HILLSBORO — The line of cars was so thick that Hill County farmer Rodney Schronk couldn’t get into his field of sunflowers.Hordes of rubber-neckers stopped along Interstate 35W near Hillsboro were taking photographs and walking through the fields to get a close-up look at the rows of tall, yellow flowers.For Schronk, it was a sign that sunflowers are a little different from crops like corn or cotton. But it was still a little disconcerting that people would sometimes walk off with the flowers as souvenirs.“They don’t realize that’s our liveihood,” Schronk said.But he added, “It’s encouraging to see people get out and see the flowers, touch them and see where their food comes from.”Because they can thrive in dry weather, the bright and bold flowers are popping up in parts of North Texas as farmers realize they’ll grow when other crops won’t. In the last five years, the number of acres planted in Ellis, Hill and Navarro counties has grown from about 2,000 to about 24,000.Ellis County farmer Bob Beakley, 72, was one of the first to start planting sunflowers in North Texas five years ago. His family now has about 3,600 acres of sunflowers. He also has a storage facility at the family farm near Bardwell to store the seeds for farmers until they’re ready to ship for processing in Goodland, Kan. Schronk has a similar facility near Hillsboro but ships the seeds to Alice in South Texas.“They mature before the heat of the summer kicks in so we can get a crop before it gets too hot,” Beakley said. Ellis County Extension Agent Mark Arnold said sunflowers have also shown they can handle the vagaries of spring weather a little better than some crops. While a late freeze harmed many crops this spring, sunflowers had few problems.“They came through those late frosts really well,” Arnold said. “They were relatively unscathed.”Growing in popularitySunflowers have historically been grown in the Upper Midwest: The Dakotas are the heart of sunflower country. This spring, South Dakota planted about 650,000 acres and North Dakota planted about 636,000 acres. Texas, meanwhile, planted about 93,000 acres, just nudging out Kansas for the third-most acreage.In Texas, the majority of sunflowers are grown in the High Plains near Lubbock and in the Rio Grande Valley. SunGold Foods opened a sunflower seed roasting facility in November in Lubbock, which could cause the market to increase in the High Plains.“We look at Texas as a real growth area,” said John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association in Mandan, N.D. “With the geographical diversity in Texas, you have a real opportunity to expand in the Panhandle, the Rio Grande Valley and near the Dallas-Fort Worth area.” Calvin Trostle, a Texas Agrilife agronomist, said Texas presents an opportunity for the sunflower industry to extend its season. He has been going around the state to talk to farmers about the potential of sunflowers and took part in a Sunflower Tour in Ellis County last week.“If I’m in short supply, whether it’s oil or confection, I can bring sunflower seeds to market two months earlier than the Dakotas,” Trostle said. “It offers a little bit of an opportunity to plug a shortfall.”The number of acres planted in Texas could still grow but it will never surpass the Dakotas. “It could be a crop that doubles in acreage, but that really depends on the market price,” Trostle said.‘We’re learning we like them’Schronk cautions that there is still a learning curve.Farmers must deal with sunflower head moths, which have been called the boll weevil of sunflowers. They can devastate a crop if they’re not treated properly.So far, that hasn’t been a big problem for Schronk, who said sunflowers have a lot of good attributes as well.“We’re learning we like them,” Schronk said. “You need to rotate your crops. If you plant the same thing over and over, insects can become a big problem. And sunflowers seem to almost naturally till the soil.”Schronk has also been approached by dove hunters wanting to hunt on his land since the seeds attract birds. At this point, he has declined to lease the property but hasn’t ruled it out as another possible source of revenue.When he was planting this year, Schronk saw blackbirds devour the plants, forcing him to replant in one field.“There were too many of them to do anything about it,” Schronk said. “There wasn’t any vegetation around so they were foraging for food.”But Schronk isn’t ready to predict sunflowers are here to stay. If the drought eventually subsides, Schronk believes sunflowers might struggle in wet weather.“Mother Nature will probably determine that for us,” Schronk said.
Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698 Twitter: @fwhanna