Sunflower Cultivation

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The sunflower (Helianthus annuus) was first domesticated in the southeastern United States in prehistoric times, and brought to Europe by Spaniards in the early 16th century. Europeans valued sunflowers as an ornamental flower and for food. Because sunflower oil was one of the few oils permitted by the Orthodox Church during Lenten fasting, its cultivation thrived in Russia. Also sunflower oil was an inexpensive substitute for baking and cooking but Mennonites generally preferred to cook with butter and lard. By the 1880s large areas in Ukraine and Kuban were growing sunflowers. Here Mennonites began sunflower cultivation and they established sunflower oil press businesses in many communities. In time peasants and then later Russian agricultural researchers began selecting seeds and breeding sunflowers for more desirable characteristics.

Mennonites from southern Ukraine brought their own variety of sunflower seeds with them when they immigrated to Manitoba in 1874 and to Rosthern, Saskatchewan in the 1890s. Mennonites grew sunflowers as decorative flowers and for forage, and used the seeds as a snack food and cooking. In the fall 1936 the Saskatoon Research Station of the Canadian Department of Agriculture gathered some 400 single sunflower heads from three Mennonite farm gardens in the Rosthern area. The following year they used those seeds to begin a nursery inbreeding program. This seed was recognized by the Canadian Department of Agriculture as the Mennonite variety of sunflower. The Mennonite variety of sunflower lacked uniformity in some of its characteristics, but generally was a relatively short growing variety averaging 1.0-1.3 meters in height. It matured in the late part of September, about 120 days after planting. The seed was large but light weight, one liter weighed between 290-375 grams, 50% of the weight was kernel, and the oil content of the kernel was between 24-28%. In good growing condition yields were about 1,010 kilograms per hectare.

In Canada during World War II there was an increased demand for vegetable oil for lubrication in marine engines, and for edible oils. This resulted in a commercial sunflower production industry in south central Manitoba, since experimental planting revealed that its soil conditions and longer growing season made it the better prairie growing location. The Canadian Department of Agriculture recognized that Manitoba Mennonite immigrants from Russia had considerable knowledge of, and experience in, cultivating sunflowers. The equipment they used in southern Manitoba for growing row crops like sugar beets were easily adapted to sunflowers. With little inducement from the Canadian Department of Agriculture, Mennonites quickly developed the economically important Canadian sunflower seed industry.

In 1941 the Department of Agriculture acquired 30,000 pounds (13,600 kg) of Giant Russian sunflower seed in order to investigate improved processing, decorticating and crushing sunflower seeds, and to develop techniques in oil extraction. Experiments at the University of Saskatchewan in hybridization utilized the sunflower seed of the Sunrise variety and the S-37-388RR strain of the Mennonite variety to produce the much improved hybrid variety Advance. Plant geneticist John M. Unrau was one of the principal researchers to develop this variety. In 1944, 350,000 pounds (160 tonnes) of this seed was planted, resulting in a crop yield of 2,570 tonnes and by 1948 about 10 thousand tonnes of sunflowers were being harvested. The first sunflower seed processing plant in North America was constructed in the Mennonite town of Altona, Manitoba. Farmers were paid six cents per pound (13.2 cents per kg) for sunflowers until 1949 when it was added to the Canadian Wheat Board. In 1946 the growers and processors in Altona formed Co-operative Vegetable Oils, Ltd., and constructed a sunflower oil extracting plant and later a refinery. Sunflower growing continued in the early 21st century as an economically important crop in south central Manitoba.


Auld, F. Hedley. Canadian Agriculture and World War II: a History of the Wartime Activities of the Canada Department of Agriculture and its Wartime Boards and Agencies. Ottawa, ON: Dept. of Agriculture, 1953: 230 pp.

Putt, Eric D. "History and Present World Status." In Sunflower Science and Technology, ed. by Jack F. Carter. Madison, Wisconsin: American Society of Agronomy, 1978: 1-29.

Unrau, John. "Inbreeding and Hybridization in Relation to Sunflower Improvement." M.Sc. dissertation, University of Saskatchewan, 1945. 58 pp.

White, W. J. and E. D. Pratt. Sunflower Production for Grain. War-time production series; Special pamphlet no. 69. Ottawa, ON: E. Cloutier, 1943: 8 pp.

Author(s) Victor G Wiebe
Date Published February 2013

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Wiebe, Victor G. "Sunflower Cultivation." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. February 2013. Web. 22 Jun 2021.

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Wiebe, Victor G. (February 2013). Sunflower Cultivation. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 June 2021, from

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