A story with heart: Japan learning about sunflower production in ND

2012-03-08T07:57:00Z A story with heart: Japan learning about sunflower production in NDBy SUE ROESLER, Farm & Ranch Guide Farm and Ranch Guide
March 08, 2012 7:57 am  • 

MANDAN, N.D. – The National Sunflower Association’s magazine, Seeds 2000 Inc., and a young Japanese farm equipment dealer played a major role in the future of sunflower production in Japan.

“Sunflowers are a new crop for us,” said Shunsaku Daniel Yamada (Daniel), general sales manager for Nakazawa Agrimachine Corp., which is the John Deere dealership in the north island in Japan.

A group of Japanese farmers, agriculture professors, businessmen and agriculture institution leaders toured NDSU, the National Sunflower Association, Farm & Ranch Guide, and two farms in south central North Dakota where sunflowers are a major crop.

They were taken on the tour by Larry White, international agribusiness manager at the North Dakota Trade Office. It just so happens White was a former sunflower grower in southwestern North Dakota for many years, so he was the perfect person to help the group learn about growing sunflowers.

The sunflower story Daniel told of how this group came to tour this region was one that had a lot of heart behind it.

It starts on the major agricultural island in Japan, the north island. The other islands have very small agriculture regions because they are so populated. But while north island farms are small compared to North Dakota farms, they are where the real agricultural farming in Japan takes place.

Traditionally, Daniel says, the governmental leaders in Japan have thought of farmers as – “not so smart.”

But the three farmers on the tour showed just how much alike farmers on the north island in Japan and North Dakota farmers are – and how wrong traditional thinking can be. They are both concerned with best farm management techniques, using new technologies such as growing sunflowers to improve their farms and continually improving soil health and fertility to have the best and most profitable crops each year.

In other words, these farmers on the north island of Japan are progressive farmers – just like North Dakota farmers.

White told the group that North Dakota is the number one sunflower producing state in the U.S., with 750,000 acres of sunflowers. He said growing sunflowers would be a good choice for the Japanese farmers because they would be a rotation benefit to break up the disease cycle. They would use different chemicals than broadleaves to control weeds and use up a lot of water, as well as be a healthy product for health-conscious Japan.

Tsunao Takedo is the “pioneer sunflower grower” in Japan, Daniel said. Takedo has been growing them for 15 years without ever knowing the variety, how to grow them or what management techniques to utilize.

“He had read that sunflowers were a good rotation crop and they would improve his soil for other crops,” Daniel said. Takedo also grows wheat, potatoes, sugarbeets, and sweet corn.

In Japan, seed is imported from other countries and it gets relabeled and repriced when it comes into the country by what Daniel refers to as “middle men who are thinking only of themselves and making a profit.” The new labels are “very simple” and don’t mention what company they came from or even what variety they are – or how to grow the crop.

In Takedo’s case, all he knew was that he was planting some sort of sunflowers.

Haruo Nao, from the local agriculture institution, said there wasn’t any data on sunflowers to give Takedo at the time.

Daniel said the Japanese government does pay subsidies for certain crops such as wheat and buckwheat, and it also markets the crop for the farmer. But recently, the government has been trying to initiate projects to involve the farmer more in marketing his own crops.

In the sunflower case, three years ago a  city project on the north island contracted with 30 farmers to grow about 50 acres of sunflowers. Some of the sunflowers were grown in a park and it encouraged tourists to come and look at them because they were “very beautiful,” Daniel said.

The project paid the entire cost for businessman Eiji Kuroda to build a small oilseed crushing plant to handle the high oleic sunflowers that were grown by the farmers.

“They wanted high oleic sunflowers because we were using the oil domestically and Japanese people want healthy oil,” Daniel said.

Two young farmers, Takao Kaneko and his wife, Yuka, decided to grow sunflowers. The crushing plant was paying more for the sunflowers than they would otherwise get from the government.

These young farmers, fifth generation on the farm, also grow onions, corn, pumpkins and buckwheat. Buckwheat is a high value crop in Japan because it is made into noodles.

“Kaneko said the real reason he wanted to grow sunflowers was not so much for the money, but to use them as a green fertilizer to improve the soil,” Daniel said.

While the north island has a colder climate than North Dakota (there is a couple feet of snow on the ground currently), it has a similar growing season for sunflowers (May to September). It also receives much more precipitation than even the Red River Valley – some 60 inches a year. They use tile drainage on their farmland.

The farmers wanted to buy the best high-oleic, shortest season, shortest variety of sunflowers possible for this upcoming spring.

They turned to Kimura Hiroji, a special researcher with Nayoro City University and the Research Institute. He just so happened to have a subscription to the National Sunflower Association’s “The Sunflower” magazine (www.sunflowernsa.com).

Hiroji contacted Daniel because although Daniel is a John Deere dealer and not a seed salesman, he speaks, reads and writes perfect English.

“I wanted to help the farmers. My wife’s family has been involved with farm equipment dealerships for 60 years, and I knew it was something I had to do for the farmers here,” Daniel said.

He emailed several seed companies who were advertising in the magazine about purchasing sunflower seeds, and Brad Sheldon, a Seeds 2000 dealer in Washburn, N.D., was the first to email him back.

Sure, Sheldon could sell him the right sunflower seeds – and even provide him all the information he couldn’t get on the “simple” labels in  Japan.

In fact, Sheldon said he had sent Seeds 2000 sunflowers to Japan several years ago. It turns out Takedo had been growing Seeds 2000 sunflowers all along – and never knew it because of the relabeling.

Sheldon also suggested Daniel get in touch with the North Dakota Trade Office. The office then invited the group to come to North Dakota and get information on growing sunflowers firsthand from NDSU and from the National Sunflower Association – as well as pick up the bags of sunflower seeds with the proper labeling.

They also visited sunflower growers firsthand – Tokach Angus Ranch and the Dennis Renner Farms near Mandan.

So Daniel came to North Dakota to pick up the bags of sunflower seeds – and amazingly, the price was a lot cheaper than if he would have bought them in Japan.

Daniel and the rest of the group also got to taste some sunflower seed products from the NSA for the first time. The Japanese culture does not eat seeds, but Daniel felt the sunflower seeds made into little puffed pastries like tiny cookies would not only be acceptable in Japan – they would be a mighty tasty treat indeed.

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