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Sunflower Key Part of Sustainability Project

Tuesday, November 1, 2011
filed under: Utilization/Trade

The “food vs. fuel” debate has become increasingly important in today’s marketplace. A unique project at a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania is taking it in a notably different direction: to “food and fuel.”

Sustainability is not only an obligation toward the environment, it’s an investment in the future. At Messiah College in Grantham, Penn., the concept is being translated into the “Sunflower Power Project.” In this trial year, five acres near campus (above photo) were planted to sunflower and recently harvested. The seeds will be pressed and the oil used in the campus dining services. The used oil will then be converted into biodiesel for use on campus.

This pilot project is a joint venture with the Office of Sustainability, Biodiesel Projects and the on-campus dining facility. Mike Zummo, Messiah College’s Biodiesel Project manager, says the goal is to create a full-cycle energy plan that begins with sunflower and ends with biodiesel.

“It’s about creating a closed loop. We produce the product, process it, use it for food, and then bring it back around and turn it into biodiesel that we use on campus as a source of fuel for the press (for next year’s crop) and other areas on campus,” Zummo says. “We’re really getting double the value with our oil in food and fuel.”

With the help of a local farmer, Zummo and Craig Dalen, the college’s sustainability coordinator, arranged for the five-acre plot to be planted to sunflower. Lynn Wingert has been renting and farming the college’s land for almost 40 years, so he knew the territory. But this was his first-ever venture into sunflower. He says he’s always been open to trying new things over the years, but admits he went into this optimistically, but with “more than a little trepidation.”

As any farmer can relate, the sunflower crop has unique challenges that need to be addressed. Wingert, an independent sales representative with Pioneer, tapped various resources, with most of the information coming from the National Sunflower Association website. He consulted with his company’s supply people to come up with a short list of hybrids that would work for the area, and they decided on an ExpressSun® variety.

Wingert says his main concern at first was weed control. The field had been no-till corn for 15 years. Despite clean fields going in, Wingert wasn’t sure what special considerations would come with the sunflower. He applied some fertilizer early in the season with the pre-emergence herbicide package of Dual II Magnum, Prowl H2O and Gramoxone, plus another boost of starter fertilizer at planting. He used his corn planter to plant the sunflower in 30” rows with a target population of 20,000.

Aside from a sharp learning curve when it came to planting sunflower, Wingert says that the unusual 2011 weather pattern in the area was probably the most limiting factor. An extremely wet spring caused planting to be pushed back to mid-May. A few days after planting, a heavy rain took a toll on the stand. This was followed by 100-degree summer heat. In the early fall, just when the plants looked mature, excessive rain to the tune of 18 inches over a 20-day period hit the area, delaying harvest significantly.

Despite the challenges, the field was harvested on October 7, using a standard grain head, which all involved recognize was certainly not the ideal. “It was a bit frustrating,” says Wingert about the harvesting process. “But we all knew that for five acres, we couldn’t invest in specialized equipment. From the information we gathered, everyone said it could be done with a grain head, but just to expect more loss.”

Wingert says the project is likely to expand next year, and he’s happy to continue his involvement in new and innovative approaches. He’s heard rumblings “though the grapevine” of some farmers in the area considering sunflower. “I see the double-crop option as a possibility in this area,” he says.

This is likely due to the high visibility of the project, both from a campus and a community standpoint. The field is located right at the campus entrance near the college president’s house (photo). “I joked with the guys (Zummo and Dalen) that maybe we should hide the field over the hills somewhere since this was our first try,” Wingert says, concerned that the trials and struggles would be on display. But much to everyone’s surprise, the field turned into a sort of billboard advertisement for the project.

“At the very sight of sunflower, we generated awareness across the community with the crop,” adds Dalen. “We are not an ag school, but you ask anyone on campus about the sunflower project and they will know about it.”

Total yield of the five-acre field was around 7,500 lbs. Now that the seeds are safely in the gravity wagon, work for Zummo begins to unfold. This year’s crop will go through cold-press equipment on campus and then be used in the dining hall. It is estimated that one acre of sunflower will garner about 100 gallons of cooking oil. “It’s within our reach,” he says, “to someday reach 30 acres with this project to take care off of all on-campus dining hall needs.” The used oil will then return to Zummo and his biodiesel team and be converted into fuel to power things on campus — including the presses for next year’s crop — coming full circle.

With help from a U.S. Dept. of Energy research grant, he has been converting cooking oil into biodiesel on a small scale for more than 10 years. For over a year, they have been collecting the dining services waste oil (about 3,000 gallons of vegetable oil) and putting that through a settling process. After sediment and water are removed, the oil is sent through a centrifuge to spin out more of the heavy sediment to get cleaner oil. The oil is then further processed to generate the biodiesel.

Zummo and Dalen are also looking into utilizing another by-product of the crush — the sunflower “cake” — for local farmers to feed to their livestock.

Future of the Project

In recent years, sustainability has grown from a mere suggestion to a world-wide revolution. It is the capacity to endure or survive. This capacity, directly or indirectly, depends upon our natural environment. More recently, sustainability has emerged as a result of significant concerns about the environmental and economic consequences of rapid population growth, economic growth and consumption of our natural resources.

“This project was collaboration more than anything that involved the campus, the community and the farming sector,” Dalen explains. “We generated attention for the sustainability project; but we also used this as an opportunity to learn, foster stewardship and build community.”

For long-term goals, both Dalen and Zummo say they look to further educate the students to put the project in their hands to take out into the world. Part of the reason Zummo pushed for on-campus oil presses was born from a visit to a small country in West Africa. His vision is to prove the concept of using oil for cooking and fuel, and then take that knowledge to other underdeveloped countries.

Dalen agrees, saying his hope is that the project’s reach goes far beyond sustaining the campus needs for healthy cooking oil and fuel oil. One of Dalen’s major goals was to involve the students in a hands-on approach. That included a small group of students who hand-harvested a few rows in order to foster ownership in the project. This group was made up of students who are sustainability studies majors and some from Dalen’s Environmental Issues course, which fulfills a requirement for general education. Putting a call out through student organizations enlisted other volunteers and a number of students who came out to help because they were interested in the project.

“This is about student education, community building and inspiring others with these types of projects,” Dalen says. “This is a developmental model.”

— Sonia Mullally
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