Sunflower Fields North Dakota

North Dakota grows more sunflowers than any other state. Sunflower seeds are a popular snack food not only in the United States but also in parts of Spain. Spain buys almost half of the confection sunflower exports of the United States.

The earliest known examples of a fully domesticated sunflower north of Mexico have been found in Tennessee and date back to around 2300 B.C. Many indigenous American peoples used the sunflower as the symbol of the sun deity, including the Aztecs and the Otomi of Mexico and the Incas in South America. Gold images of the flower, as well as seeds, were taken back to Spain early in the 16th century.

During the 18th Century, the use of sunflower oil became very popular in Europe, particularly with members of the Russian Orthodox Church because sunflower oil was one of the few oils that was not prohibited during Lent. The cake remaining after the seeds have been processed for oil is used as a livestock feed. Some recently developed cultivars have drooping heads. Sunflowers also produce latex and are the subject of experiments to improve their suitability as an alternative crop for producing hypoallergenic rubber.

The sunflower is native to the Americas. Current research shows that it may have been domesticated twice, first in Mexico and later in the middle Mississippi Valley. To grow well, sunflowers need full sun. They grow best in fertile, moist, well-drained soil with a lot of mulch. In commercial planting, seeds are planted 45 cm (1.5′) apart and 2.5 cm (1″) deep. For farmers growing other crops, the sunflower is considered a weed.

The wild variety will grow unwanted in corn and soybean fields and can have a negative impact on yields. Sunflower oil, extracted from the seeds, is used for cooking, as a carrier oil and to produce biodiesel, for which it is less expensive than the olive product. A range of sunflower varieties exist with differing fatty acid compositions; some ‘high oleic’ types contain a higher level of healthy monounsaturated fats in their oil than even olive oil.

Most of the processing plants for these sunflowers are located in North Dakota and the area is considered a key player in the industry. The USDA estimated that the blackbirds eat about $10 million worth of sunflowers every year in North Dakota accounting for about half of the nation’s sunflower production.