College Grows Sunflowers for Food and Fuel

10/15/2011 10:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

GRANTHAM, Pa. — Here in the Keystone State, you would be hard pressed to find sunflowers dotting the landscape.

While visually appealing, there aren’t many farmers able to find a suitable use for them.

Researchers at Messiah College are hoping to change that, though.

This summer, five acres of sunflowers were grown as part of a project to study the feasibility of using sunflower oil as a food and biofuel source.

Mike Zummo, biodiesel project manager, said the goal is to use sunflower oil in the school’s dining facilities, collect the waste and convert it into a biodiesel.

The school has been working on biofuels research for the past 10 years, but Zummo said a $492,000 grant awarded to the school by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2008 enabled researchers to apply what was learned in class and to get an actual project off the ground.

“It’s a decision that we came to last fall,” Zummo said. “We knew what we were capable of with biodiesel production. We knew what our students were interested in and wanted to take a chance with this sunflower trial to see if it were something that could take off.”

The money enabled the school to purchase materials along with a small seed press that will be used to press the oil from the sunflower seed.

The school worked with area farmer Lynn Wingert on obtaining seed and planting the crop.

Wingert, who rents ground around the Mechanicsburg area and grows mostly cash grain, is also a Pioneer seed salesman. He was able to get sunflower seeds for the project and helped plant the seeds on five acres of ground that he had been farming, but is owned by Messiah College.

The crop was harvested last week with a New Holland corn combine.

“We’d like to potentially show scalability, to show what we’ve done on five acres and be able to extrapolate that on 10 or 15 acres,” Zummo said. “Really, we want to quantify how much oil we can get on five acres.”

He estimates one acre of sunflowers can produce up to 100 gallons of oil.

Zummo said the experience of growing the crop gave him and others involved in the project a new appreciation for the different challenges farmers go through producing a crop.

“We’ve experienced the effects of extreme weather, through the heat we had in the summer and the rain we had here in the early part of fall,” he said. “We’ve learned a lot about going with what the weather gives us.”

The project is the latest in a series of initiatives the college has ventured into, all with the goal of promoting sustainability on campus.

Zummo sees agriculture and growing food sustainably as a big part of the overall project. A few years ago, students at the college started a small CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) growing vegetables for about 15 members on half an acre.

While the initial goal is to replace a good portion of the 3,000 gallons of vegetable oil the school uses to make food each year, Zummo said he also sees potential sources of animal feed and possibly soil amendments from press cake, which is a byproduct of the sunflower seed pressing process.

“There is a component of all sustainability that I think is dependent on agriculture,” he said. “We’re using the land that we have to be more sustainable through an agricultural endeavor.”

While the school has been successful growing a crop, Wingert thinks it will be a while before people see farmers growing sunflowers on a larger scale, particularly in Pennsylvania.

For one thing, Wingert said farmers need a ready market to sell the seeds once growing season is over.

According to research he’s done on sunflowers, the crop also needs to be rotated out of fields frequently to prevent disease.

Then there are the practicalities of getting the crop off the ground with a combine.

“What you need to see to get the sunflower heads up in without threshing them off before they get into the machine is a little more specialized add-on components,” Wingert said. “They are making new heads specific for that, but it is not feasible for 10 to 15 acres of sunflowers. You would have to grow a lot more to justify the cost.”

For Zummo, creating a system that can be replicated on a small scale can go a long way toward showing people it can be done where they live too.

Two years ago, he traveled to Burkina Faso in Africa as part of his research into biofuels.

One thing he found was that there was not a really good source of oil to begin with.

His hope is to show that by doing it on a small college campus, others will follow.

“If we can transfer to a community around the world, you can create a market for crops and you can create a business opportunity pressing,” he said. “We’re excited about it. It’s something different.”

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