Alternative crop acreage up, market conditions are a mixed bag

Alternative crop acres are expected to be up amid mixed market conditions, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service expert.

Calvin Trostle, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension agronomist, Lubbock, said COVID-19 has not affected the market for alternative crops like sunflowers, sesame and guar. These crops are typically grown on rotation schedules for fields where cotton, or row crops like corn and sorghum are grown.

Sunflowers are an alternative crop

But contract growers with buyers lined up have made alternative crops a way to add value to a farming practice meant to improve soils for their more traditional row or “money” crops, Trostle said.

“Overall, there have been some opportunities for growers looking to diversify cropping and their rotations with alternative crops,” he said.


Trostle expects around 60,000 acres of sunflowers to be planted this season, up from 40,000 acres last year. He expects an additional 7,000 acres of sunflowers to be planted in the Rio Grande Valley to meet contract demand for confectionary seeds, those purchased to consume as a snack.

Two feet of snow at the wrong time set the 2019 North Dakota crop, which is second in U.S. sunflower production to South Dakota, back, he said. Quality was poor so North Dakota-based companies are contract-growing those additional acres in the Rio Grande Valley to make up for a bad harvest.

“A lot of confectionary acres are back,” he said. “Those acres will help relieve the shortage of quality confectionary sunflower seeds.”

Sunflowers are also processed as birdseed or mixed with various millet and sorghum varieties to create a colorful blend that consumers and birds find appealing, Trostle said.

Sunflowers can be planted later than other traditional crops in the Texas High Plains with harvest usually in October and November because they are cold hardy. Trostle said sunflowers can tolerate temperatures as low as 28 degrees for a few hours.


Guar experienced a tough 2019 and acreage should be similar in 2020, Trostle said. Prices have remained low since they ballooned in 2012.

Trostle expects between 15,000-20,000 acres to be planted. About 20,000 acres were planted last season.

Guar seeds produce a polymer gum used in oilfields, cosmetics and some foods, Trostle said. It experienced a bump in demand as fracking emerged as a cost-effective way to regenerate abandoned oil wells.

But the U.S. market has been depressed due to low-priced imports. Annual guar imports valued at $1 billion in 2011 are now valued at $300 million-$400 million.

AgriLife Extension has been working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop a crop insurance program for guar growers that could make the crop a better alternative rotation crop.

“The Southern Plains have the processing capacity for 60,000-70,000 acres, but prices need to rise before that happens,” Trostle said. “Being able to insure the crop would also add an incentive that would make guar an option for a lot of growers.”

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Sesame acres may increase over the 50,000 acres planted last year, Trostle said. The crop is the No. 4 oilseed worldwide, but traditional varieties, which shatter their seed, are difficult to harvest mechanically and are hand-harvested in most areas still.

Texas producers have a technological advantage over producers around the globe via improved non-shattering plant varieties and mechanical harvesting equipment that separate seeds from the pod with little yield loss.

Sesame is primarily utilized for confectionary purposes like hamburger buns and salad bars. But Trostle said markets are beginning to see more demand for sesame oil.