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How to grow and reap big from sunflowers farming

Mary Wanza a worker at Kabiruini Show Ground in Nyeri inspects sunflowers during the ongoing Agriculture show at Kabiru-ini grounds in Nyeri. [Kibata Kihu, Standard]

Sunflowers grow faster taking three to four months to mature depending on the variety. The sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is an annual plant with a large daisy-like flower face. Its scientific name comes from the Greek words helios “sun” and anthos “flower”.

The flowers come in many colours -yellow, red, orange, maroon and brown but they are commonly bright yellow with brown centres that ripen into heavy heads filled with seeds. You can get end-products like sunflower oil when you process it. 

Michael Mbiti a sunflower farmer from Kitui County, has grown the plant for years and his household lived off sunflower seeds when drought struck. They sell the seeds and extract oil. He shares insights on its production and marketing.

According to Mbiti , the common varieties of sunflowers in Kenya include H-008, H-893, H894, 8-8938, H-8998, H-001, H-898, Kensun 22, Kensun 33, Super 400, Kenya Fedha, Kenya Shaba and Rekord. The seeds of Kenya Fedha, Kenya Shaba and Rekord can be used for two to three seasons. Farmers are advised not to use the seeds of hybrid varieties more than once as yields will be lower.

Ecological conditions

Sunflowers thrive in warm to hot climates with full sunshine during the day. Dry seasons are perfect for growing sunflowers. Soil with a pH between 6.0 and 7.5 is recommended, even though they are relatively resilient and can grow in most types of soil.

Planting

Plant seeds manually or use a maize planter. The distance between rows is two and a half feet and the distance between plant holes is one foot. Seed rate varies from two to four kilograms per acre. Plant three to five seeds per hole at a depth of one to two inches.

“Use the lower seed rate for certified hybrids when water is sufficient. Use a higher seed rate when using your own seeds. Farmers using their own seeds should plant medium to big seeds. Plant after the onset of the rains,” advices Mbiti.

Weeding and thinning

Keep the crop weed-free four to six weeks after planting. One month after planting, after weeding and when the soil is wet, thin to one plant per hole. If labour is a constraint,  use herbicides that are recommended for weed control.

Pests and diseases

Common pests that affect sunflowers include cutworms, semiloopers and African bollworms. To control, use the recommended pesticides.

Birds: Birds consume sunflower seeds and this could cause losses. To manage that, use bird scaring devices.

Diseases to watch out for include sclerotiniawilt which attack the roots, stem and head making the crop shrink and rot. Downey mildew causes loose white parts on the lower surface of leaves and charcoalrot, causes stems to appear black at the bottom and inside part looks torn. To control the diseases, do crop rotation, use certified seeds and recommended chemicals when the plants are young.

Hand harvesting is done when the heads turn deep yellow. Cut the head, spike it upside down on the stalk or thresh and sun-dry. This prevents rotting and bird damage.

“Do not wait until the leaves dry up otherwise the birds will invade and cause damage,” warns Mbiti.

Market

Sunflower seeds help in making soap, cooking oil, soaps, cosmetics, animal feeds and fuel. Mbiti sells seeds to interested farmers and companies at between Sh25 to Sh35 a kilo. 


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