Sunflower Solution: Our Story

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In winter of 2013, while looking for a way to bring our coursework to life, the Sustainable and Renewable Energy program and the Office of Sustainability partnered to grow sunflowers and make an oil that can be used both for food and fuel.

In Spring of 2013, we bounced the idea off of some folks in the area. Platteville Development Group agreed to lend us six acres of land just west of Menards and Wilson Family Farms agreed to to plant our seeds. On June 4th the adventure began as our seeds were put in the ground using a corn planter and grown using organic methods.

By October 8th, the flowers had bloomed and died back to dried seedheads which we harvested using a combine with a soybean head, which resulted in catching a lot of weed seeds in our harvest. In the picture below on on the far left you can see what "cleaned" seeds look like vs. our seeds. If we do this again, we will use a corn head on our combine! 

The seeds on the left are cleaned, but the ones on the right still have a lot of weed seeds in them.

In order to clean the weed seeds out of our harvest, first we tried cleaning the seeds ourselves using a small job "Clipper" and an elaborate make-shift seed cleaning facility, borrowing equipment from Jamie Derr of Derr Solarmass in Marshall, WI. Given the amount of weeds in our seeds... this didn't work so well. Six hours of cleaning and only a fraction of the seeds cleaned, we looked for an alternative.

It turns out seed cleaning is a dying art. Most combines clean seed so well today that old seed mills are no longer needed but for the Amish, organic farmers, or other specialty crops. Lucky for us, a traditional family seed mill in Rewey, Wisconsin (called Cobb Shipping Company) was still in business (see far right picture above) and able to get our seeds cleaned in a weekend!

Next, we had to prepare our oil pressing area. Lucky for us, we have a commercial kitchen right here on campus that we were able to use for this (Glenview Commons). Jamie Derr again leased us equipment, this time he leased us a seed press. Eric Hamilton of Circle Energy in Dodgeville leased us a filter press (to filter out any fine particulates of seed hulls, etc). Our local Department of Agriculture Inspector came by to make sure our processes met health standards and we were good to go!

Above, on the far left, you can see how the oil was squeezed out of holes in the press heads into a pan while long, dry pellets made of the seed hulls (press meal) were expelled into a bin waiting below. Depending upon the variety of seeds used, you can expect to get approximately 30% oil and 70% press meal out of sunflower seeds. The press meal gets trucked out to an area farm and is used as a high-protein cattle feed.

The oil itself next moves onto a waiting tank where it is mixed with a "filter aid," in this case we used diatomaceous earth. The powder of the filter aid adheres to the fine particulate left in the sunflower oil and, as the oil is pumped through a filter press, it gets caught between the filter plates (see the far right picture above) which we clean out daily.

We ended up filtering our oil twice to get it where we wanted it. In the picture above and on the far left, you can see what the oil looks like before it is filtered. Fine particulate from the seed hulls leave the oil quite dark. The middle bottle has been filtered once, but it is still cloudy- this is mostly wax, a natural element in sunflower oil. The bottle on the right has been filtered a second time and more wax is removed, leaving it clearer.

While we could now turn this oil into biodiesel, this year we are using it primarily as food. The oil that we pressed in-house will be fed to our students in Dining Services. We do plan to turn some of the frier oil into biodiesel after it is used (hence "food AND fuel") - we will let you know how that goes!

In order to guarantee a consistent product while we worked out any possible kinks this year, we purchased bulk oil from Century Sun Oil in Pulaski, WI for our retail sales. Century Sun raises their sunflowers organically and are also located in Wisconsin (near Green Bay). Many thanks to Century Sun for working with us on this project. Your support has been invaluable.

Once we had the bulk oil in our hands, the final step was to bottle the oil! This required a whole crew and in two 6-hour shifts we bottled all 2,300 bottles of our 2013/2014 oil. The label and booklet on the bottle were designed by a UW-Platteville student, Andrew Burchardt, and were selected through a competitive process.  Aren't they pretty??

Our plan is to gauge project success based upon sales of our oil this spring. If there is enough demand, we hope to continue this project by planting 10 more acres of sunflowers this summer and pressing again next fall/winter!

Many thanks to the partners who made this project possible
Platteville Development Group - for donating the use of land.
Wilson Family Organic Farms - for planting, growing, and harvesting our seeds.
Cobb Shipping Service - for cleaning our seeds on short notice!
Tud Bowden - for developing and making our "Sunflower Solution" field sign.
Iowa County UW-Extension - specifically to Gene Schriefer for providing technical support and hosting the field day with us.
WGLR & Bob Middendorf - for doing a live show at our field day.
Benvenuto's Restaurant- for hosting our Field Day
Organic Valley - for assistance and expertise (especially thanks to Nicole Spinelli and Zach Biermann!)
Derr Solarmass - for providing expertise and leasing us equipment.
Circle Energy - for providing expertise and leasing us equipment.
Century Sun Oil - for providing expertise and selling us bulk oil.
Andy Burchardt for label design
 

And a special thanks to the 40+ UW-Platteville students who helped market, make, bottle, and otherwise develop this product!

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