loss of imazamethabenz (Assert or Avert) herbicides in the recent past, farmers have fewer weed control options and even fewer options when dealing with any Group 1 resistance issues, should that be the case.  Sunflower farmers are enjoying the tribenuron tolerance in newer hybrids, and it has provided a better fit for them than did older chemistries.
        Sclerotinia head rot is the number-one disease for sunflower in Manitoba.  Foliar fungicides are used regularly and relied upon, in addition to good hybrid genetic packages.  Yield and quality are of great concern for obvious reasons, and it can be a challenge to maintain both if timing of application doesn’t work out.
        As we found in the 2023 sunflower survey (in partnership with North Dakota State University and the National Sunflower Association), Phoma and Phomopsis are of considerable concern due to the impact both stalk diseases have on lodging and, therefore, yield.
        Bird presence and damage varies from year to year, but farmers growing sunflower in blackbird-loving areas are vigilant in early fall to determine incidence and feeding patterns.  Different methods are utilized as deterrents, though nothing has yet been determined to be a “silver bullet.”
        Confection variety is a major challenge.  6946 DMR, which makes up most confections grown in Manitoba, has almost no in-crop herbicide options.  Group 1 herbicides are available, but weed control and the growing herbicide resistance problem can quickly become a mountain of a problem for a farmer.  It’s also a 30-year-old variety with declining demand.
        A farmer’s best option is to use Group 3 herbicides in the fall, followed by an early spring Group 14 herbicide pre-emergence.  This requires a lot of time and effort, as well as some, luck that everything is going to go perfect.
          To this point, the oilseed hybrid that continuously holds the greatest market share in Manitoba is also over 10 years old.  However, newer hybrids are increasing in popularity. 
return to top of page

   More about Sunflower ►