Warm Weather Has Sunflower Growers Sitting, Waiting, Hoping
A large sunflower in a field shows a portion that has been eaten by migratory red winged black birds.
With warmer than usual temperatures and drought like conditions, the LaBatte family, like many area farmers, have spent the past few months managing their crops and fields while keeping watchful eyes on what Mother Nature might be planning. With the harvest season well underway for most, the LaBattes are busy moving their crops to the local elevators while waiting to see how their sunflower crops fare once they are harvested this November.
“In the end, it all comes down to moisture and market prices for us. It’s been dryer this year and we just haven’t had the moisture we needed which is why some of the areas came up spotty,” LaBatte said. This year, he and his son Grant devoted 770 acres in seven different fields to sunflowers between the towns of Froid and Culbertson.
Last year, their oil seed crop generated 1,820 pounds of sunflower seeds per acre with each bushel weighing 43 pounds. This year they’re shooting for 1,000. In the end, it will all depend on what the fill is on heads of the flowers and their test weight. They’re hoping to yield at least 40 pounds this year with anything over that coming in at a premium.
“They look good this year but they’re shorter than they have been the two previous years," he said.
Sunflowers aren’t the only crop they grow annually. This year they seeded flax, buckwheat, winter wheat and spring wheat. “We went with a number of different crops because they were forecasting wheat in the $4.00 range so we figured it would be more profitable if we diversified,” he added.
In the previous years, all of their sunflowers were used to produce birdseed and were trucked to STI, of Fairview, and Keystone, out of Canada.
They don’t grow edible confection sunflowers because they require more moisture and a longer growing season.
This year’s sunflower crop won’t be harvested until around Thanksgiving which means they will have to wait to find out how this year’s crop fared.
While sunflowers blanket the fields along U.S. 2 toward Minot N.D ., and in the Dickinson, N.D ., area, in Northeast Montana, they are few and far between along U.S. 16 where several of LaBatte’s fields are visible near the highway.
Their sunflower venture began three years ago as a way of diversifying their crops and potentially cashing in on the oil seeds used to make healthy sunflower oil for people to cook with, and birdseed. The trend toward healthy cooking has greatly increased the demand for sunflower oil and the meal by-product from the crushing process makes bird seed.
Sunflower seeds primarily include three harvested seed types including; oil production, de-hulls and confection varieties. In the United States, 75 percent of sunflower crops are raised in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota with between 75 and 85 percent of the annual crops consisting of oil type varieties.
Oilseed hybrids may consist of three fatty acid types including, linoleic, mid-oleic and high oleic. The LaBattes have only grown sunflowers containing high oleic fatty acids, similar to olive or safflower oil. High in oleic (monounsaturated) acid and usually containing a minimum of 80 percent high oleic sunflower oil, these seeds offer consumers a lighter, healthier alternative for cooking and watching their good and bad cholesterol intake.
This year it wasn’t just the warmer, dryer weather they’ve had to contend with in the fields. Gophers, deer and especially the migratory red winged black birds have pecked and gorged on the seeds within the sunflowers.
Greg (left) and Grant LaBatte stand in one of their sunflower fields.
Greg and his wife, Linda, have been farming since 1974 when they returned to the Froid area to take over his parent's, Hector and Norma, farm following his father’s passing. “I truly love being in the outdoors. But today, it’s like playing a game of high stakes poker. The prices and expense of everything just takes your breath away. All you can do once you’ve planted your crops is sit and wait and hope,” he said.
Grant and his wife, Laura, are currently building a home near where they farm outside of Culberson.
The LaBatte’s daughter, Laura, of Plentywood, also helps with the family’s farming business.
While Greg and Grant both agree the expense and risks involved in farming seem to increase with every year, they also agree farming is a way of life they enjoy that doesn’t compare to any other profession. While the stakes are high, so is the reward of continuing a family tradition while loving the work they do. “I really enjoy spring planting. It gives you an opportunity to watch something grow and mature,” Grant said.