The taste of innovation
By Jennifer M. Latzke
They're the staple snacks at ball games and on road trips. If you've partaken the tasty treat of in-shell sunflower seeds recently, there's a 50 percent chance you've tasted the fruits of the labor of sunflower growers from the southern growing region of the United States--from Nebraska south to Texas.
Now, with the recent development of a new confectionery processing plant in Lubbock, Texas, SunGold Foods, a business unit of Red River Commodities, Inc., is poised to ensure a lot more of those sunflower seeds come from Texas growers.
For decades Red River Commodities and SunGold have worked to bring innovation to every process of the sunflower production cycle. From the seeds the growers plant, to the engineering behind new processing equipment, to looking to the future needs of sunflower growers, the key to their success is innovative ideas. This is how SunGold delivers a consistent product to consumers each time they reach their hand in a bag of seeds at a ball game, or puts out bird food in their backyard feeders.
"We acquired a facility in Colby, Kan., in the early 1990s," explained Mike Williams, general manager of Southern Procurement for SunGold. At the time Red River was looking to expand sunflower acreage outside of the Dakotas to avoid disease issues that were cropping up. In the mid-90s, Red River's sunflower expansion reached into Lubbock with a birdseed production plant, and then the acquisition of L&W Sunflower.
Those acquisitions of expertise and facilities laid the groundwork for an expansion in sunflower acres in the region. Today, Texas leads the southern growing region with 68,000 acres planted to confection sunflowers in 2012.
And, a good portion of those are SunGold proprietary varieties.
Seed of consistency
"To have consistency, we learned that we needed to control the seed," explained Williams. "So, we worked with seed companies and sunflower breeders to create our own varieties. So, we own the process from the field to the package."
Williams explained the ideal sunflower for the retail market has a very dark, black center of the seed, with the majority of it black, with two white stripes on the outside edges. "We look for seed sizing, the percentage over 20s, the length and width of the seed," he added. In fact, SunGold is considering the future of grading to include a 3-D optical viewer of seeds to better assess their place in the SunGold family of products.
"We look at sunflower seeds as products," Williams said. "What part of this product is for the export market, what is for U.S. domestic consumption? What ends up in another industry, like the bird food or shelled kernel industry?" Some might even wind up in the company's proprietary peanut butter alternative, SunButter.
Larry Martin is SunGold's procurement manager for sunflower contractors out of the Lubbock offices. He works with farmers year round to ensure that they have the tools and knowledge they need to raise quality sunflower seeds.
"We deal directly with the farmers, they aren't just a contract number," Martin said. "We watch and help them and we are right there with them. We take care of our own." It's that commitment to quality that was passed to him from his father-in-law, W.T. Leon, who was part owner of L&W Sunflower before its acquisition by Red River. Today, W.T.'s son, and Martin's brother-in-law, Carroll Leon, also works in the "family business" growing sunflowers on the Texas Plains for SunGold as a contracted producer.
Growing a product
"For my operation, the main benefit is diversification," Leon said. "In this area, I can count on cotton as king, but sunflowers are a close second for me. It's a consistent crop and has been consistent the past few years, and especially with Red River expanding." Sunflower planting through the southern growing region can run from January to July, with harvest from May to December.
"Growing sunflowers gives me a way to harvest a crop early, say late August or early September, collect my money virtually immediately after grading and paperwork, and stops interest," Leon said. That shorter growing season ensures that harvest is done at a time of typically good weather, too. And he's paid on delivery.
Leon is on a two-year rotation of cotton and sunflowers, but he said he's going to switch shortly to a three-year rotation to put more time between his sunflower and cotton crops. While his area is more dryland acres, Leon irrigates his sunflowers, and the drought these past two years has affected his farm like his neighbors' farms.
The benefit, Leon said, is that the pricing and the contracting of sunflowers has become competitive with cotton. Martin added that when he talks to growers, he touts the water saving opportunities and the net dollar.
"If you look at that net dollar and the ability to utilize the water to grow other crops, and the new facilities, and that we have the price up there, it works for farmers," he said. He does caution them that beyond fertilizing the crop, farmers should be ready to spray for sunflower head moth, which is a known pest issue for growers, whether they think they have it or not.
"I have to push them to spray for head moth, you have them in your field, especially here," Martin said. Rotating sunflowers with cotton also offers farmers and option to mix up their weed control methods. "It helps us to get away from glyphosate for a season," he said.
Leon added that side-dressing fertilizer earlier in the season has a greater impact on future yield with sunflowers. "That sunflower plant starts cell division of the head very young and it knows its crop potential," he said. But, if farmers wait until after hail season to side-dress, they're missing an opportunity to push that sunflower to a better yield.
"I tell farmers that if they treat sunflowers as they treat their other crops, as they treat their cotton, it'll make them money. Good farming practices are key."
SunGold's work continues through harvest, working with local delivery points so that farmers can work with local elevators to receive sunflowers. "We work with local elevators to work with their local customer base," Williams said. "They dedicate space to us and we pay for that opportunity. But it makes for a convenient service for the farmer."
All sunflower seeds go to the Colby facility for sizing and grading, and then get shipped back to the SunGold locations for further processing and roasting, Williams said.
With the addition of the new confection roasting location in Lubbock, SunGold Foods has the potential to double demand for sunflower acres in the southern growing region, Williams added.
Of course, the innovation doesn't stop at the field. SunGold and Red River have revolutionized the roasting process to improve their product and rebuild market share both here and abroad.
A few years ago, SunGold saw that the U.S. sunflower industry was starting to lose market share in Europe to competitive products from China and Argentina. Williams said the company knew they had to find innovative ways of roasting and packaging their product to compete.
Traditional sunflower roasting uses the same equipment and principles as coffee been batch roasting. "Basically, it looks like a big cement mixer," said Williams. But this means that every 200 pounds of roasted sunflower seeds is a different product. Consistency is difficult to maintain.
Fortunately, the president of the company, Bob Majkrzak, is an engineer, a tinkerer, explained Patrick Pfaff, general manager of the SunGold Foods plant in Horace, N.D. Using that facility as a testing ground, SunGold started buying pieces of off-the-shelf equipment and re-engineering and adapting them into a new roasting design for confection sunflowers.
"We adapted all of that equipment to be more effective in our roasting, to make a higher quality product and to have easier manufacturing and stabilize our production," Pfaff said. For several months this new roasting system was tested in real-world manufacturing conditions at the Horace plant. Finally, last fall, the company was ready to replicate the process in a brand new confection sunflower roasting facility in Lubbock.
The new $11.5 million facility opened in late 2012, with 40 new jobs. "We look to add 60 more in the next five to six years," Williams said. With salaries included, the company estimates an annual economic impact of $17.5 million to the Lubbock community.
"This new system is a self-designed in-line roasting system," Pfaff explained. Without going into too much proprietary information, he said the company's design team was able to take the roasting process and turn it into a straight conveyor system that can deliver a consistent product for moisture and salt levels and energy savings over the whole process.
"We leveled out the peaks and valleys of quality control significantly," he said. "We can take our minimum and maximum targets for quality and tighten them up and get a very good product."
A product that the SunGold team works to ensure looks and tastes the same when a consumer reaches for that bag of sunflower seeds--from the fields of Texas to a convenience store near you.
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at email@example.com or 620-227-1807.