Sunflowers: fuel for the future

by Eric Stearley

In a modern, technology-driven society, it’s easy to view technology as a force pulling us away from our past, away from a traditional way of life. Food comes from the grocery instead of the garden. Horses are pets more than transportation. Payphones are all but obsolete. Even movie rental is becoming a thing of the past. In one corner of Wabash County, however, technology is connecting people to principles of the past as it propels them into the future. Perhaps the most unusual part is that this story about technology connecting us with history starts with a beautiful, yellow sunflower.

If you drove on State Road 13 south of Somerset this fall, you may have noticed fields of sunflowers to the west. The sunflowers were grown by Darin Hadley. Hadley grew up around farming. His grandfather was a farmer in Allen County, where his father still tills the soil. Though Hadley works primarily as an agriculture banker for PNC, he continues the farming tradition in Wabash County, growing soybeans and wheat while raising pigs and cattle. This year, Hadley began growing something new; he planted 18 acres of sunflowers.

Sunflowers are useful for many things – birdseed, seasonal decorations, and a crunchy salad topping – but none of these uses inspired Hadley to grow the giant flowers. Where most people would scan the horizon and see a field full of flowers, Hadley sees a field full of fuel; more specifically, he sees a field containing the biodiesel that will power his entire farming operation for the next year.

“Even back to farming with horses, you grew your energy with the hay you fed your horses,” said John Boyer, Hadley’s partner and fuel processor. “We’re growing our fuel.”

Boyer is a fifth generation farmer. He raises pigs, chickens, and cattle just west of Converse where he lives. Boyer didn’t get into biodiesel production by looking for a way to lower fuel expenses, but by trying to find a way to get rid of a waste product.

“I spent six years in the dairy business producing specialty milk that was high in omega-3s.” said Boyer.

To create the specialty product, Boyer fed his cattle flax meal, one of the few foods with a high concentration of omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to support healthy brain function. Flax meal, however, can be pretty expensive, especially when feeding large animals like cows.

“We found out that we could grow canola, and canola has the same omega-3 content as flax,” said Boyer.

Most people know canola as oil used to deep fry foods, but it starts as a flower with a seedpod on top. After growing the canola, they needed to process it into a suitable feed for the cows, and that meant pressing the oil out of the seeds.

“Then, we’ve got all this oil,” said Boyer. “I thought ‘I need to learn how to make biodiesel.’”

That’s exactly what he did. If you’ve heard about people using waste cooking oil from restaurants to make biodiesel, you’ve heard about the process Boyer uses. Soon after the biodiesel side project became a functional source of fuel for the farm, Boyer began growing sunflowers in Wabash County.

“That’s really where I started with sunflowers, was Wabash County,” said Boyer. 

These aren’t food-grade sunflowers, the seeds of which we put on a salad or spit at a baseball game. Boyer grows black oil sunflowers. These have the highest oil content and are the same kind found in birdseed. In a field of sunflowers, the heads all point the same way, trying to collect as much sun as possible. Early in development when the stems are still soft, the flower heads actually turn throughout the day, following the sun. Like corn, farmers let the sunflowers dry in the field before harvesting. They are harvested with a combine fitted with a corn head, but the head has cutters in it instead of rollers. A single flower head can yield up to a pound of seeds. Boyer is able to extract 37 percent of the seeds’ weight in fuel.  

“Ethanol has been fantastic for the farming community,” said Boyer, “but this takes less energy to turn [sunflowers and canola] into biodiesel than it takes to turn corn into ethanol.”

Today, he gets about half his fuel from canola and the other half from sunflowers. He also makes a small amount of biodiesel from soybeans. The biodiesel can be used in any diesel engine without modifications. Sunflowers and canola can yield as much as 200 gallons of fuel per acre, far more than the 60 gallons per acre that soybeans offer.

When you walk into Boyer’s processing barn, it looks like a cross between a classic grain operation and a large-scale chemistry lab. After an elevator lifts the seeds from a wagon into his grandfather’s old shaker (which removes any unwanted debris), the seeds make their way into clear plastic tubes. These tubes feed the seeds into presses. Oil drips from the bottom of the presses as it spits thin cylindrical feed pellets out the front. The crushed meal closely resembles a warm crayon with the paper peeled off as it’s ejected from the press. The oil drips into a trough just beneath the press, while the feed pellets fall onto an elevator, which lifts them into a second wagon. Boyer has the system set up for 24 hour pressing. With four presses running, he can press up to 200 gallons of oil each day. 

