Record sunflower seed prices, lifted by the Ukraine war, and high fertilizer costs have prompted French farmers to plant an unusually large acreage with the oilseed this year, at the expense of corn.

The French farm ministry, in its first forecast for this year’s domestic sunflower sowings, pegged them at 758,000 hectares, up by 60,000 hectares year on year, and well above the five-year average of 644,000 hectares.

They would remain, however, below the 777,000 hectares seeded two years ago, after a poor season for winter crops left an unusually large area for planting with spring crops, including the likes of barley too.

‘Strong market incentive’

The ministry said that 2022 sunflower area “benefited from a strong market incentive situation, with record prices”, which have been sent soaring by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the world’s top sunflower grower, and by far the biggest exporter of sunflower oil.

Between them, Russia and Ukraine are responsible for more than three-quarters of world sunflower oil exports, according to US Department of Agriculture data – although this trade is now being disrupted by the direct effects of the conflict and by the likes of sanctions and shipping disruptions.

Prices at the French port of St Nazaire, at $1,015 per tonne as of Monday, were up 62% so far in 2022, compared with a 40% increase in Bordeaux maize (corn) values, and 12.0% growth in values of malting barley in Creil in northern France, according to Agritel.

‘Requiring less nitrogen’

The ministry also noted that sunflowers are “a crop requiring less nitrogen fertilizer than maize”, at a time of elevated nutrient values, and is “more resistant to drought” too, worries over which have been spreading in France.

Indeed, the ministry noted that “sunflower acreage is increasing in the departments where corn acreage is declining”.

It pegged total French sowings of corn – a fertilizer-hungry crop – at 1.46m hectares, a drop of more than 1.0m hectares year on year, and the lowest in four years.

Plantings of spring barley, a lower-intensity crop in input terms, were seen at 557,000 hectares, representing growth of 26,000 hectares year on year, but below the average of 591,000 hectares.

Rapeseed, winter wheat

The ministry restated an estimate for rapeseed sowings at 1.16m hectares, recovering by 180,000 hectares from last year’s multi-year low.

“After their historical decline in Champagne-Ardenne and Lorraine last year, rapeseed areas should return to their 2020 level.”

Winter wheat area was estimated at 4.78m hectares, up 12,000 hectares from last month’s figure, but still down more than 180,000 hectares year on year to a level slightly below average.