Every Day is Sunnier with Black Oil Sunflowers

by Tim Mondoux

If you’ve ever taken a drive through Deer Park, WA in early to mid-July, you have likely noticed the sunflower fields in full bloom. Do you ever wonder why they are grown? Where are those farmers going to sell their crop?  

Black Oil Sunflowers are typically sold into three main markets which have their own different specifications and needs. Because sunflower oil is high in healthy fats and is more shelf-stable than olive or canola oil, it’s becoming increasingly popular as an ingredient in packaged foods. Typically, these growers will be paid a premium for seeds with higher oil content. Dehullers, on the other hand, are after the meat of the seed. They’re looking for seed that’s heavy in bushel weight with a shell that’s easy to remove from the kernel inside. 

The sunflowers grown locally (with a few exceptions) are being sold into the third market: bird food. Birds absolutely love Black Oil Sunflower seeds! It’s a primary ingredient in most bird seed blends. Global Harvest Foods, a local bird food manufacturer in Mead, is a large consumer of Black Oil Sunflowers, buying over 12 million pounds per year. Currently most of their sunflower seed is sourced from North and South Dakota and shipped into the plant via the railroad. 

Growing sunflowers comes with many benefits to farmers.  It’s ideal in crop rotation and typically gets planted following a wheat or cereal crop. Sunflowers are drought tolerant and have been noted to send a tap root down as much as 4-6 feet looking for water and nutrients; these tap roots help to break up and loosen any hard pan in the soil.  The sunflower crop requires a cool climate during germination and seedling growth, which is perfect for this part of Washington State in the spring.  Our sunnier days in late spring and summer provide warmer temperatures for them to flower into maturity.  

Local growers have found it to be one of their most profitable crops both in drought and rainy years.  To no surprise, birds also love to hang out in these sunflower fields – they might steal a little bit of the product when the farmer isn’t looking, but they also help to eliminate pests and insects that might otherwise damage the crop.

You may also find it interesting that these amazing flowers are known as “phytoremediators” – that’s a fancy way of saying that sunflowers can absorb toxic heavy metal contaminants and poisonous chemicals in the soil.  These toxins could include lead, arsenic, zinc, chromium, cadmium, copper and manganese.

For those of us who aren’t farmers, simply visiting a sunflower field can be an amazing experience too! Most farmers don’t mind if you stop to take pictures. Please be courteous, though: never enter a farmer’s field without permission or pick their crop.  This is the farmer’s livelihood. It’s how they feed their family and keep a roof over their head. You may think picking just one flower won’t hurt… but if every passerby picks just one, soon enough all the flowers are gone. Instead, take all the pictures you want and enjoy the flowers from a respectful distance.

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