EDTC works to foster hybrid sunflower projectPublished 6:03pm Thursday, May 24, 2012
The Economic Development and Tourism Commission (EDTC) is planning to grow hybrid sunflowers as a demonstration project on 10-30 acres of land in Polk County by July.
“There is so much land in Polk County, and so many young people who already have agricultural backgrounds,” said Craig Hilton, chair of the EDTC. “We want this to be a successful cash crop, and hope to create some jobs.”
At a recent meeting, the EDTC started talking about renewable biotechnology. As a result of the group’s interest on the topic, Hilton and Dennis Hill, another member, began researching renewable biotechnology, focusing mainly on oil seed crops.
During their research, Hilton and Hill discovered what they felt were the many uses and economical advantages of a hybrid sunflower recently developed by Russia. This hybrid version is believed to produce more oil than the original sunflower.
The two quickly put together a document describing the technology and business aspects of planting a hybrid sunflower field to help move the project forward, while Lynn Sprague, the county agricultural department director, identified local growers interested in becoming involved.
The EDTC is now coordinating with both N.C. State University and Clemson University’s sunflower projects, and is working with Advantage West, an economic development group that has relationships with biodiesel production facilities in the Asheville area.
Hilton said the main goals of this project are to calculate how much money a farmer would make by using sunflowers as a cash crop, and to foresee any complications a sunflower farmer in Polk County might face.
According to Hilton, the seeds will cost approximately $300, but he hopes that profits from the crop will far surpass those expenses. The EDTC plans to pay for the seeds and any fertilizer needed, borrow farm equipment and recruit volunteers to help plant and maintain the sunflower fields.
Hilton said sunflowers only take about 90-120 days to grow, a much shorter time span than most plants. This quick growth is convenient because it means less time required to maintain the field, and less opportunity for pests to interfere.
Because pests will be less of a problem than usual, Hilton said the EDTC plans to grow the sunflowers organically, or with little to no pesticides.
According to Hilton, there are many uses for a sunflower crop other than its aesthetics. Hilton said 50 percent of each seed’s weight is pure oil. This oil can be used to make biodiesel, a more environmentally friendly alternative to gasoline, or as cooking oil for human consumption.
Meal, the seed remains after the oil is pressed out, can be used as a protein supplement for dairy and beef cows. The sunflower stalk is highly combustible, and can be turned into fuel pellets to burn in heating ovens instead of logs. The stalk also contains xylos, a natural sweetener that does not cause tooth decay. Pith, the lightest known natural substance on Earth, is also part of the stalk, and can be processed and made into life-saving devices.
The use of sunflower oil as biodiesel is especially significant because of North Carolina’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, which requires municipal utilities and electric cooperatives to use at least 10 percent renewable resources by 2018. Since biodiesel can be used as an electricity generator as well as a replacement/ supplement for gasoline, the EDTC’s sunflower project could help businesses follow this law by producing biodiesel to sell.
Hilton said the EDTC plans to sell the sunflower oil to local biodiesel production companies and process the stalks into fuel pellets. He hopes to sell the meal to local dairy and meat farmers, and is currently working on ways to sell the other parts of the sunflowers.
“There is an immediate market in this area,” Hilton said. “We just need to get people involved.”
While the EDTC has at least three plots of land in mind, they have not made a final decision on a location yet. Hilton encourages anyone who owns 10-30 acres of fallow land interested in donating it to this project, and/or anyone interested in volunteering their time, to contact him at email@example.com or Libbie Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828-817-3753.