Crops such as sunflowers, cowpeas and canola can increase profits in a rotation with conventional commodity crops such as soybeans and wheat, a speaker at the University of Missouri said.

“As I visit other parts of the country, I've seen a lot of soybean farmers add alternative crops to their rotations,” said agronomist Rob Myers, director of the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute. “With about five, six years now of low commodity prices, we've had a lot of Missouri farmers calling. Price-wise and profit-wise, some of these specialty crops are competitive, at the least, with commodity crops.”

Speaking May 19 at a seminar sponsored by the MU Community Food Systems and Sustainable Agriculture Program, Myers emphasized the long- and short-term profitability of crop diversification.

A diversified rotation reduces pest pressure, he said. “You can get a higher yield on corn and soybeans if you put alternative crops into your rotation.” Different planting and harvesting times also add flexibility to scheduling.

“The market that's growing the most worldwide is the vegetable oil market,” he said. Healthier oils are in demand, and vegetable oils are increasingly used as petroleum substitutes.

Sunflowers, Myers said, work well as an alternative to wheat in a double-crop system with soybeans. “We have declining wheat acreage in this state — about half of what we had a decade ago,” he said. “Sunflowers have a shorter growing season than wheat, they're more cold-tolerant and they can be planted as early as April or as late as July.”

Also, sunflower seed markets are available in Missouri, mostly for birdseed. “We have a built-in demand for it in Missouri,” Myers said. “About 95 percent of what we use comes from out of state.” With a price of 12 to 13 cents per pound, a “good yield” of 2,000 pounds per acre grosses about $250 per acre.

Canola acreage is increasing in Missouri, “but we're still importing it,” Myers said. He thinks the future might be in the international market. “Winter canola, which is the kind we grow here in Missouri, is free of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). In some places, that matters a lot.” Canola also is ready for harvest about a week earlier than wheat, he said. “That can be a big deal to someone who's trying to double-crop.”

Flax used to be widely grown in Missouri for use in lamps and for lubrication. Its comeback today is fueled by a demand from the health-food market, Myers said. Its oil is extremely high in Omega-3 fatty acids, which are believed to lower cholesterol.

Legume crops, which require no nitrogen fertilizer, are a good possibility in the Bootheel. “On sandy soils, cowpeas will out-compete soybeans both in the field and in terms of profitability when double-cropped after wheat,” Myers said.

Sesame, amaranth, pearl millet, and buckwheat also grow well in Missouri, although the lack of processing facilities continues to be a problem, he said. “No question, the number one problem is delivery points. If it's something you have to ship up to Minnesota, that's too big an obstacle for most people.”

Forrest Rose is an Extension and ag information specialist with the University of Missouri.