Harnessing Sunflower Power

Sunflowers could be a new source of feed and fuel for farmers in the northeastern United States. Experiments being conducted in New Hampshire and Vermont will determine whether the crop is a viable alternative for use as cattle feed and the on-farm production of biodiesel.
By Nicholas Zeman | January 24, 2007
Many new England farms simply aren't large enough to compete with the mega-operations in the Midwest. In 2005, the average farm in New Hampshire consisted of 135 acres, while the average farm in Nebraska was spread over 950 acres, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. In order to overcome their size deficit, farmers in the Northeast have started progressive operations by self-sufficiently growing and processing crops for niche markets. Keeping that in mind, researchers are looking at ways to integrate sunflowers into farm operations in New Hampshire and Vermont as a source of feed for organically raised cattle and oil for biodiesel.

Because sunflower oil is priced higher than soybean and canola oils, its use as a feedstock for commercial biodiesel refining may be hindered in the U.S. market, according to the National Sunflower Association (NSA). However, there is an interest in the tall golden flowers because the seeds yield about 600 pounds of oil per acre, considerably more than soybeans, which produce a little over 500 pounds per acre. Small fields of sunflowers ranging from six to 12 acres could be grown and harvested to provide oil that could make individual farming operations energy independent. "The scale of the processing would be at the farm level," says Becky Grube, a University of New Hampshire (UNH) Cooperative Extension horticulturalist. "We don't have the acreage or the pressing abilities to study the feasibility of the sunflower as a commercial feedstock."

Oilseed crops haven't received much attention from farmers in New England since the early 1900s. Of the 1.86 million acres of sunflowers harvested in the United States in 2006, only 91,000 were grown outside the Midwest.

Although they don't have a lot of knowledge regarding sunflower production on the East Coast, Grube and others at the University of New Hampshire were excited by the opportunity to build expertise in the area after a local farmer approached them with an idea. Dorn Cox, who returned to New Hampshire and settled on land near his parents' farm, thought sunflowers might be a good crop to work into his farm's rotation. The National Sunflower Association agrees, noting that sunflowers have the potential to be an excellent crop in a rotation with legumes, as well as a variety of other oilseeds. "I've seen a lot of smaller-scale sunflower plots in New Hampshire that were successful with organic cultivation," Cox says. "There are not a lot of pests to deal with, and sunflowers have vigorous growth [characteristics] that could out-compete weeds."

In Argentina last January, Cox, who earned a degree in international agriculture and rural development from Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., observed a farm where sunflowers were being grown and pressed. The leftover meal was fed to cattle. His observations provided the impetus for an ongoing experiment at UNH that began with the planting of several test plots in late May to allow researchers to evaluate the potential of sunflower cultivation for small-scale, community-based biodiesel brewing.

Two varieties grown in the 2006 season at UNH yielded near the national average, at approximately 1,134 pounds per acre, according to the USDA. These plots were grown on the Woodman and Kingman farms, which are UNH lands set aside for experimental agricultural research.

New England farmland is suited for small-scale, specialty processing, which is why organic feed and oils have attracted the attention of area producers. Cultivation of sunflowers isn't labor-intensive, and once the plants grow tall enough, they're able to shade out the weeds, Grube says. These qualities make the sunflower well-suited for organic cultivation.

Wet Season
A wet spring in New England pushed the sunflower planting back at the UNH farms. Two separate 14-inch rains prevented the cultivation of several acres and caused yields to vary widely from acre to acre. "We had more rain in New Hampshire [the past growing season] than we have had in 100 years," Cox says.

From a single season, however, a lot of lessons can be learned. For one, too much moisture can create a lot of problems during the harvesting process. "With the sunflower, you need to wait because it takes a long time for them to dry in the fields," says Dr. Vernon Grubinger, vegetable and berry specialist for the University of Vermont (UV) Extension, which has also been working with sunflowers as a feedstock for farm-scale biodiesel processing and organic meal. "You don't want to have to harvest and dry them," Grubinger says. "We looked at maybe laying them on screens and letting them air-dry, but the fewer inputs, the better."

Equipment was also an issue that had to be dealt with. Because New England farmers don't have much experience with oilseeds, they don't have access to modern harvest equipment. However, by using mechanical ingenuity, modifying equipment and studying available data, they've been able to experiment with different crops. "Around here, they're happy to go from a 1940 tractor to a 1960," Grubinger says. "We were using a Massey-Harris self-propelled tractor [to harvest the sunflowers], and Dorn (Cox) used a tow-behind, which is even older."

Once the harvest was completed, the sunflowers had to be pressed to extract the oil. In mid-December, Cox received the Chinese-made extruder press he had purchased and began to crush the crop that was harvested at the UNH farms. An extruder press is a cold press that uses no chemicals and leaves a slight bit more oil in the meal, giving it a higher fat content. The machine has the capacity to process two to four tons of raw materials a day and was working quite nicely during its first performance in New Hampshire, Cox says. "I haven't done all the measurements, but it looks like we're about 30 percent on the oil, and that's good," he says.

Reducing Energy Consumption
On-farm energy production provides an opportunity for New England farmers to wean themselves off fossil fuel imports, reduce on-farm expenditures, circulate money locally, complement organic farming practices and create excitement for the next generation of farmers. The sunflower could be a crop that links multiple operations of an organic farm and creates valuable synergies.

Farmers in New England are interested in squeezing all of the potential they can out of a crop that has several applications, and using creativity to develop sustainable practices. "People inclined toward energy efficiency are also inclined to organic production," says Grubinger, who has been instrumental in constructing Vermont's first on-farm facility dedicated to cleaning, pressing and processing oilseeds such as canola, mustard, flax and sunflower for use as renewable energy sources.

Since farmers account for nearly 2 percent of all the energy consumed in the United States, conservation is essential to decreasing fossil fuel imports and reducing greenhouse gases. One farm at a time can have an impact on energy usage. The people in Vermont agree that creative solutions and cooperative efforts in energy reduction are ways they can participate in the biofuels revolution, aside from industrial-scale manufacturing. "The idea is not to set up some big processing operation, but to show farmers they can make their own fuel," says Roger Rainville of Rainville Farms in Alburg, Vt.

Rainville Farms is one of over 100 organic dairy operations in Vermont, famous for rich ice cream and other specialty products. This organic market is growing rapidly-like the biodiesel industry-and organic feedstuffs could be in high demand. "The meal could be worth twice as much as the oil," Grubinger says. These conditions have led UNH to develop its own organic dairy, which acts as a research center for organic production and management, and an education center for organic practices for dairy farmers, farmers considering the transition to organic and students of sustainable agriculture. The project provides the opportunity to grow the sunflowers, process them, and have immediate uses for oil and the meal.

Cox's operation integrates beef cattle and an organic vegetable garden, along with other produce for direct sale into local grocery stores and restaurants. The best situation for the Cox farm would be to sell the high-value organic sunflower oil to local restaurants and then recover the wastes from that same product to use as a feedstock for biodiesel refining. "The original intent was to produce biodiesel from the sunflower oil, but organic extruder press oil is so much higher priced [than biodiesel] right now," Cox says. "We still have to analyze the retail market for these products before we start making decisions on where to focus."

Nicholas Zeman is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or (701) 746-8385.
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