Over 300ha is about to be planted in sunflowers by growers, including the co-founders of My Food Bag, Nadia Lim and Carlos Bagrie.
Lim and her husband are set to treble last year's six-hectare crop in Central Otago.
Most of the crop goes into the ground and will be harvested 120 days later in March to make high-oleic sunflower oil. The seeds will be processed by Pure Oil New Zealand at its crushing plant in Rolleston.
Pure Oil processes 3000ha of seed oil a year, which is mostly rapeseed oil. Sunflower oil is a specialty crop, but it is expanding.
Managing director Nick Murney said farmers like growing sunflowers because their deep roots naturally aerate the soil, and they require minimal fertilising. The late-planting and early-maturing sunflowers are a great double-crop in rotation, especially with vining peas.
Returns are similar to short cash crops, such as peas, and there is room to improve average yields of three tonnes per hectare, said Murney.
The Foundation of Arable Research just completed a three-year project researching alternative land uses and identified high-oleic varieties of sunflowers as a promising crop.
Business operations manager Ivan Lawrie said research showed New Zealand conditions had the potential to lift yields to over 4.5t/ha.
He added that consumer demand is strong as the premium oil has a higher smoke point than regular sunflower oil and has many health attributes, including low saturated fat content.
Lasers are now being used as a cost-effective bird deterrent. Researchers believe growers need at least 60,000 plants per hectare to have a successful crop and relatively big paddocks to contend with bird damage.
Murney said it was great to have a high-profile person like Lim growing sunflowers and hoped they could extend their grower-supplier relationship into a joint marketing of oils.