They are one of Canada’s top feel-good crops — fields of bright yellow sunflowers have been delivering smiles for road-tripping families for countless summers.
This year, the country’s sunflower business may be smiling, too.
Demand and prices for the special crop are both looking good while the number of planted sunflower hectares has grown to its highest level in years.
“It’s a time where the industry is booming,” said Chuck Penner of LeftField Commodity Research in Winnipeg. “It’s at the upper part of the cycle right now.”
Though popular across the country, the bulk — roughly 90 per cent — of sunflowers are grown in Manitoba. This summer, the province is growing a lot more.
The amount of sunflowers planted in the province this year has climbed to about 36,400 hectares from roughly 25,500 in 2019, according to the Manitoba Crop Alliance.
“It’s a pretty big jump for us — probably the biggest acreage increase we’ve seen in a long time,” said Darcelle Graham, the alliance’s chief operating officer.
Graham said numbers that high haven’t been seen since 2015.
“So pretty exciting from a sunflower world,” she said.
Canadian growers plant both oilseed and confectionery sunflowers. For years, confectionery sunflowers — typically roasted and eaten as a snack — were the most popular.
But Graham said a lot of the growth recently has been in oilseeds. Some of those seeds end up being crushed for oil, but a high proportion find their way into birdseed.
There are any number of market factors that shape demand and price for sunflower seeds, like any commodity. A leading factor this year is a fairly tight supply of sunflowers in the United States.
People buying bird food
But an apparent rise in the popularity of birdwatching during the COVID-19 pandemic may also be providing a little bit of a lift in the market, too.
“I actually had a buyer say to me the other day that through all of COVID, one thing people are buying more of is bird food,” Graham said.
Ben Friesen, purchasing manager for sunflowers at Scoular Canada, which recently expanded its bird food manufacturing facility in Winkler, Man., said it’s been a good year.
Scoular’s confection sunflower business is important to the company, he said, but the bird food business “really picked up the pace” and is even stronger this year.
“With … a lot of people being at home, working from home, I think they have more time to be feeding birds and watching them,” he said.
“I think it has probably increased the production and the usage of the bird food.”
Tighter supplies in the U.S.
Across the country, LeftField’s Penner said, the total number of sunflower acres will probably be close to 100,000 — or 40,500 hectares — which he believes will be the highest number in years.
He said sunflower seed prices have also improved, with confection seed types fetching 30 to 32 cents per pound and oilseed sunflower seeds getting closer to 22 to 25 cents per pound.
“Which is, historically, a strong price,” Penner said.
He pointed to regular market dynamics for the increased acreage and demand for Canadian sunflowers, noting sunflower seed supplies in the U.S. have been tighter.
“They had a smaller crop [the last two years], so fairly tight supply,” Penner said. “So we’ve been exporting more sunflowers into the U.S. and that was already happening pre-COVID.”
Pandemic-related factors may be providing a “nudge” to prices as well, he said.
For those in the business, what counts is that Canada’s sunflower sector might have a year that looks as good as its crops this summer.
“They really look beautiful right now,” Friesen said.