Fields of gold


POSTED: Saturday, December 26, 2009

Drivers passing by a stretch of Farrington Highway in Waialua on Oahu's North Shore likely have seen a field of sunflowers reminiscent of a Van Gogh painting.

Pioneer Hi-Bred International of Iowa, a biotech seed company, planted the bright yellow sunflowers on 85 acres for a three-month period this year as part of its operations.

The sunflowers were planted in mid-October and likely will finish blooming this week, according to Pioneer Hi-Bred spokeswoman Cindy Goldstein. It is the fifth year in a row Pioneer has planted the sunflowers, which include up to 28 different hybrid varieties.

The sunflower seeds are evaluated for quality standards in Hawaii, and if approved, the same varieties are grown and harvested in California.

“;Hawaii serves a vital role because we can do a very quick grow-out here as part of quality production and get quick results to report back,”; said Goldstein.

Hawaii has the ideal climate and growing conditions for sunflowers year-round.

The seeds, according to Goldstein, are then sold to Midwestern farmers, who crush them to make sunflower oil, which is in high demand in European markets.

Sunflower oil, said to be high in vitamin E and low in saturated fats, is also sold in many health food stores.

While Pioneer does conduct some sunflower plant breeding at its Kauai research site, the primary purpose of Oahu's field of sunflowers is for quality evaluation.

In plant breeding, Pioneer is trying to develop sunflowers that have strong stalks and are resistant to fungal disease.

While Pioneer's main seed crops are corn and soybeans, the sunflower seeds are a small but growing market. Goldstein did not have an estimated value for the sunflower seed industry in Hawaii.

When done blooming, the sunflowers will be donated to a local farmer to feed his goats, according to Goldstein, while the stalks will be composted back into the fields.

Pioneer Hi-Bred, a subsidiary of DuPont, owns 2,000 acres on the North Shore and has about 300 full-time employees in Hawaii.

The seed industry is one of the fastest-growing sectors of Hawaii agriculture, worth an estimated $176.6 million in the 2008-2009 season, up 26 percent from the prior year, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service's Hawaii field office.