Bags of sunflower seeds sitting on store shelves or sold at sports events may all look the same, but not to Joel Schaefer. He has been a sunflower scientist for almost 25 years and directs the hybrid seed research and development program at CHS Sunflower.
The company, a subsidiary of CHS Inc., is the only major sunflower processor with its own breeding program, and it tests about 500 potential hybrids each season at its main lab and nursery in Grandin, N.D., about 30 miles north of Fargo.
The company is focused on confection sunflowers, which provide in-shell seeds for snacking and kernels for baking and roasting. It’s a niche market, Schaefer said, and the research tries to please two masters simultaneously: the end user looking for flavor and value, and the grower looking for more efficient growth and higher yields.
“We follow a field-to-table concept,” Schaefer said. “We breed the varieties, we contract with the growers, we clean the crop and process the crop, and then we’ve got a small roasting and salting business and a pasteurizing business.”
Schaefer’s role is to supervise a team of four researchers that breeds plants and grows them in nurseries. The company also has “counter-seasonal production facilities” in Chile, he said, so the program can use North and South American summers to grow two generations of potential hybrids each year.
“We are a specialty crop for sure, and we hang our hat on the fact that we are non-GMO,” Schaefer said, referring to genetically modified organisms. “So all of the breeding that we do is based on traditional methods.”
The company sends the most promising hybrids to a half-dozen select farms in Minnesota and the Dakotas to be field tested. Only a handful will ever be sold commercially, he said.
Two other major companies breed confection sunflowers but do not process them: Dow AgroSciences and Nuseed, a global seed company with its U.S. sunflower headquarters in Breckenridge, Minn. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also has a major sunflower and plant biology research unit in Fargo.
Industry officials, including National Sunflower Association Executive Director John Sandbakken, have said new hybrids are needed to combat new strains of bacteria, weeds, fungi, insects and other pests that can destroy crops.
Schaefer said researchers are looking for hybrids that provide the best blend of traits. “For us it’s yield, size, length, color, kernel-to-hull ratio and hull thickness, together with all the agronomic traits,” he said.
Different markets have different preferences, Schaefer added. Americans prefer short, rounded sunflower seeds for eating by the handful, while Europeans want longer seeds that are easier to eat one by one.
About half of the U.S. confection sunflower- seed production is exported, with the largest in-shell markets in Spain, Mexico and Turkey and the shelled sunflower kernels sold mainly to Canada, South Korea, Mexico and Spain.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated the value of confection, or non-oil, sunflowers at $125 million in 2012 and the larger market of oil-producing sunflowers at slightly more than $600 million.
In addition to pleasing customers, Schaefer said the breeders are looking for ways to stay ahead of diseases and pests, such as banded sunflower moths and seed weevils.
Seed varieties can be bred to tolerate certain pesticides, he said, and to mature earlier or later, depending on the length of the growing season in certain locations.
South Dakota and North Dakota were the nation’s largest sunflower producers by far in 2015, according to federal estimates, followed by Minnesota and Kansas. About 80 percent of the sunflowers typically are black-colored varieties bred and grown for their oil content. The remaining 20 percent, usually with distinctive gray or black striping on the hull, are confection sunflowers. Black oil sunflowers are also important to the bird feed markets because of their high energy content, and the non-oil varieties not used for confections are also mixed with other seeds in popular bird feed blends.
Both oil and non-oil sunflowers grow well in the Upper Midwest and are typically planted later than corn in early June, with harvest in October to early November. Producers usually grow them one year out of three or four in rotation with corn, wheat, soybeans or small grains.
Schaefer said his goal is to balance the evolving needs of farmers and the changing preferences of customers while providing an affordable product. “It’s certainly a moving target that we’re always trying to improve upon,” he said.
That includes recent investments in pasteurization at the company’s Fargo processing plant, he said, and a new sunflower hybrid that will be introduced and available to growers in 2017.