NICHE markets for edible “sunnies” are set to play a key role in the growth and stability of the Australian sunflower market, says Kevin Charlesworth.
The opportunity to earn $1000 a tonne or more for his sunflower seeds was enough to get Queensland farmer, Kevin Charlesworth, thinking about his next big project.
Mr Charlesworth, from “Mirradong”, Clifton, on the Darling Downs, is a “facts and figures” man who believes the days of bulk commodity markets for oilseeds are probably numbered for Australia.
In particular, he sees great value in developing sunflower seed as a stand alone human consumption crop to help stabilise our underperforming sunflower sector.
The industrious grain grower, who is also the Australian Sunflower Association (ASA) president, has taken a strong interest in long-seeded sunflower varieties for the seed confectionary market, particularly at last year’s International Sunflower Conference in Turkey.
Edible sunflower seed is popular in Europe and Asia where it is better known as the “split and spit” market.
“The market in Turkey is phenomenal,” he said.
“They eat 600,000t a year of these things. The Chinese eat 1.4 million tonnes. So I’m thinking why can’t Australia tap into that.”
Mr Charlesworth is now breeding seed for the split and spit market with a local seed company and hopes to build potential exports to China, Turkey and Russia.
Edible sunflowers also offer Australians a healthy snack alternative. The ASA hopes “one day we'll see sunflower seeds on the bar instead of peanuts”.
Seed for human consumption measures close to 22 millimetres long, almost twice as big as those in conventional sunnies at 12mm to 14mm.
Mr Charlesworth’s motivation in developing the edible market is in response to the big price fluctuations and import competition, which have hammered confidence within Australia’s oilseed sunflower sector in the past decade.
Competition from other crops, notably cotton, has added to sunflower production instability and uncertainty about the future.
Australia imports more than 50 per cent of its sunflower oil requirements.
Locally crushed oilseed currently fails to meet the market’s 65,000t a year demand by as much as 30,000t, which has left competitive oil imports filling the gap, particularly from Argentina and Ukraine.
Imports not only threaten the local sunflower industry's growth prospects, but its potential existence.
Mr Charlesworth said this year oilseed processor, Cargill, had not even planned to crush because the company said it could import oil cheaper than sourcing Australian crop at prices farmers wanted.
Many growers opted out, only to find the market suddenly “went through the roof” because there was a shortage of product.
“We’ve got to do something that will bring stability to the Australian market - we’ve got these huge highs and huge lows,” he said.
“Some years I’ve sold sunflowers for $1550/t, or thereabouts, other years $600/t and that’s not good for the industry.”
AN ADAPTABLE LEADER
Clifton farmer, Kevin Charlesworth, has spent his life farming on “Mirradong”, and is now one of the single biggest operators in the area.
He has an eye for opportunity, a passion for farming and strong loyalty to the sunflower industry.
The family property started out as a 65 hectare block bought by his parents in 1952, gradually expanding to 328ha as nearby holdings came up for sale in the 724mm annual rainfall district.
"As soon as I could push a clutch on the tractor, when I was about 12, I started doing the work," he said.
He grows sunflowers and sorghum in summer and canary seed in winter.
Mr Charlesworth joined the ASA 12 years ago, becoming chairman in 2011 and pushing the formation of the Better Sunflowers program partnership with Pulse Australia and Grains Research and Development Corporation.
The program aims to expand the industry from its historical production area, through training workshops and by exploring new markets, including niche options for premium-priced bird seed and horse feed.
"We were trying to show advantages in growing sunflowers not just dollar-wise, but also as a rotation crop," he said.
The program identified sunflowers as a premium gross margin summer crop - second to cotton.
"At the moment, here in Queensland sunflower seeds are worth approximately $1200/t and yielding two tonnes/ha, while mungbeans are about the same price, but yield one tonne/ha.
“During the last 18 months of the Better Sunflowers workshops, we started running gross-margin sessions to highlight the opportunities.”
Mr Charlesworth said 40pc of growers attending the workshops were not full-time sunflower growers, yet there were great opportunities for farmers seeking out value crops, particularly for niche sales.
MARKETING STRATEGY IS KEY
The human consumption seed market is all about producing a “pretty seed” with ideal density and form, which someone would want to eat.
Mr Charlesworth said there will be challenges, but with the right marketing strategy Australia has the ability to build a premium brand with potential to transform the industry.
The ASA is eager to develop a quality assured seed program to guarantee grower premiums.
"Australia is known for producing quality, so whoever buys our seed will be investing in a top-end product,” he said.
“Unless we brand our product we'll be competing with everyone else in the world, on a bulk commodity, and that's not going to work."
Farms on the eastern Darling Downs and in northern NSW, where rainfall conditions are most suitable, would be ideal to grow the edible seed crop, he said.
The Charlesworth enterprise runs a zero-till cropping program which has been highly effective in maintaining a moisture-rich, “fluffy” soil to maximise crop yields.
The long-rooted sunflower plants dig deep to find the nutrients in the black, cracking clays, which are topped up with 120 units/ha of nitrogen (urea) each season.
“The average length of a sunflower’s tap-root is one and half times its plant height, so if you’ve got a compacted, cultivated layer the plant doesn’t like it at all,” Mr Charlesworth said.
His best sunflower crops follow sorghum.
This year he planted a late crop of AusiGold and Sunbird 7 sunflower lines in mid-January, due to an extended dry spell which was eventually relieved by 104mm of rain.
The first of his Sunbird 7 crop, harvested in late March, yielded 1.6t/ha, but he expects 2.5t/ha from the remaining crops in May.
About 1200t of grain storage at “Mirradong” holds the farm’s three crops for sale as market opportunities dictate.
Mr Charlesworth has strong contacts within the market, which has proven advantageous when supplies have been limited and he becomes a “first point of call”.
Today growers have access to highly-effective chemical control for weeds, such as grasses, but one of the greatest drawbacks in farming sunflowers is the inability to control broadleaf weeds.
Mr Charlesworth is currently dealing with an Australian breeder to produce the first ever imidazolinone (IMI) tolerant sunflower seeds in the market that will soon be released.
He is confident the IMI tolerance will allow him to control broadleaf weeds and help increase yield potential.
“The first few weeks are critical and if there’s any weed competition you can halve your yield potential," he said.
“We’re pretty lucky in Australia as we’re one of the few countries in the world that don’t have some of the major diseases that have the ability to decimate a crop."
Mr Charlesworth recognises this as an agricultural advantage and a 'foot in the door' to market a 'clean and green' product for human consumption.