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The Rising Cost of Sunflower Seed

Dear Bird Folks,

I just came back from the local garden center, where I buy my birdseed, and was stunned by the prices. I usually buy an assortment of 50 lb. bags, but all of them have gone way up. I walked out, went home and started calling around. It seems that overnight all the prices everywhere have taken a huge jump. Is there some kind of seed conspiracy? Do you have any suggestions how I can attract birds without going bankrupt?

-Carla, Delmar, NY


It’s not a conspiracy, Carla,

I don’t know what the garden centers are like in Delmar, but most of the garden centers that I have been to don’t seem interested in any kind of conspiracy. They are all about the plants and not much else. Most have acres of well-kept flowers, shrubs, and beautiful greenhouses. They also have a little shed where the lone cashier is kept. It’s usually a middle-aged woman, who wears a winter jacket even in the summer. At her feet is the obligatory sleeping, overweight dog, named “Molly,” that has long gotten weary of strangers asking her, “Who’s a good boy?” Stupid humans.

I don’t know if it’s the effects of the pungent bags of fertilizer and pesticides, but no matter what you try to purchase, neither the jacketed cashier nor Molly has any idea of the prices. One of them always has to call and ask somebody from out back. No I can’t imagine any conspiracy coming out of all that (unless Molly is up to something that we don’t know about. So, the good news is there is no conspiracy. The bad news is that birdseed prices have indeed gone up and may not be coming down for a while.

Even though I have been selling sunflower seed for a quarter of a century, I know surprisingly very little about it, except that the birds love it and 50 lb. bags of it are getting harder to lift. What I didn’t know is how the market price is determined. Your question, Carla, along with the icy glares from my customers, has motivated me to look into the sudden cost increase. I found many of the answers in a story written by Blake Nicholson in the March 31, 2007 edition of the Bismarck Tribune. In case you have misplaced your copy of the Bis-Trib, here is Blake’s take on the seed price crisis.

The U.S. Government has recently become very active in the support of ethanol as an alternative for our gasoline powered vehicles. Most of our ethanol is made from corn. For years corn has been one of the cheapest grains on the market. Only cattlemen, movie theaters and muffin shops have ever cared much about its price. But with the feds telling everyone that ethanol, and not conservation, is the answer to our energy needs, the demand, and thus the price, of corn has skyrocketed. The effects of the expensive corn have caused instantaneous price increases. The cost of milk, from corn fed cows, has already risen sharply. A small box of pop corn at the movie theater has gone from $37.50 to $55.95. And bakeries are now forced to keep their corn muffins locked up behind the counter, which is a good place for them.

Now you are thinking, “Why should corn affect sunflower seed prices? Well, the farmers, despite their lack of fashion sense, are shrewd business people. If they can make more money growing corn, then it’s goodbye to growing sunflowers. According to my buddy Blake, the increased planting of corn means there will be 12 percent fewer acres used to grow sunflower seed in 2007. So, if you do the math, sunflower prices could rise by at least 12 percent. That’s not too bad, I guess. But wait, it gets worse.

Many people, including myself, may have thought that birdseed is the driving force in the sunflower seed industry. Well, we aren’t even close. Most sunflower seed is crushed and turned into oil, oil that is used in food. Recently the snack food giant with the odd name, Frito-Lay, has decided to rid its chips of nasty fats and replace them with healthier sunflower oil. The bird’s favorite food is about to replace the 60 million pounds of saturated fat that Frito-Lay once sold to us annually. In order to do that, they are going to have to squeeze an awful lot of little sunflower seeds. Between the government’s love of ethanol and the food snack industry, the best place to go bird watching may soon be Mobil On the Run.

The second part of your question, Carla, “What can I do to attract birds without going bankrupt?” will have to wait until next week. We are not only out of room, but I haven’t thought of any answers yet. Hopefully tomorrow’s edition of the Bismarck Tribune will have some ideas I can use.