High Cost of Bird Feeding

Sunflower seeds get costly
Use of oil in chips helps boost price
By My-Ly Nguyen

Frito-Lay's switch to sunflower oil to make its leading potato chip brands, Lay's and Ruffles, is helping drive up prices on the black oil sunflower seeds used most to feed birds, say some Binghamton-area retailers.

Still, avid birders are saying higher prices won't stop them from buying the seeds to fill their feeders.

Most commercial birdseed packages include at least some black oil sunflower seeds because, according to the National Bird-Feeding Society, they're the "hands-down favorite" of most seed-eating birds. The seeds are easily cracked open, even by birds with smaller beaks, and provide needed energy for the birds, the society said.

Companies such as Frito-Lay also have noted sunflower's value for its own products.

In September, Frito-Lay celebrated at its Kirkwood plant the change from using cottonseed oil to NuSun sunflower oil to make its Lay's and Ruffles chips, a move that reduced saturated fat in those brands by more than 50 percent.

"Frito-Lay started using sunflower oil in their chips. They're a huge buyer," Smith said. "It means that instead of all that excess to sell off as bird food, you've got Frito-Lay buying it up."

Frito-Lay spokeswoman Aurora Gonzalez said she's not in a position to discuss how the company's use of sunflower oil affects the market.

"It's a bigger commodity than just us," she said, before deferring inquiries to sunflower market expert Larry Kleingartner.

Kleingartner, executive director of the National Sunflower Association, said it's not just one company affecting prices for the commodity.

"Frito is just one of those market pulls," he said. "We had a short crop this year ... plus all the commodity prices have gone up quite dramatically because of the fuel issue -- corn, for instance, for ethanol. There's also pressure on vegetable oil because of the biodiesel side of the energy market. There's also the trans fat issue."

Sunflower seed supplies are expected to be "tight" through the marketing season, the National Sunflower Association said.

"Chances are some of the bird feeders may say, 'Hey, I don't want to do this anymore' or may want to do a little less," Kleingartner said. "It's very difficult to say what peak prices will be. We certainly think prices have upward potential."

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My threshold for feeding birds is pretty high, but I wonder how this will affect wild bird retail stores? Some "big box" stores have been carrying better quality seed and have affected specialty bird stores sales. But will higher sunflower prices turn more people utterly devoted to their birds to "big box" stores?