Sunflower Success

Commentary, Agriculture, Robert Sopuck

Everybody loves sunflower seeds. A great human food in the form of oil and snacks, they are also placed by folks like me on bird feeders, to help our feathered friends through the winter. Rich in oil and nutrients, sunflowers have become an important cash crop for Manitoba farmers.

About six years ago, a group of farmers in the Deloraine area grew tired of hauling their sunflower harvest to distant markets. They decided to form their own sunflower processing and marketing company, and Nestibo Agra was born. Locally owned, the company sells sunflower seed to area farmers and then buys back the harvested crop.

The company sizes and grades the seed and then exports the sorted product. When asked to describe the market, General Manager Randy Fisher replied, “We basically ship all over the world.” He noted that Nestibo Agra does sell some seed domestically, but over 80% is exported, primarily to Germany, Denmark and the western areas of the Middle East.

Fisher said that direct human consumption is the seed’s primary use, but a small portion of the harvest is sold as bird feed. The big markets for this exist on the east and west coasts of the United States and, according to Fisher, do not seem to care what they pay to feed birds. We avid bird feeders can attest to that.

The international impact of Nestibo Agra directly benefits the local area. It takes about 20,000 acres of land to supply the company and over 100 farmers market sunflower seed through it. The strong and steady market for sunflowers has given area farmers another cropping option for their planting rotations.

Fisher noted that Nestibo Agra must compete in a global market but is doing so quite successfully. States like North and South Dakota grow sunflowers, but the little Deloraine company is able to hold its own even in the face of subsidies of U.S. sunflower production. This feat is a tribute to their marketing skills and their ability to hold costs down, not to mention their strong attention to product quality. An underlying factor often ignored is the fact of market access, facilitated by free and open trade rules negotiated over time.

Fisher said Nestibo’s products meet virtually no trade barriers. The biggest hurdles to the company had to overcome were learning the ins and outs of international marketing and problems with language translation.

Nestibo Agra functions independently, sets its own standards and sells in an open and competitive market. Government¯apart from ensuring free and open market access, an extremely important function¯only needs to stay out of the way. The success of alternative crops like canola, oats and sunflowers, among others, depends not on the bureaucratic marketing process that hampers wheat and barley, but on the independent actions of rural entrepreneurs responding to market signals.

Nestibo Agra represents such a success story for the Deloraine region. “ If this facility wasn’t here, there would be 15 fewer jobs in this community,” said Fisher. “The future of the company looks good and we are hoping to expand,” he added. Those 15 jobs represent 15 families that can now remain in Deloraine to support schools, local businesses and important social organizations.

Rural Manitoba is reporting more and more success stories like Nestibo Agra. Throw in higher prices for our farmers, and new, emerging industrial opportunities and maybe, just maybe, things are starting to move in our rural communities.

The lesson from Nestibo Agra is, “Don’t let it happen; Make it happen.”