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July 23, 2010   Email to Friend 

OIL FIELDS: Alabama Farmers Search For Gold In Sunflower, Canola
By Darryal Ray

David Rogers of Piedmont says canola is a profitable crop, but one not without its challenges.
They are not amber waves of grain nor pots of gold at the end of a rainbow. But those billowing seas of yellow across Alabama farmscapes of late could very well be virtual oil fields.

That's because demand is high for those bright yellow oilseed crops -- whether the easily identifiable sunflower or the less familiar blooms of the winter canola plant. Either way, both are quickly gaining interest from farmers who are being courted by competing processing plants in search of Alabama growers.

Such was the case a couple of months back when Brian Caldbeck and Andrew Moore conducted a canola and sunflower "field day" at Bob and David Rogers' R3 Farms near Piedmont.

"Canola has a huge profit potential for your operation," Caldbeck, a consultant agronomist, told the farmers. "It's a natural fit for this area."

"We are excited about what we're doing," said Moore whose Georgia-based oilseed processing plant, Resaca Sun Products, is pressing 50 tons of sunflower, canola and soybean oil per day. "We think canola (and sunflowers) are a viable crop for the Southeast. We believe it's a crop that will make you money. Is it a dream crop? No. Farming is hard work, and we know that. But this is a crop that will add value to your production."

It's a sales pitch that Billy and Gregory Bridgeforth of Tanner first heard three years ago from Dr. Ernst Cebert, an Alabama A&M University research scientist.

"Dr. Cebert gave us a favorable forecast of what the yield would be on canola," said Billy Bridgeforth. "He was saying 42, 45 or on a real good year, 50 bushels, an acre. And the stuff was selling for the price of soybeans. So we were all for it. Well, instead of 45 bushels, we made 62 bushels!"

At around $12 per bushel, it's no wonder the Bridgeforths have since doubled their canola crop to about 500 acres and plan to double it again to 1,000 acres next year.

"We're cotton farmers," Greg Bridgeforth said, "but we're also survivors. We try to see what opportunities there are, and this may be one of those alternative crops that's an opportunity for growers in north Alabama, especially if we can get a mill."

The push for a processing plant in Alabama is growing stronger each year, and another Georgia processing plant has already set up a receiving station in the Lawrence County town of Leighton to help offset some of the growers' transportation costs.

"That's the plan," says Billy Bridgeforth. "They say they need about 14,000 acres of canola and sunflower to have a mill here in north Alabama, and I think they're pretty close to having it with the growers they have now in northern Alabama and southern Tennessee."

But Charles Burmester, an agronomist with the Tennessee Valley Regional Research and Extension Center, says the lack of a processing plant is a big obstacle to overcome.

"It's a chicken-and-egg deal," said Burmester. "You've got producers who want to produce canola, and you've got some buyers who would love to buy the canola, but putting the two together is the hard thing because the buyers are in Georgia and the plants that process it are in Georgia."

In fact, a similar push for canola died out in the late 1980s and early 1990s when a processing plant in Chattanooga closed shop. "If we had known about that, we probably wouldn't have tried it," said Billy Bridgeforth with a laugh.

Today, however, good market prices, better genetics and a continuing need for new crop rotations have more and more farmers willing to take a chance.

"It's a fun crop to grow," said Billy Bridgeforth. "You go out there one week and it's about boot high; come back a week later and it's about knee high. Three days later, it's waist high and about the time it starts to bloom, it's head high. And it just grows so fast! I wish some of these gene splitters could put some of that in these corn and soybeans."

David Rogers had planned to plant 300 acres of canola this year, but an unusually wet fall cut those plans by half. "We lost one crop we planted because the very next night after planting we had four inches of rain," he said.

"Too much rain can happen with any crop, but when you plant and get four inches of rain the very next day that's just not good for it."

Still, Donnie Garrett of Centre, a board member with the Alabama Farmers Federation, heard enough during the field day at Rogers' farm that he says he'll probably give it a try himself. "I think it would be worth giving it a shot because we need some other kind of crop that we can get in our rotation," he said, adding that he had also tried it in the late 1980s. "I'm not going to go large - just enough to try it and get an idea of what I can do with it."

Likewise, more and more growers are experimenting with sunflowers. Cousins Brad and Brian Laymon planted less than 120 acres on this, their first attempt. "We're just playing with it right now," said Brad Laymon.

"We don't know if we're going to be in it or not. ... We've just cottoned everything to death around here. The cotton went down andthe grain market went up. So we changed over and started looking at some alternative crops."

Just a few miles away, Ben Looney is taking his third sunflower crop seriously -- all 400 acres of it.

"It doesn't really make me nervous to try new things," said Looney, adding that he intends to plant 200 acres of canola this fall. "In fact, I sort of like being one of the first to try something. There was a need for it, and we jumped in there to see if we can do something with this, and found out we could make some money off it."

Plus, Looney has seen some other benefits as well. "It's good for the wildlife, too," he said. "When you start cutting it, the birds come in droves. There are bumblebees and honeybees everywhere. One of my neighbors, Lionel Evans (a member of the State Bee & Honey Committee), set up some of his hives at the edge of the field."

"The biggest problem with sunflowers are the pests -- the people who want to get in your field and take pictures," Looney said with a laugh. "No, I'm joking. They're not really pests -- we don't spray for those."

For more information, contact Brian Caldbeck at (270) 316-4316 or Andrew Moore at Resaca Sun Products LLC at (706) 629-7010, email info@resacasun.com or visit ResacaSun.com Also check out USCanola.com and SunflowersNSA.com.



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