Sunflower growers look to expand export markets

Consumers used to have two choices when it came to sunflower seeds: salted or unsalted.

These days seed lovers can choose from a plethora of flavours, from spicy garlic and dill pickle to nacho cheese and jalapeno hot salsa.

But while North American consumers prefer a variety of flavours, seed connoisseurs in other parts of the world are particular about the shape of their sunflower seeds, says Anastasia Kubinec, an oilseed expert with Manitoba Agriculture.

She said Mediterranean, African and Middle Eastern consumers prefer an elongated seed, but most Manitoba producers grow a round sunflower seed suited for North American tastes.

“It’s a round, straight type of confection sunflower, but that’s not the market anymore,” she said.

“So, we’re kind of getting left behind.”

As part of an effort to tap into the international marketplace, the federal government announced $1.1 million in funding in late January to help the National Sunflower Association of Canada develop new varieties of confection sunflowers.

“This investment will help our producers develop and grow new sunflower seed varieties capable of taking on new domestic and international markets,” MP and parliamentary secretary Pierre Lemieux said in a statement.

Canadian sunflower producers have seen a decline in yields for the last decade, because farmers have been growing confection varieties better suited for U.S. producers, the national association said in a news release.

“Companies that are breeding for Canada are focusing on what they think we want,” Kubinec said. “They’re more focused on their U.S. market.”

There are no sunflower breeders in Canada, so the association has contracted a U.S. breeder to develop long shaped varieties of confection sunflowers appropriate for the growing conditions on the southern Prairies.

Producing long-shaped seeds should help Canada sell more confection sunflowers to discerning seed consumers in markets outside of North America, Kubinec said.

“When you get to Egypt, Turkey and United Arab Emirates, they want a very long type and they only stick one seed in their mouth and crack it,” she said.

“They’re very particular … and there are a lot of customs around how they eat sunflowers. It’s not just at a ball game or whatever.”

Breeders usually spend years taking a new variety to commercial production, but the association grew and tested a few potential varieties last year in Manitoba.

If all goes according to plan, Canadian producers could be growing an elongated confection seed variety in a couple of years, Kubinec said.

“There are some new hybrids that are getting pretty close to being complete. So those are the ones we are testing right now. One of them looks pretty good, so if things go well this year, potentially (it) could be seeded in 2014.”

Confection seeds represent 75 percent of Canada’s sunflower crop, the sunflower association said in a release, with the majority of production coming from Manitoba.

In 2010, Canada produced 68,000 tonnes of sunflowers and 45,500 tonnes were exported, for a value of $33 million.

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