If only he could figure out a way to monetize their photogenic nature, Dennis Urbat might be able to get paid twice for his sunflower crop.
Once in the fall after he harvests their seeds; and again in summer for their ability to draw people who want their picture taken amid a field of big-headed, bright yellow flowers bending east in unison to catch the rays of the morning sun.
Drive north on U.S. Highway 395 past Deer Park in mid- to late summer, and you’ll see people posing in front of the fields Urbat and some of his neighbors grow as part of their crop rotation.
Sunflowers aren’t Washington’s biggest cash crop. Far from it. The most recent state agriculture census lists only 4,556 acres of sunflowers growing in the entire state, with 665 acres in Spokane County. But those figures are a year old; Urbat himself has planted about 900 acres this year.
He started about six years ago with just 40 acres. He was looking for something to rotate with his grain fields. He got the idea for sunflowers when talking to people at Global Harvest, where he sells wheat, barley and oats. The Mead food supplier needed sunflower seeds for the bird food mixtures it sells, and had to import them from the Dakotas, which is at the top of a swath of the Great Plains that is prime sunflower-growing territory.
Global Harvest, the country’s largest manufacturer of wild bird seed, could take all he could grow and more. Casey Thompson, the company’s director of supply and logistics, said the Mead facility is one of six the company has around the country and provides much of the wild bird seed that is sold at Costco, Walmart, Home Depot and most major retailers around the Northwest.
“Sunflower seeds happen to be the favorite food of wild birds,” Thompson said. The Mead facility uses 10 to 12 million pounds of seeds a year.
In 2012, Global Harvest was looking to spread its risks for supplies by expanding production of different seeds to different regions. Urbat’s decision to grow sunflowers benefits both local farmers and the company, Thompson said. They get a new dryland cash crop that helps rebuild their soil by pulling nutrients deep in the soil closer to the surface. Sunflower roots push deep into the soil and get the nutrients grains won’t go after.
Global Harvest cuts down on its transportation costs and the carbon footprint of shipping seeds in from the Dakotas.
Urbat talked to a friend from North Dakota who used to grow sunflowers, wondering whether they’d do well in Eastern Washington. No reason why they wouldn’t, they decided.
That year the U.S. Department of Agriculture listed 15 sunflower farmers in all of Washington, with 11 growing the plants for oil and four for seed.
He harvested the first 40 acres, sold the seeds to Global Harvest and planted 100 acres the next year. Then 250 acres the year after that. Each year, the acreage has grown and some of his neighbors now plant and harvest sunflowers, too.
He estimates there are now about 2,500 acres of sunflowers growing in Spokane, Lincoln, Adams and Stevens counties. The price for the seed fluctuates, but generally tracks with soybean prices.
They plant a variety of sunflower usually grown for oil, but there’s no facility to press the seeds locally and Global Harvest can take all being grown in the area for bird food.
Lisa Urbat, Dennis’ wife, said the sunflowers fit in with their dryland family farm ethic, where they have a wide variety of crops, stress local sales and cut out the middleman through their collaborative effort with Global Harvest. They also bag up some sunflowers to sell on their own.
What makes sunflower seeds great for Global Harvest’s feed mixes is a problem when the seeds are ready to harvest. Birds can pick a field clean almost overnight. The variety Urbat grows has a head that droops straight down when the seeds are ripe, making it hard for birds to sit on the stalk and eat the seeds.
Deer are another problem for a sunflower farmer. They enjoy munching on the plants.
One other pest is a danger to sunflower crops: people.
While the Urbats are happy to share the scenic nature of their sunflower fields with people who want a great backdrop for selfies, they struggle to keep people from entering the fields, trampling the stalks or picking the flowers
Deer and birds are just doing what they do naturally, he said. “People should know better.”
One year Urbat came upon three teenage girls in the middle of a field with armloads of sunflowers they had picked. They said they just thought the flowers grew naturally there. When he said they were his crop, they offered to put the flowers back. That won’t work, he said, asking how they planned to reimburse him.
When they said they didn’t have any cash, Urbat said he’d follow them to an ATM in Deer Park, where they withdrew some money. He charged them $20, which didn’t really cover his losses but at least made a point.
Some people have suggested he try to get some money from all the photography, but he doesn’t know a way to do that. Many of the fields are along the highway or next to country roads, and he can’t monitor every section.
Sunflowers are harvested for the seeds long after the bright yellow flowers have wilted and turned brown. It requires some adjustments to the combine Urbat uses for his grains. The first few years he made some modifications in his shop to the combine’s header to accommodate the plants that grow 3 to 5 feet high, getting some help from a friend and other information off the internet. Later, he bought a kit from a South Dakota company designed to handle the operation that collects the seeds and throws the rest of the flower out the back.
“It’s just a matter of settings,” he said. “You have to slow everything down.”