There is a new crop springing up in the Champlain Islands: sunflowers-- acres and acres of sunflowers. Their seeds will be pressed and the oil produced will be turned into biodiesel that can be used in tractors back on the farms. This is called the Farm Fresh Fuel Project, funded through the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund and funds from the U.S. Department of Energy.
"The goal of the project is to work with farmers to grow fuel on their farm from the field right to the fuel tank," said Heather Darby, a UVM agronomist.
Darby has been working on this project for the past few years, putting in place research and a pilot seed oil processing press at a farm in Alburgh. This year, the next step was to recruit 10 Grand Isle County farmers to grow sunflowers on their farms.
"From one acre of sunflowers you can get up to 140 gallons of oil and all of that oil which can be converted into diesel fuel," Darby said.
But that is not all; the remaining meal can be used in a variety of ways.
"Inside is the meal of the seed and the oil comes out of that and what is left is part of the meal, this black part of the seed. And that can be used as a high protein animal feed. It has 34 to 35 percent protein," Darby said.
The meal can also be fed to chickens and hogs, or used as a fertilizer. It can even provide heat; the meal can be burned in a pellet stove. The whole idea is for farmers to experiment with these products and report back on how they worked.
Guy Palardy grows soy beans and corn, and with the price of corn reaching record highs why would he devote space to growing experimental sunflowers?
"Hindsight is always 20/20. We knew going forward this year there would probably be a bumper crop nationwide in corn and soybeans, so it did not bother me to exclude out 10 acres for this and it was something I really wanted to participate in," he said.
Palardy expects to harvest about 2,000 gallons of sunflower oil which will eventually be biodiesel for his tractors, saving him tens of thousands of dollars in regular diesel costs.
"Three-fifty to $4 a gallon, so it's $7,000. That's a good return on 10 acres," Palardy said.
He expects to participate in this project again next year. But there has been another unexpected benefit to all these sunflowers; along with bees, birds and deer, they also attract people.
"Coming up over the hill in South Hero and seeing that field on the right, it just takes your breath away. So yes, it has in addition to all its other very useful aspects, it's also just great to have them to look at and to tell people they can come here and actually see fields of sunflowers," said Ruth Wallman of the Champlain Islands Chamber of Commerce.
Heather Darby says the key to making the sunflower project work is farmers have to know how to grow the crop and produce high yields. This is part of the learning curve on what could become a viable farm crop. She says it costs about $150-$200 an acre to grow sunflowers, depending on the farm.
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