17 August 2001

All set for a bright future?

By Edward Long

SUNFLOWERSare set to become a significant crop in the UK, with new varieties ready to underpin a 20-fold expansion in crop area over the next five years.

About 600ha (1500 acres) were grown in the UK in 2000, and slightly more this season, says the UK Sunflower Association.

Secretary Sarah Cook of ADAS Boxworth, involved with the crop for 10 years, believes the area will soon expand. "Sunflowers have the potential to be a major crop, but we are keen for farmers to adopt a softly-softly approach. We believe over 2000ha (5000 acres) will be grown within two years in a gradual build-up to it becoming an important arable break."

Expansion will not be based on a single variety, she says. Pioneer has other extra early varieties under development besides French-bred Antonil. One, 98 JD 011, is similar but shorter, growing to only 1-1.5m.

"We have better adapted material ready now, that is sufficiently early for reliable UK production," says the firms Andrew Stainthorpe. "Within five years 10,000-20,000ha (25,000-50,000 acres) are likely to be grown on UK farms."

Main market is for birdseed, but other outlets will fuel expansion, he believes. Annual demand for birdseed has grown steadily to between 5000 and 7000t, and is expected to rise to 12,000t.

"UK production would have to increase at least 10-fold before this is satisfied. But the overall market will be much bigger.

"We are developing varieties with the fatty acid profile of the oil modified to suit specific needs. We already have a high oleic acid type in UK registration trials.

"High oleic is wanted for high quality human consumption oils and health foods. It is also a more efficient oil for bio-fuel production," says Mr Stainthorpe. &#42

Sunflower oil

The quality of sunflower oil produced under cool conditions is higher than oil from warm areas. This provides an opportunity to exploit the human consumption market with a value-added product, says UKSAmember Peter Hutley-Bull.

"Yields of UK sunflowers are not high yet oil quality is good. It was obvious it was a waste to subject it to solvent extraction and use it to fry chips. So my partner in Farm Crop Rotations, Brian Fletcher, and I decided to cold press it to obtain pure table oil. The first batch of English Gold Elite Sunflower Oil is now being marketed through farm shops, farmers markets and at stately homes."

Avoiding heat and chemicals during extraction means the oil retains its quality, flavour and substances related to vitamin E that delay ageing and help protect against cancer, he adds.

TEN TOP TIPS FOR GROWING SUNFLOWERS

1 Location – select a sunny site away from trees.

2 Soil type – almost any will do, well-drained loam best. Optimum pH 6-7.5.

3 Rotation – best after cereals or fallow.

4 Seed-bed – should be fine, non-compacted, warm and moist.

5 Fertiliser – 50kg/ha N @ index 0, maintenance P & K into seed-bed.

6 Drilling date – mid-April to early May.

7 Seed-rate – to achieve between 90,000 and 150,000 plants/ha.

8 Row width – 25-50cm (10-20in).

9 Weed control – glyphosate in winter, Treflan pre-drilling or Stomp

pre-emergence.

10 Harvest – any suitably modified combine OK.