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NMSU working with small-acreage farmers to produce sunflower oilseed

PENA BLANCA, N.M. - "We're growing oil," Patrice Harrison-Inglis said while standing in a half-acre field of shoulder-high sunflowers.


Two people standing in sunflower patch looking at a flower blossom.
NMSU Extension agriculture specialist Del Jimenez, right, looks at a sunflower blossom with Patrice Harrison-Inglis, creator of the Pena Blanca Sunflower Project. Harrison-Inglis wants her neighbors to raise sunflower oilseeds in the Middle Rio Grande Valley between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

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 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," said 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 the people growing it, and have a market."

Sunflowers are a native North American plant, believed to have existed naturally as early as 3,000 B.C. in what is now the states of New Mexico and Arizona. The seeds were primarily used for food by the human inhabitants. When ground, the resulting flour was used in bread and cakes. When cracked, the seeds were eaten like nuts. Sunflower seeds were also a source of purple dye used as body paint and to decorate baskets and textiles.

Today the bright yellow flower yields seeds that are processed for cooking oil, confectionary use in snacks, and birdseed. Nationally, 2.7 billion pounds of seeds were produced in 2010 with a value of $582.5 billion. Sunflowers are primarily grown in the Great Plains areas of Kansas, Colorado, South Dakota and North Dakota. Some Eastern New Mexico farmers raise sunflowers as an alternative crop when the market value is higher than other crops, such as cotton, corn or wheat.

Harrison-Inglis envisions the Pena Blanca Sunflower Project as an economic development vehicle for her community. With a New Mexico Department of Agriculture specialty crop block grant, she planted a demonstration field to show her neighbors the possibilities.

"There is a niche market for sunflower oil," she said. "For people who make a point to eat food grown in their area, one of the most impossible things for them to find for that diet is oil to cook with. To add an oil-producing plant into the mix of locally grown or raised food is huge."

Sunflower oil is light in taste and appearance, and supplies more vitamin E than any other vegetable oil. It is a combination of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats with low saturated fat levels. The versatility of this healthy oil is recognized by cooks internationally.

"It has a similar oil profile to olive oil, but has higher oleic levels," Harrison-Inglis said. "It doesn't smoke at the higher cooking temperatures, so it can be used for more cooking processes than olive oils."

Before Harrison-Inglis can bottle the sunflower oil and sell it, she must first raise the plants, harvest the seed, and dry then crush the seed pods to extract the oil.

"I've just raised livestock in the past, so I am learning as we go," said the former owner of a goat dairy and artisan cheese manufacturing company. "Despite that, we got a great stand of sunflowers."

As Jimenez examined the field he said, "It's very impressive that you have such a pretty stand for your first go around, which goes to show you that this plant will grow here. Just look at the size of these blossoms."

Harrison-Inglis, with help from neighborhood youth, planted the test plot the second week of July. The flowers were in full bloom by the first of October. She plans to harvest sometime in November, once the flowers dry and the seed heads turn toward the ground.

"Looking at this field with its bright yellow flowers, makes you smile," Harrison-Inglis said. "It's beautiful."

While the plants were growing, Harrison-Inglis and neighbor Steve Romero, who is interested in the crops potential, traveled to southern Colorado to learn about the oil extraction process. More than 40 percent of the seeds weight is from the oil.

"There are four crusher facilities in the nation," she said. "There is one mill in Lamar, Colo., one in Goodland, Kans., and two in the Dakotas. We have learned that the Colorado plant is where we would take our seeds because of the extraction process. It doesn't use hexane extraction process, which is of interest to some consumers."

While Harrison-Inglis is accustomed to running a small operation, Jimenez wants to see if something a little bit bigger can be sustained by farmers in the valley.

"This crop can be rotated with other crops raised in New Mexico," he said. "Of course, alfalfa is the number one crop in our state. What we are looking for is alternative crops that can be rotated with alfalfa. In northern New Mexico we have an organic wheat program. Now we are looking for what we can grow here in Pena Blanca, which is not as cold as in Santa Fe and northern New Mexico."

Harrison-Inglis envisions an additional reason for her neighbors to raise sunflowers.

"I see Pena Blanca as 'the sunflower place.' Kind of like Hatch is the green chili place," she said. "This area is the perfect location for a small-scale specialty crop and a beautiful festival every fall where people from Albuquerque and Santa Fe could come out and enjoy seeing the fields.

"I have a picture in my mind of fields on both sides of the rio in this valley. We could make a beautiful loop where people drive their cars and see and photograph the fields in bloom. Local venders could have sunflower cooking oil and snack foods made from the seed for the visitors to buy."