A Low Water Year is a Boon to Safflower Farmers

WOODLAND, CA – Having to make due with less water, California farmers are reassessing their planting of tomatoes, cotton, corn and other water-intensive crops.

A popular replacement this year — safflower. The thistlelike plant is perfectly suited for the state’s Mediterranean climate and does not require much water.

It can send a tap root 8 to 10 feet into the soil, sucking up water and nutrients that are out of reach of other annual crops. The plants are blooming across California’s Central Valley, pushing out bright, yellow and orange flowers packed with dozens of seeds that will be turned into salad and cooking oil.

Two events have conspired to bring less water to farmers this year — a light winter snowpack in the Sierra Nevada and court rulings that have ordered more water into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to help declining fish populations.

Many farmers — turning away from alfalfa, sugar beets and other crops that require a lot of water — are planting safflower instead.

”It’s a good choice in a dry year,” said Steve Kaffka, an agronomist with the University of California at Davis. ”Here, we have the ideal climate for it.”

Acreage planted in safflower has doubled in California to about 100,000 acres this year, said Benny Nearn, general manager of Woodland-based SeedTec.

SeedTec, a division of California Oils Corp., is the main producer of safflower seeds and much of the processed oil. The company planted 25,000 acres this year, up from 10,000 last year.

Safflower is grown almost exclusively in the Central Valley because coastal areas are too moist, making the plants’ roots susceptible to rot.

”What safflower is able to do very well is go into the soil and get the water that’s there,” said SeedTec research director Arthur Weisker.

About a third of the crop is grown in the Sacramento Valley, with the rest cultivated in the more arid San Joaquin Valley, Nearn said. Safflower’s salt tolerance makes it even more attractive in some San Joaquin soils that are difficult for other crops.

Newly planted safflower generally needs a single early watering from spring rains or irrigation. Then its tap roots dig deep to reach water and fertilizer left over from the previous year’s planting season.

California produced 55 percent of the nation’s safflower last year. The California crop was valued at nearly $23 million, more than four times as much as much as Montana, the next largest producer, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Safflower also is grown in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and North and South Dakota, although much of that crop is used as bird seed.

The safflower grown in California produces a vegetable oil that serves as an alternative to corn, sunflower, olive, canola or soybean oil.

”It’s a great crop generally, because it’s a very high quality oil, similar in almost every respect to olive oil,” Kaffka said.

High demand for corn, used for animal feed and ethanol, has driven up prices for the crops that produce most oils. Safflower that was selling for $250 a ton last year is now going for $450 a ton or more, a record.

By Associated Press

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