Safflower – Sunflowers’ Little Cousin Gets a Chance in Colorado

During consecutive hot, dry days in Colorado a corn crop can require two inches of irrigation per week totaling 1.6 acre-feet of water through the course of the growing season. Not an ideal choice for high desert or dry plains climates.

Enter the hardy, drought-tolerant safflower. A plant originating from the Middle East, it’s well adapted to low-water situations. Trials out of Utah State University indicate that during a year with average precipitation, safflower required only six to nine inches of supplemental water during its entire 35-week average growing season—a full acre-foot less than corn. In fact, if safflower received more than nine inches of additional water it resulted in decreased yields—proving this crop performs best in areas with warm temperatures and sunny, dry conditions.

A member of the sunflower family, obvious from its vibrant yellow hue, it was originally used in making dyes for clothing and food preparation. Evaluations of safflower in the Great Plains states began in 1925, but the seed had an oil content that was too low for profitable oil extraction. The Nebraska Agricultural Experiment Station eventually developed varieties with oil contents above 35%, which made the process of creating safflower oil possible.

As the name implies, safflower oil is made from the extract of safflower seeds. It contains both linoleic acid (omega-6) and oleic acid (omega-9). The level of oleic acid ranges from 80% to 83% and is the one of the highest among all cooking oils. This makes safflower oil stable enough to endure high-temperature cooking, and research suggests that the high oleic-acid content could help to lower bad (LDL) cholesterol while maintaining heart healthy (HDL) cholesterol. Safflower oil naturally contains the antioxidant vitamin E2 (alpha-tocopherol) and is also low in saturated fat.

In addition to safflowers’ cooking and health benefits, the process of raising safflower crops can help create biodiverse farms and improve soil health. With the deepest taproot of any annual plant, safflower could help break up plow pans from excessive tillage and aerate the soil.

Patrick Conrey founded the Oil Barn Colorado in 2020 and in partnership with the Jones Family Farm will plant a test plot of safflower in the San Luis Valley this year. While safflower has been grown in Colorado before, Patrick and his team will be testing a specific high-oleic variety.

They will monitor the crops water usage, root growth, yield per acre and oil seed content. If the stand performs as they expect, they’ll be expanding their operation and looking for more farmers interested in growing the crop in Colorado in 2022.

The Oil Barn team hopes an increased knowledge about the benefits of safflower oil will lead to increased demand, and that we’ll begin to see more canary-colored fields of safflower popping up in place of corn all across the Centennial State.

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