Native Americans planted sunflower fields. Poets and painters portrayed their beauty. Birds love them. And they're not just in Kansas anymore, Toto. That sums up a sunflower crop.

“People asked me where they were and how they could find them and this kind of thing,” said Jaime Ware as she harvested fields of tall black stalks of sunflowers near Billings this fall.

During the summer, picture-taking crowds were drawn by the flowers with countenance -- some smiling, some sad, all broad-faced, plain, honest, and upright, as an old philosopher once said.

“They’re so vibrant and breathtaking, really, which sounds funny for an agricultural crop. It's really neat.”

They’re so stunning that grower Matt Garbee now wishes he'd charged admission.

“Absolutely! I could have made more money in pictures. I didn't think about it at the time,” he said.

The end of Daylight Saving Time means sunflowers are ripe for the picking, and hopefully at a profit.

“The input costs are a third or half of what it takes to plant corn or soybeans. And the sunflowers will take dry weather a lot more than corn or even beans,” said Garbee.

It’s almost a risk free crop, except for two things that sunflower growers dread most: birds and hail.

“Wild birds are going to get their share, maybe as much as 25 or 30 percent, but you know that going in it,” said Garbee. “Hail would ruin a sunflower crop in just a minute or two.”

Demand is always there for biodiesel or cooking oil. But, with Americans spending $4 billion a year on feeding birds, that’s where this black gold will likely end up.

As with all commodities, supply dictates price. A record harvest in the Dakotas recently pushed it down per pound.

“Two months ago, it was worth a quarter (per pound); a year or two ago, it was worth 30 cents, so they’ve taken a big hit, so we’re going to put them in a bin,” he said, and sell those when the new crop is blooming again.


Tim Leimkuhler shot and edited this report and found the fields this summer.