Sunflower seeds are used by more than just ballplayers in America's dugouts. They are a global commodity disrupted by the war in Ukraine, where the flower is so significant it's a national symbol.
On Monday at Cargill's West Fargo plant, sunflower oil, pressed from the seeds, was selling for $40 per hundredweight. A year ago January, bids of $20 drew headlines. It's the same story for confectionary sunflowers.
The reason? Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Those two nations alone produce about 60% of the the world's sunflower oil. Together with neighboring former Soviet states, such as Bulgaria and Romania, the Black Sea region produces more than 30 million tons of sunflowers — far and away the world's lion-share.
The hulled nut meat of sunflower seeds are often sprinkled on salads or tossed into trail mixes, while less-than-perfect seeds fill birdseed canisters. But it's in the big business of sunflower cooking oil — splashing around frying pans from home kitchens to fish n' chip shops across the world — where the price effects are most pronounced.
And just like other commodities, such as corn and soybeans, bids for sunflowers have shot higher since Putin's army crossed into Ukraine.
"They're all in demand right now," said John Swanson, who grows sunflowers annually on his Polk County land near Maple Lake.
Swanson, who serves as chair of the Minnesota Sunflower Council, says farmers often gravitate toward corn or soybeans for the higher price at market.
"Now," he said, "sunflowers are becoming pretty competitive."
Filling that gap has fallen to other producers, including many in the U.S. sunflower belt. Swanson says it's unlikely other farmers will experiment with planting sunflowers in a field already set aside for another crop, like wheat. But an existing sunflower grower, with the right equipment, might plant more of the crop over the next month.
"Somebody who did 500 acres might think about doing 800 this year," said Swanson.
There's another reason sunflowers may be appealing to farmers in 2022: a shrinking growing season. As wet conditions press into mid-May, some may look favorably on a crop that can withstand colder temperatures in the fall.
"The earliest people would start putting sunflowers in the ground would be the middle of May or so," said Dave Franzen, an extension soil specialist with North Dakota State University. He also notes sunflowers, relative to corn or soybeans, need less fertilizer, which has driven up input costs for farmers.
And then there's that price again.
"I never thought sunflowers would get above thirty cents a pound," Franzen said.
Helianthus annuus, which can reach into drier soils for water with deep root systems, have long been a staple of the Dakotas and high plains. But Minnesota has held onto the third spot in sunflower-producing states.
Thirty miles south of the Canadian border in Kittson County, Tom Dowdle's land and culture are different from fellow Minnesotans in more southern regions of the state. He follows the Winnipeg Jets hockey team and was pleased to see temperatures above freezing this week.
He also usually plants between 900 and 1,500 acres of sunflowers on his farm outside Kennedy and sells Pioneer Hybrid sunflower seed to other farmers.
"I don't see anybody switching in my geography," said Dowdle. "But I have customers who are going to be planting a few more acres this year."
Dowdle often sells oils to Cargill's crushing plant in West Fargo or to a birdseed food processor, D&D Commodities, in neighboring Stephen.
"We mostly buy in-state as much as we can," said D&D's purchasing manager Jerry Grochowski, who has worked at the company for 40 years. The company buys off a secondary market for seeds discolored by roasters called a "dark count."
"The birds don't notice the difference," Grochowski said.
In Pierz, Tom Smude operates his own seed-to-store business, growing and crushing sunflower seeds into oils that are bottled and sold at retailers like Cub Foods or used by restaurants like Isles Bun & Coffee in Minneapolis.
Smude needs nearly 9,000 acres of sunflowers to fill his dark yellow bottles of cooking oils and has relied on a contractor in Rogers to supply what he can't grow.
"He's been finding seed for us," said Smude on Monday. "But now it's getting tough because everybody's trying to hang onto it, trying to make a killing."
Smude also keeps glancing at the news, worrying that Putin's campaign in Ukraine might have long-term ramifications on increasingly pricey commodity markets, including sunflowers.
"You just don't see more acres," said Smude. "It's kind of scary."