“The press is the heart of the whole thing,” said Boyer. “The rest is just barnyard engineering. A lot of this is made out of junk.”

The process itself, however, doesn’t create any “junk.” Nothing goes to waste. High in protein, the crayon-like pellets, sometimes mixed with corn, are fed to the farm’s animals. Canola feed goes to pigs, which have less discerning tastes. As for the sunflower feed, it’s fed mostly to cattle and chickens.

“Cattle have sensitive taste buds,” said Boyer. “Sometimes you have to put molasses in feed to get them to eat, but sunflowers have a natural sweetness and a good aroma,” which Boyer says is perfect for cattle. 

As for the oil, it is filtered down to one micron in particle size, three times smaller than is required for modern diesel engines. The filtered oil then goes through a process called transesterification, which separates the biodiesel from the glycerin. Glycerin, the sticky part of the oil that won’t go through the fuel filter, is used in manure pits to feed the anaerobic bacteria, helping to break down animal waste. 

“We’re cracking molecules,” said Boyer “My high school chemistry teacher came by and informed me that he taught me this in high school if I had just paid attention,” he joked.

The “laboratory” in the back of Boyer’s barn is impressive. In fact, two weeks before last year’s gubernatorial election, Governor Mike Pence came to Boyer’s farm and gave a speech in the back of the tool shed. This relatively small operation produced 10,000 gallons of biodiesel last year. Next year, he expects to surpass 40,000 gallons.

Even more impressive, however, is the return that farmers are getting from this process. Both Boyer and Hadley have 100 percent of their feed and fuel needs met through this process. Boyer has enough excess feed to sell to other farmers, and enough fuel to power all of his farming equipment, as well as the diesel pickup and Jeep Liberty he owns.

“I’m off the fuel grid,” said Boyer. “you’re saving money more than making money. You’re replacing fuel and feed needs.”

“There’s not a week that goes by where somebody doesn’t ask me about sunflowers and growing fuel,” said Hadley.

Right now, Hadley and Boyer work with a couple other farmers in a “sort of co-op,” according to Boyer. They’re not selling fuel out the door, but supplying their own fuel needs. In addition to farming and making fuel, Boyer is an oil press dealer and helps other farmers set up their own processing plants.

“If a guy wants to make all the fuel for his farm, it takes seven percent of their land to grow the fuel,” said Boyer. “Grandpa always said it took 10 percent of his land to feed his horses.”

Even though seven percent isn’t a lot of space, it’s space that most farmers don’t want to give up, but with sunflowers, they don’t have to. One of the best parts about making sunflowers into fuel is their short growing season. Sunflowers mature in 75-100 days. This allowed Hadley to double-crop his field, planting sunflowers after he harvested wheat. Hadley planted his sunflowers the week after the Wabash County Fair and harvested on Nov. 16.

“This means you can get a cash crop out of the field, then plant a feed and fuel crop,” said Boyer.

In his first year, Hadley says his crop was “phenomenal.” Not only does he plan to grow his own fuel again next year, but wants to expand the acreage dedicated to sunflowers and introduce canola as well.

“There’s no reason that we can’t do this on a larger scale,” said Boyer. “If the 10 percent biodiesel legislation occurs, there’s going to be a need to meet the mandate.”

The spike in the price of diesel in 2008 prompted a large number of people to look into alternative fuels, especially biodiesel. With oil reserves diminishing worldwide, the number of people seeking alternative, cheaper, and domestically sourced fuel will continue to increase. As farmers, business owners, and fuel consumers of all sorts look toward the future, they may find themselves looking back at a time when the fuel used to transport us from one place to the next was grown on the land, rather than being pumped from beneath it. Though fuel shortages will not likely result in a return to hay-fueled horse and buggy transportation, more of our fuel will likely start coming from crop fields as less is pulled from oil fields. Change is starting to take place, and residents of Wabash County don’t have to look any further than the sunflower fields south of Somerset to see it.

Posted on 2013 Nov 26