Growing sunflower seed for profit is a fickle business but Casino producer Damian MacRae and his second-in-charge Jack Hamilton have taken a punt, harvesting 40 hectares of the opportunistic crop – half black and the other grey-stripe.
Mr MacRae’s father was the first to grow sunflowers in the Richmond Valley more than 40 years ago but this crop is Mr MacRae’s third in a row, and despite experience with a wide variety of cultivation, from soy to sugar and sorghum, he is still learning about the sensitive nature of sunflowers.
After a hot and dry start the deep rooted plants had barely established when Casino was struck with a deluge. Mr MacRae measured 115mm in 70 minutes and for a few hours the plants were actually under water. Heavy black soil surrounding Casino doesn’t drain easily.
A week later 90mm fell over three days.
“At that point we assumed there would be no return and would have ploughed them in except our tractors were working elsewhere on contract,” said Mr MacRae.
Autumn weather proved more stable. The crop was given a side dressing of urea. While the plants didn’t grow to their full height, or best flower diameter, they looked stupendous in bloom.
A paddock of sunburst yellow, positioned beside a main road, brought sightseers as if they were honey bees.
“On weekends there were up to 20 cars parked by the side of the road at any one time,” reported Mr MacRae. “They’d be there before sunrise and after sunset.
There were kids and families getting their photos, even girls sitting on blankets drinking wine, models posing in front of the camera, truckies, bikers, even blokes getting a picture of their four wheel drive in front of the field of flowers.
“Sometimes we couldn’t get in the driveway.”
By harvest time sunflowers no longer emit such radiance. in fact a field waiting for the header can look quite despairing.
Crop moisture at this point is critical. Too dry and the seeds shatter and fall in front of the header knife. Mr MacRae harvested at 15 per cent moisture and will dry them to 8pc before storing them in his own silos.
On-farm storage is a crucial part of the sunflower system. In his three years growing the crop Mr MacRae has experienced volatile pricing.
The first year was just $600/t for edible grey stripe bird seed but yield was double this year’s 1.2t/ha. Last year he received $1000/t and this year he will send samples to buyers before committing to contract.
“It is dear to grow and return all depends on yield and price,” he said. “We are still weighing up whether we will grow it again.”
Trickle out supply through on-farm storage
Field officer for Toowoomba grain buyer PB Agrifood, Ian Morgan, said the market for sunflowers was a fickle one and farmers should trickle-out stored product to take advantage of highs.
“There is constant demand but orders tend to come in for just a truck or B-double load,” said Mr Morgan. “The market is determined by supply and demand and right now there is a reasonable amount around. It all depends on the end user and what they want.”
With Cargill out of the industry, NSW’s main Australian sunflower kernel processor - Paradise Farms at Gunnedah - is the largest supplier of conventionally grown, Australian grown sunflower product.
Last year the family-owned business was forced to change its business model due to the increasing number of cheaper Bulgarian and Chinese imports – which are burgeoning thanks to record production. Paradise Farms had to assess where their sustainable future lay and today the company focuses on working with independent companies that work with Australian grown raw ingredients, targeting smaller muesli makers and bakeries who sell into better committed markets.
With the new Australian Labelling Laws as of July 1, this will be a great benefit to both Australian farmers and Australian food manufacturers.
Brookfarm at Brooklet via Bangalow is one of their major customers for edible sunflower seed and they sell into bakery mixes for bread and pancakes. Paradise Farms also has a branch company manufacturing no-grain based equine feeds.
“All the big supermarket giants sell cheaper imported sunflower products,” said a spokesperson from Paradise Farms “We have switched away and made our sole focus on those companies that are willing to support Australian grown produce.”
The new variety SuperSun66 has been very successful in size and quality for the Australian Sunflower Kernel Market, he said.
Due to the current ongoing drought some sunflower crops grown on the Liverpool Plains never materialised this year and so Paradise Farms has looked north into central Queensland to supply, with their crop expected in August.
Right now the factory is processing the late summer crop, which came in June.
Harvests around Inverell and on the southern Darling Downs, where the deep-rooted sunflower survived a tough season, have been alright while in the Central Highlands of Queensland there have been good harvests but growers further south haven’t yet sold all their crop.