Farmer proves sunflowers work in short growing season

LESLIEVILLE, Alta. — Roger Bott decided eight years ago that he wanted a challenge, so he set aside two acres of his mixed farm and grew sunflowers.

Sunflowers in Alberta are not uncommon, but the idea seemed out of reach for someone living near Rocky Mountain House with its short growing season.

“Somebody said you can’t,” he told a tour group to his sunflower field Aug. 20.

Most of the farm is the traditional barley, wheat, canola and pea rotation, but he has also tried giant pumpkins, corn and soybeans to see what might happen. Most have survived.

He and his wife, Bonita, planted the first sunflower crop by hand on two acres in 2008. It did well so they expanded, and each year they plant about 10 acres with an air drill. They do not plant sunflowers in the same place twice.

“Wherever the sunflowers are, we will avoid that and go another 10 acres in,” he said.

The product is sold off the farm as bird seed. Customers may take a small bag or a 45 gallon drum full of black sunflower seeds.

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“Most people, if they can come to the farm and pick up something, they love doing it as a farm outing,” he said.

His pricing strategy is simple: he checks local retail outlets, compares prices and then offers his for a few cents a pound less.

The Botts have learned a lot about sunflowers, even after losing crops to weather hazards such as hail or lack of maturity.

The entire crop was hailed out last year, but he is optimistic about this year’s field full of nodding yellow flowers.

He buys a Pioneer brand called 63A-21 that is adapted to his region.

“Longer growing varieties are not for this country,” he said.

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This particular field was in canola last year, so there are volunteers among the sunflowers, but the Botts do not worry about canola seeds finding their way into an order of bird feed.

“With this brand you have no weed control options. We try to put it on as clean a ground as you can,” he said.

He usually buys two bags holding about 200,000 seeds per bag. They go in after the wheat has been planted in early May to avoid frost. They are combined after a killing frost by mid-October.

The plants are chopped up when they go through the combine, and the seeds easily fall out of the large heads.

The leftover stalks and leaves quickly disintegrate and disappear into the soil. What little residue remains deposits a lot of nutrition into the soil, and Bott has noticed crops such as barley planted into the same spot the following year tend to thrive.

The bushel weight is about 30 pounds, and his harvest yields 1,800 to 2,000 lb. per acre.

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Contact barbara.duckworth@producer.com