By DEBORAH GERTZ HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
AUGUSTA, Ill. -- The bright yellow sunflower blooms stretch as far as the eye can see in one of Mark Holst's fields.
It's a nontraditional crop for the Augusta farmer but one that pays off -- at the fuel pump.
Oil from the sunflowers turns into fuel for Holst's truck and farm vehicles.
"We're not actually doing biodiesel," Holst said. "We are making oil. We filter the oil, then we cut it with gasoline and burn it straight or blend it anywhere from 20 percent up to 50 percent with diesel."
Holst usually raises about 200 acres of sunflowers as a double-crop after wheat, or planted this year in place of a soybean field decimated by hail, averaging 40 bushels per acre and getting about 1.75 gallons of oil and 16 pounds of meal, used for cattle feed, from each bushel.
Four years into raising sunflowers, Holst sees the crop as a renewable fuel source and a success for his farm where he raises corn, soybeans, wheat and feeds a few cattle.
"I really think the sunflower thing, if you put some time and money into it, would work. It's worked for me, but farmers don't like a lot of change," Holst said. "They'd rather see somebody else try it and see if it works. You got your work out there on display. If you make a mistake, everybody knows about it."
Holst's sunflowers initially drew some second glances from the neighbors, but now some of them have gotten into the act.
"One neighbor, the year before last, had a lot of prevented planting. He intended corn, but didn't get it planted. We worked out a deal. He planted sunflowers, and I ended up buying from him," Holst said.
With corn and soybeans at high prices, farmers hesitate to devote acres to wheat, even with good prices for that crop.
"The last few years it's been hard to raise a good wheat crop. There's been wet springs, and wheat doesn't like wet," Holst said.
But with forward contracting wheat, baling the straw to market and planting the sunflowers, "you're close to the gross revenue of an average corn crop. It's obviously going to be more work," Holst said.
"Right now, when you figure the cost of soybeans, it wouldn't be feasible to take soybeans and make fuel out of them. Sunflowers are a double crop. You haven't have a land cost, just the direct expenses of seed and chemicals. It makes it work."
Birds, especially yellow finches, take a share of the crop, but "I think it helps that we've got a couple of fields spread out here rather than out in the Dakotas where they've got field after field," Holst said.
Working for a Minnesota farmer, who raised sunflowers in the Dakotas, back in college sparked Holst's interest in sunflowers. More research, combined with the growing emphasis on renewable fuels, convinced him to give the crop a try.
Holst uses a corn planter to seed 30-inch rows of sunflowers. With a 95-day growing season, "as long as you get them in by the middle of July, compared to double-crop soybeans, you almost always get a crop out of sunflowers," Holst said.
The crop's fertilizer requirements are similar to wheat, but weed control can be a challenge. "There's not a Roundup sunflower. We use a preplant, but they grow so fast they about outgrow all the weeds," Holst said. "They really take off and grow."
The small sunflowers follow the sun each day, with the leaves pointing east in the mornings and west in the evenings, until the heads form. The flowers bloom for nearly three weeks -- "they're real pretty sometimes," Holst admits -- before the heavy heads drop and begin to turn brown, leaving what looks like a field of stalks.
The sunflowers are the last crop harvested on the farm, using a John Deere row crop head. "You can dry them just like corn, but so far, I haven't had to dry any. They dry in the field real well," Holst said.
The seeds are stored, then pressed as needed. The press runs nearly every day in the wintertime to keep up with meal needs. "The meal is a real good palatable product for cattle. It's running 20 percent protein, and we're mixing it with the silage for fat cattle," Holst said.
Pressing oil is a simple process that bypasses concerns with making biodiesel. "If you don't do it just right, the chemicals in biodiesel can be pretty harmful," Holst said.
In the summer months, Holst uses one gallon of gas per eight gallons of oil. In the winter, he changes the ratio to one gallon of gas per six gallons of oil.
"The big drawback with burning the oil is a lot of these newer engines don't burn it as well," Holst said. "The thing you're fighting is the viscosity of the oil. When cutting it with gas, we're getting it down to the same thickness as diesel fuel."