Double Crop Organic Sunflowers in Northern Illinois

Progress report for FNC21-1287

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2021: $6,570.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2023
Grant Recipient: JL Acres LLC
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Coordinator:
Jacob Landis
JL Acres LLC
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Project Information

Description of operation:

Our family has a certified organic dairy and grain farm in Whiteside Co. IL. My parents have been certified since 2008. In the last 5 years my brothers and I came back to the farm and began to take over the management of the family operations and establish our own entity. Combined, we manage about 800 acres of certified organic crop and pasture ground. Prior to this grant our family practiced cover cropping and within the last 4 years began experimenting on our own with crops not traditionally grown in northern Illinois such as field peas and oilseed sunflowers.


Are double crop sunflowers a profitable option in organic systems in northern Illinois?

Organic farms depend on diverse rotations to help manage pest and disease issues. In northern Illinois corn and beans are the primary cash crops. Although small grains or forages are sometimes grown to help break up weed growth cycles, they are often not as profitable and are often grown at financial loss or breakeven. We will try growing oilseed sunflowers after soft red winter wheat to see if they they can be grown profitably as a double crop in the northern Illinois environment within an organic system. Sunflowers are reportedly more drought tolerant and less susceptible to an early frost than soybeans, which is a risky double crop option in northern Illinois. Sunflowers also help support native pollinators, and can help break up compaction with their deep taproots helping to decrease water runoff.  They also provide a fun display of flowers for passers-by to enjoy in late summer. Because there are various costs associated with planting, caring for, harvesting, and marketing a crop, we will explore if sunflowers can be grown profitably compared to just winter wheat alone. 

Project Objectives:
  1. Successfully establish oilseed sunflowers after harvesting winter wheat.
  2. Evaluate the profitability of sunflowers grown as a double crop behind winter wheat, compared to just winter wheat alone.  
  3. Share findings through our Youtube channel, Facebook page, the IDEA Farm Network, OGrain email group, Organic Talk forum, New AgTalk forum, as well as other outlets that present themselves.   


Materials and methods:

The field will consist of approximately 30 contiguous certified organic acres bordered by a road on the south side and 30' buffer strips on 3 other sides. It is mostly flat with a gentle slope. The sunflower rows will run north/south. This project will involve various steps:

  1. Finding a contract buyer for the sunflowers: To help manage risks, a buyer will be sought before the sunflowers are planted. Beyond ensuring an end market, this also ensures the correct variety of sunflowers is planted for the end user. 
  2. Harvesting winter wheat.
  3. Planting and caring for sunflowers: A shorter season of sunflower will be chosen to make sure it is able to reach maturity. The wheat straw will be removed and potential income of the straw calculated for profit research purposes. The field will be lightly tilled to manage small weeds that have been growing under the wheat canopy. The sunflowers will be planted at 24,000 seeds/ac in 30in rows, which is the recommendation of the seed provider. Weeds will be managed with standard organic row crop methods of rotary hoe and cultivator. A light side dress fertilizer application of feather meal will be applied for fertility needs.
  4. Harvest and storage: Sunflowers will be harvested once mature at a slightly higher moisture content than storage moisture to allow for less harvest loss. Sunflowers will be dried in the bin on air before being sold.
  5. Throughout the growing season videos and pictures will be taken and posted on our social media accounts (Youtube, Facebook), and saved for later presentations. 
  6. Expenses will be tracked in part using the financial software PC Mars, as well as Excel Spreadsheets. 
Participation Summary
1 Farmer participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

We are planning to offer an online webinar to share our research findings about double crop sunflowers. The planned date will be sometime in February or early March working around the various conferences and events going on during that time. The webinar will be shared through the OGrain and IDEA email networks, and through some Facebook groups. The webinar will be recorded and posted to our JL Acres Youtube channel.

Learning Outcomes

Lessons Learned:

Preliminary Lessons: 

Each year will have it's own challenges. This season our experiment was met with 2 unforeseen events, but they led to a more robust study of the financial feasibility of double crop sunflowers in northern Illinois in a less than ideal season. The first lesson was that the earlier sunflowers can be planted after wheat the better. However, a harvestable crop is still possible even if planting is significantly delayed. The second lesson was that sunflower can grow in sub-optimal moisture conditions.

Further conclusions will be drawn as we explore the harvest data and review the crop season.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.