Safflower is harvested near American Falls.

AMERICAN FALLS — Regional farmers would generally agree commodity markets have been for the birds throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, it appears the coronavirus has helped sales of a popular rotation crop raised on dry land throughout East Idaho, safflower, take flight lately.

American Falls-based Mountain States Oilseeds is the nation’s No. 1 supplier of safflower seed used in birdseed mixes. The business’s safflower sales have risen by nearly 40 percent since the pandemic started, said owner Bill Meadows.

“The big news is the bird food market,” Meadows said. “I’m not exactly sure why, but I have my ideas. With the COVID virus, more people are staying home and they’re purchasing more bird food mixes from the stores.”

Barb North, president of the Portneuf Valley Audubon Society, concurs with Meadows about the increasing popularity of home bird feeders amid the pandemic. North believes more people are discovering that the family activity offers a chance to observe birds up close and to witness the personality quirks individual birds possess.

“I think people are watching more birds out there,” North said. “It seems like everybody has a little place where they can set something out for birds.”

Safflower prices have increased by 10 to 12 percent in recent months. The current price paid to growers for safflower seed is about 21 cents per pound.

Meadows contracts his safflower production from about 80 growers, who plant anywhere from 100 acres to 1,200 acres of the bristly orange flower. They supply him from Power, Bannock, Oneida, Franklin and Bonneville counties in Idaho and in Cache and Box Elder counties in Utah.

Their combined production is about 750,000 bushels of safflower seed.

To meet the increasing demand, Meadows is seeking to add new safflower growers throughout his production area.

Meadows said he beat his all-time records for shipping safflower by 20 loads per month from September through early November.

“I feel fortunate amidst the COVID-19 virus. It’s a bright spot, our business is increasing and Idaho agriculture and the growers have been benefiting from it,” Meadows said.

Meadows purchased safflower for oil during the 1970s and switched to the bird food market during the early 1980s. During the fall of 2019, most of the nation’s safflower crops were poor, but Meadows said the growers in his network enjoyed big yields and top quality. Prices were strong.

“Supplies going into the pandemic were low to begin with. ... We were able to supply enough safflower to the bird food market that they didn’t run out of it, but it was very close,” Meadows said.

Meadows’ safflower growers reported record yields following the recent 2020 harvest. Meadows explained they benefited from timely rain during June and a long fall harvest window.

“I’ve been in the safflower business over 40 years and this is the highest average production growers ever had,” Meadows said.

As we watched the crop progress during the 2020 growing season, Meadows admits he worried he’d have to cope with overproduction. He’s relieved that hasn’t been the case.

“Mountain States Oilseeds actually harvested 40 percent more volume than we have ever harvested,” Meadows said. “Most of that is sold already and the season is just beginning.”

Meadows said his growers plant his oilseeds mostly to diversify their crop rotations and grow better subsequent wheat and barley crops.

Cory Kress, who farms on dry land in the Rockland Valley, said he raises safflower regardless of the price because it’s a broadleaf crop, which breaks cycles of diseases and weeds affecting wheat.

Kress consistently plants about 3,000 acres of safflower.

“It turned out to be a pretty good year,” Kress said. “It was a pretty rough start but there was some mid-summer rain and the yield turned out decent.”

Meadows said safflower also has a deep taproot, which helps with water infiltration and retention on dry land farms. Meadows also contracts for mustard and flax seed. His flax market has held steady, but mustard demand dropped about 20 percent through August. Meadows said his mustard business has recovered to about normal since then.