Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is a beautiful and versatile flowering annual that has been aptly named. Not only does the large flower’s shape and yellow color bring to mind the sun, but flower heads face in the direction of the sun during their early development; mature heads typically face east. While sunflowers can be grown for ornamental uses, this profile will focus on production for seed. Sunflower is classified as either an oil type or a confection (non-oil) type, each with its own distinct market. Seeds from oil types are processed into vegetable oil or as meal in livestock feed. Most confection type seed is sold, with or without the hull, as snack foods. While either type can be packaged for birdseed, the confectionery type is grown in Kentucky for this purpose. Sunflowers are not recommended for oil crop production here.
Sunflower seed producers have two marketing options: 1) cash sales and 2) contracts. The former is primarily used for on the spot market sales or to elevators. The latter includes mainly forward cash contracts that have a number of requirements from the producers but also provide safety nets. In Kentucky, most sunflowers are sold to the birdseed market, either to local retailers or birdseed packagers. The primary demand for sunflower seed comes from three markets: 1) birdseed, 2) snack and baking products, and 3) oil and livestock meal. In the U.S., 25 percent of sunflower production is directed to birdseed, 10 to 20 percent to snack and baking products, and the remaining to oil and livestock meal products. Increased world competition in conjunction with the end of support programs has led to a decline in U.S. sunflower seed exports. However, exports of confectionary sunflower seed remain steady primarily due to the higher quality and desirable properties of U.S. produce.
Confectionery type sunflower seed is usually white-striped with a thick hull, in contrast to oilseed types that are solid black with a thin hull. Hybrids vary in terms of yield potential, seed size, stalk height, standability, and disease resistance. Sunflower grows well in a variety of soil types, as long as the site is well drained. Seed is planted in Kentucky between April 1 and May 10 with any conventional corn planter. Planting in rows makes it possible to cultivate for weed control. Crop rotation is critical, and sunflower should not be planted in the same field more than once every three or four years. While commercial sunflowers are self-compatible and do not require insect pollination, research studies have indicated that bee pollinators can help increase yields.