With low input and easy-care growing needs, sunflowers could be the ideal spring option for growers to fill in the gaps of off-peak growing seasons, new research from the Foundation for Arable Research has found.
Demand for hi-oleic sunflower oil, a quality oil with a high smoke point, low saturated fat and high mono-unsaturated fat, is growing, the foundation said.
The three-year project, which received $90,000 from the Ministry for Primary Industries Sustainable Farming Fund (now the Sustainable Food and Fibres Future fund), looked at crop options that could raise profitability and provide alternative land uses.
High-oleic varieties of sunflowers were identified as promising crops, and two-hybrid seeds from France were trialled.
More than 20 growers were involved, and the product was used by potato chip manufacturers. Extra virgin sunflower oil produced by the growers could be purchased under 'The Good Oil' brand in supermarkets.
Foundation general manager of business operations Ivan Lawrie said New Zealand conditions were perfect for growing sunflowers, with yield potential in excess of 4.5 tonnes per hectare.
The project had spent over the past two years focusing on sunflower agronomy in collaboration with Pure Oil NZ, which provided grower contracts and extracted the oil from the seed.
The researchers were particularly interested in determining how growers could produce a profitable crop in sufficient quantities to meet demand.
For a successful crop, growers need at least 60,000 plants per hectare, said Lawrie.
He added that growers needed big paddocks to contend with bird damage because birds particularly like sunflowers. The project had looked at optical and sonic devices to deter the birds, but further research was required.
Sunflowers grow at a time of little competition from other crops and require minimal chemicals and fertilisers to grow. The cost per hectare to grow sunflowers is low and once established, the flowers don't require much attention until harvest.
The flowers are also deep-rooted and provide good soil aeration and conditioning for the following crop. Sunflowers have been shown to be a good predecessor crop for wheat, said Lawrie.
After the oil is extracted, the remains are also good for animal feed products.
Proximity to processing plants is key, however, and trials were conducted in mid and north-Canterbury because that's where the oil crushing plant is.
Growers in other regions, like the North Island, are becoming interested, but they need to consider the cost of freight for processing, Lawrie added.
Current quantities are sufficient to supply the domestic market, but volumes would need to be bigger to export, said Lawrie.