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NMSU study aims for flower power

‘We’re growing oil,” says Patrice Harrison-Inglis while standing in a half-acre field of shoulder-high sunflowers at Pena Blanca, N.M.

Harrison-Inglis, creator of the Pena Blanca Sunflower Project, is exploring the possibility of raising a sunflower oilseed crop in the Rio Grande Valley between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

New Mexico State University researchers and sustainable agriculture specialists are working with her to evaluate sunflowers as a potential crop for small-acreage farmers in the region.

Sunflowers under study

Sunflowers have been raised for research purposes at NMSU agricultural science centers in Clovis and Farmington. In Clovis, crop physiologist Sangu Angadi has studied the minimum amount of water needed to raise the crop. Staff in Farmington has tested different pesticide and herbicide options for controlling insects and weeds in the fields.

The next step is for small-acreage farmers to raise sunflowers themselves to determine what needs to be done to make it a financially viable alternative crop.

“We’ve always known sunflowers would grow here because the wildflowers are along the roads and in our fields,” says Del Jimenez, Extension agriculture specialist at NMSU’s Sustainable Agriculture Science Center in Alcalde.

“We are looking for a crop that will sustain itself, be useful for people growing it and have a market,” says Jimenez.

Native to North America

Sunflowers are native to North America and believed to have existed naturally as early as 3000 B.C. in what is now the area of New Mexico and Arizona. The seeds primarily were used for food by humans. When ground, the resulting flour was used in breads and cakes. But when cracked, the seeds were eaten like nuts.

Sunflower seeds also were a source of purple dye used to paint the body and decorate baskets and textiles.

Today, the bright-yellow flower yields seeds that are processed for cooking oil, birdseed and confectionary use in snacks. Sunflowers mainly are grown in the Great Plains areas of Kansas, Colorado, South Dakota and North Dakota. Some eastern New Mexico farmers also raise sunflowers as an alternative crop when the market value is higher than other crops such as cotton, corn or wheat.

Moorman is with NMSU.

This article published in the December, 2011 edition of THE FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.