Sunflowers a worthy option

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FAR's Ivan Lawrie among sunflowers at Chertsey back in 2019.

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

Foundation for Arable Research (FAR) has finished its three-year project looking at crop options to raise profitability and provide alternative land uses.

The project received $90,000 through the Ministry for Primary Industries’ (MPI’s) Sustainable Farming Fund and high-oleic varieties of sunflowers were identified as a promising crop.

FAR general manager business operations Ivan Lawrie said research had shown New Zealand had the conditions to grow successful sunflower crops with yield potential more than 4.5-tonnes per hectare.

‘‘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,’’ he said.

The project focused on sunflower agronomy during the past two years, working with Pure Oil NZ, which provided grower contracts and extracted the oil from the seed.

Researchers were especially interested in determining how growers could 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.

‘‘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.”

Sunflowers had the advantage of growing at a time of year when there was limited competition from other crops. They also required minimal chemicals or fertilisers to grow, were low cost, and ‘‘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,’’ he said.

And nothing went to waste in the processing of sunflower seeds; crushed seed, with oil extracted, was a good animal feed for equine and general feed markets.

Being close to processing plants was key, Mr Lawrie said.

‘‘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 was used by snack manufacturers to make high quality potato chips.

The sunflower oil could also be purchased in its extra virgin form from supermarkets across New Zealand under the brand, The Good Oil.

‘‘The demand is currently domestic but there is potential to create some exports if we get the volumes up.’’