Safflower surge: More acres committed to water-thrifty crop
Butte County farmer Jeff Mardesich, left, and Robby Berg, owner of Valley Commodities in Sutter County, inspect Mardesich's safflower crop, which is about 45 days old.
California's safflower acreage is on the rise, both for the production of oil and for seed.
Steve Kaffka, extension agronomist with the University of California, Davis, said there has been a substantial increase in acres in the San Joaquin Valley, while Robby Berg, owner of Valley Commodities in Yuba City, said acreage is still being planted in the Sacramento Valley. He estimated about 50,000 acres will be planted in the Sacramento Valley and about 50,000 acres in the San Joaquin Valley. A big percentage of that acreage will be for oil, he added.
Benny Nearn, general manager of SeedTec in Woodland, said, "Acreage has gone up—but not to the extent that it could have, because we're pretty limited on the amount of planting seed available."
As a result there will be an increase in seed acreage as well this year, he said. "We usually do about 1,000 acres of planting seed, and we're up 3,500 acres this year."
Safflower seed was a bit short this year, Berg said. "As it turned out everything was fine, but for awhile there it was nip and tuck. Seed was going out as fast as we could make it."
The problem with seed production is, it's difficult to project what's going to happen two or three years down the road, Nearn said.
"For planting seeds, you've got to look that far down the road and say, 'All right. What are we going to do in 2010, 2011, 2013?'," Nearn said. "And so you're projecting what you're going to do as far as producing your certified seed that far in advance.
"I think what we're looking at doing is have a two-year supply and trying to maintain that. We've been pretty tight before because it was on the down side, and we were trying to cut back and not have inventory sitting around."
Jeff Mardesich has been raising safflower for about 15 years. The owner of J. Mardesich Farming grows about 200 acres of safflower for oil in Butte County. He said prices are the highest they've ever been.
"I've sold it anywhere from $225 to $375 (a ton) and this year it's up to $475 (a ton)," Mardesich said.
He sees a number of advantages to raising safflower. "Sometimes I raise it to dry out orchard ground for fumigation. It sucks all the moisture out of the soil," he said, adding that the following year he'll plant an orchard in that field.
Another advantage to raising safflower is that the deep-rooted plant takes less moisture. "It just takes a little bit to get it sprouted, and then it chases moisture," Mardesich said. "I've heard, but I've never dug them up, the roots are as far down as the plant is tall."
The need for less water is another reason for the increased acreage of safflower, Kaffka said.
"It takes much less water than other crops. It will grow on stored rainfall irrigation left over from previous crops," he said, but it will probably need some irrigation in the spring to get it germinated.
Berg said, "Typically we get the safflower in the ground and hope for a little bit of rain, and the plant takes off. Right now a lot of growers are having to irrigate, which adds to the cost."
Safflower is an enticing crop for the San Joaquin Valley because it requires very little water, Nearn said.
"They're not going to have the available water to do much over one or two irrigations down there, and under that criteria you can't plant corn, you can't plant a lot of other crops, cotton or other things because their requirement for water is much higher," Nearn said.
With a dry spring like 2008, the safflower will need an irrigation to start the crop, Kaffka said. "But if you have a full profile and it's a reasonably deep soil, safflower can do quite well without too much supplemental irrigation."
Kaffka has done some research in recent years on various aspects of safflower.
"There's some variety trial work that goes on, but there haven't been very many changes in the business for awhile and in the varieties in any substantial way," he said. "Plant breeding continues to go forward to look for varieties that are higher in oil content, that have the right fatty acid composition and are better yielding."
Safflower is relatively inexpensive to grow, requiring less water and lower inputs than many other crops.
A study was done on safflower where it had no fertilizer applied following a cotton fertility trial that had moderate to high levels of nitrogen application, Kaffka said.
"The safflower did fine without any fertilizer the next year. That's in a good soil, that's quite well drained and where it could root deeply," Kaffka said, adding that if nothing else, this research shows safflower growers could minimize their fertilizer application.
Safflower is also moderately salt tolerant, although it may be sensitive to boron, Kaffka said. "We're not quite sure what the threshold is on boron. It's a little hard to quantify because it's complicated by other factors like the types of salts in the soil."
Safflower doesn't have direct pest problems, but it does harbor lygus, Kaffka continued. "If you were growing cotton in the neighborhood when the safflower dries up, the lygus would move from the safflower to the cotton."
Some places in the San Joaquin Valley spray safflower to keep the lygus out of neighboring cotton crops. "But the lygus rarely damage the safflower," Kaffka said, adding that the safflower itself is a relatively pest-free crop.
Said Mardesich, "I've never, ever had a pest problem."
Safflower is an inexpensive crop to grow. It requires less watering and has lower inputs across the board, which makes it a very appealing crop, Mardesich said.
With all of these advantages, and if prices remain high, Mardesich said he will look at planting additional safflower acreage in the future.
(Kathy Coatney is a reporter in Corning. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.