Monday, October 18, 2021

Shining light on sunflower potential

Growing sunflowers to produce high-oleic oil could provide additional income for New Zealand growers as a rotational crop during the summer period, new Ministry of Primary Industries-funded research has found.

The Foundation for Arable Research (FAR) has concluded a three-year project looking at crop options to raise profitability and provide alternative land uses. The project received $90,000 through the MPI’s Sustainable Farming Fund (now superseded by the Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund). High-oleic varieties of sunflowers were identified as a promising crop.

“Our research shows we have the conditions in New Zealand for successful sunflower crops, with yield potential in excess of 4.5 tonnes per hectare,” says Ivan Lawrie, FAR’s general manager business operations.

“What’s more, consumer demand is strong for high-oleic sunflower oil, which is a top-quality oil with a higher smoke point than regular sunflower oil, and many sought-after health attributes, including low saturated fat content and high monounsaturated fat.”

The project has focused on sunflower agronomy over the past two years, working with Pure Oil NZ, which provides grower contracts and extracts the oil from the seed. The researchers were especially interested in determining how growers can produce a profitable crop in sufficient quantities to meet demand. They trialled two lines of hybrid seeds from France.

“We’ve established that growers need at least 60,000 plants per hectare to have a successful crop,” says Mr Lawrie.

“Growers need reasonably big paddocks to contend with bird damage because unfortunately birds are especially keen on the sunflowers. The project has looked at some of the optical and sonic devices currently available to deter birds, and further work is required in this area.”

Mr Lawrie explains that sunflowers have the advantage of growing at a time of year when there is limited competition from other crops. The plants also require minimal chemicals or fertilisers to grow.

“The cost per hectare to grow the crop is reasonably low, and once the plants are established, they’re pretty much self-sufficient until they’re ripe and ready to harvest.”

“In addition, as a deep-rooting plant, sunflowers provide good soil aeration and soil conditioning for the next crop in the rotation. Sunflowers have proven to be a good predecessor crop for wheat, for example.”

Nothing goes to waste in the processing of sunflower seeds, he said.

“Once you’ve crushed the seed and extracted the oil, the remains are also very good as animal feed products for both the equine and general feed markets.”

Mr Lawrie says proximity to processing plants is key.

“Our trials have mostly been conducted in mid and North Canterbury because that’s where the oil crushing plant is based. But we’re increasingly getting calls from growers in other regions, including the North Island, who are keen to give it a go. However, they’d need to factor in the cost of freight to get their sunflowers processed.”

“The high-oleic sunflower oil produced so far by the more than 20 growers involved in the project is used by snack manufacturers to make high quality potato chips. The sunflower oil can also be purchased in its extra virgin form from supermarkets across New Zealand under “The Good Oil” brand.

“The demand is currently domestic but there is potential to create some exports if we get the volumes up,” says Mr Lawrie.

MPI’s director of Investment Programmes, Steve Penno says the project has produced valuable information for New Zealand growers who might be interested in adding a new crop to their growing schedule.

“One of the aims of our Fit for a Better World vision is to create new high value products. With low inputs and easy-care growing needs, sunflowers could be an ideal spring option to complement the oilseed rape currently grown in South Canterbury.”

“The more options our growers have to fill the gaps during off-peak growing seasons, the better off they will be,” he said.

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