Ellis County, Texas, farmer Steven Beakley figures if nothing else he'll give his neighbors something to look at next summer when his sunflowers start blooming.

But he and his father Bob expect a good deal more than scenery.

“We got a pretty good contract and sunflowers require a little less input than soybeans,” Beakley said.

He's counting on more consistency, too, since soybeans make decent yields only about one out of three years in their area.

“Sunflowers take a little less fertilizer and are a little more drought hardy,” Beakley said. “We'll plant about 1,500 acres.”

In-season management may be a little less expensive than soybeans. “We typically spray beans once or twice for stink bugs,” he said. “And we'll probably spray sunflowers once or twice for head moths. But we will not need to defoliate.”

They'll plant full-season, confectionery sunflowers. Production timing works well with their other crops, wheat, cotton, corn and a few soybeans. “We'll plant just before corn, in late February, and harvest in mid-July. That's just before corn and much earlier than cotton.”

He said equipment already on hand for cotton and grain will work well with soybeans. “We may have to manipulate combines a little to get sunflowers, but that's about all. Planting equipment will be the same.”

They'll plant in a reduced-tillage system. “We've been in a minimal till program for years,” Beakley said.

He said he's excited about a new crop and a new challenge. “We got a good contract, about 30 cents a pound, and the price has not dropped off like other commodities have.”

They'll sell to a buyer in Kansas. “But they'll pick them up from the farm. They'll haul some out of the field and I'll hold some in our grain bins. They said the sunflowers will be out of my bins before we start cutting corn.”

Beakley has spent a good bit of time since harvesting the 2008 crops boning up on sunflower production. “I've been checking on the Internet and reading everything I can find. Several farmers around here have grown sunflowers before and we've been talking to them.”

Beakley figures yield average from 1,200 to 1,700 pounds per acre is a good target. “We tried a few last year but we didn't get enough rain to get a stand.”

Most of the sunflower acreage will follow cotton in 2009. We'll plant some behind corn, but the way our rotation falls, most will follow cotton.”

He said corn seems like the best crop to follow with sunflowers. “Corn has a shallow root system and sunflowers have a long taproot so it can pick up nutrients the corn leaves behind.”

He said the 2008 cotton crop probably left a good bit, too, since conditions were dry until August. “We didn't make a cotton crop until August and September and it still didn't get nitrogen moving until time to defoliate. That was a challenge.”

Beakley said he can pencil in a profit on sunflowers with a decent yield and the contract price, which will depend on grade. “I don't know what the crop will do in the field, but I'm excited for now about the new opportunity.”

And they'll brighten up the landscape early next summer.