EPHRATA, Wash. — When people think of sunflowers they think of Kansas where a wild, native species is the state flower. Or the Dakotas and Midwest where most sunflowers for snacks and cooking oil are grown.
Washington state doesn’t come to mind, but Bill Wirth may change that.
Wirth, owner of Precision Seed Production, Ephrata, began growing and cleaning seed sunflowers in the Columbia Basin five years ago. Production has grown to 5,000 acres and he thinks there’s potential for much more.
The climate, soil, length of growing season and return to the grower are all good, he said. It doesn’t take a lot of water so it works well on land irrigated by well water. Perhaps the biggest key, Wirth said, is that there’s plenty of room to expand without fields of different varieties being so close to each other that they cross pollinate and lose quality.
All of that is why Wirth became an innovator in 2009, planting the first sunflowers in the basin in a couple of decades. His first field was near his plant 12 miles south of Ephrata. It was small but did well. The next year he planted more.
The hot spot is Woodland, Calif., where 80 percent of the nation’s sunflower seeds for planting are grown. Another 15 percent is in Texas and the Midwest and now 5 percent is in Washington, Wirth said.
At 50,000 to 55,000 acres of sunflower seed in the best areas around Woodland, the industry was running out of room for comfortable growth, he said.
“A friend of mine (Bob Megli who manages Sunfield Seed in Chico) came up with the idea it would probably work up here,” Wirth said. “We weren’t sure since we’re pretty far north, but we knew there had been some sunflower oil production here years ago. I think it didn’t pencil out.”
His company now has 700 acres of sunflower seed and nearly 30 growers contract with him to grow 4,300 acres from Coulee City to Ritzville to Mattawa and to Hermiston, Ore.
Prices set prior to planting can beat out grain, corn and processor crops in returns if yields are strong enough, he said. Grower returns average $1,300 to $1,500 per acre, but can be as much as $2,000, he said.
It seems a good fit — not only because of grower returns, climate and geographic spread — but because a lot of basin growers “have a high level of expertise in keeping fields clean,” Wirth said.
“They do things in a timely manner, which is critical in seed production,” he said. “Our biggest push is to provide a high-quality product.”
One of his growers, Lynn Child of Quincy, said he’s grown sunflower seed two seasons and it appears to be a good alternative crop.
His first crop was excellent with good returns but this year’s on 125 acres wasn’t as good because of too much heat during pollination, Child said. Prices were a little lower and his production a little less, he said.
“I’ve known Bill a long time. He’s been in the seed business 25 years and is a really good, honest, hard-working guy and does things smart,” Child said. “I’m impressed with his program so far.”
Wirth’s customers are both small and big companies like Dow, Pioneer and Cenex that have their own breeding programs and private varieties. They provide germplasm to grow various varieties of confection sunflowers for eating and oil sunflowers. Planting occurs from April 20 to May 15.
The biggest challenge in growing the crops is the fungal disease schlerotinia, also called white mold. It’s exacerbated by overhead irrigation and fought with fungicides and crop rotation. Control programs are also used for insects.
Harvest with combines is from Sept. 15 to the end of October.
Seeds are trucked to the Precision Seed Production plant where they are cleaned to 98 percent purity by a machine that sifts and blows them. Seeds are dried to below 8 percent moisture, weighed and trucked in bulk or 1,200-pound bags to customers in the Dakotas, Midwest and California, where they are further refined before being shipped for planting in the Midwest, Europe and China.
Precision Seed Production’s $1 million sifting machine can clean 8,000 to 10,000 pounds per hour.
“If we installed another $2 million in equipment, we could clean to 99.5 percent purity, which is what my customers want before they ship it to China,” Wirth said. “Doing it here would save trucking to North Dakota to have it done before coming back this way to go to China.”
Syngenta is the only other company Wirth knows of growing sunflower seed in the Columbia Basin. It has fields near Othello. Wirth thinks other companies will come.
Wirth was Northwest field rep for Petoseed Production, Saticoy, Calif., from 1991 to 1998. He assisted in managing the company’s vegetable seed production in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. He and a colleague at Petoseed, Eric Lundberg, left the company and started Precision Seed Production in 1999. Wirth later bought out Lundberg and now is preparing to make his production manager, Troy Hesse, who has been instrumental in growth of the sunflower program, a partner. Wirth’s son, Nolan, also is interested in joining the company.
It has 12 full-time employees, 20 seasonal positions and grows and contracts close to 10,000 acres for carrot, onion, sunflower and canola seed.
Sunflower makes up 40 percent of the company portfolio and Wirth said it likely will be No. 1 next year.
“It’s exciting and fun and been a lot of work to bring something new to the area that’s challenging and yet economically beneficial for growers,” Wirth said. “Growers have potential to do well. It’s not something they will just squeak by with.”
Born and raised: Pullman, Wash.
Education: Graduated, Pullman High School, 1983; bachelor’s degree in finance, Washington State University, 1989.
Family: Wife, Debbie, sons, Nolan, 18, and Max, 14.
Work history: Assistant production manager WSU crop improvement; Northwest field rep, Petoseed Production, started Precision Seed Production in 1999.
An estimated 1.5 million acres of sunflowers were harvested in the U.S. in 2013, including seed, oil and confection (eating) varieties, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. The oil type dominates.
In 2012, 2.7 billion pounds were produced at an average yield of 1,513 pounds per acre. The average price was $27.70 per hundredweight for an industry total of $727 million.