Earth Day harvest

Pacific Biodiesel continues its development of a sustainable crop that is both food and fuel

Kelly King, co-founder of Pacific Biodiesel and also a Maui County Council member, admires some of the sunflowers in her company’s field during an Earth Day celebration and tour Sunday. Since the sunflowers bloomed last spring, they’ve become a tourist attraction as well as an opportunity to teach people about growing crops for both food and fuel, King said. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photos

WAIKAPU — When Pacific Biodiesel’s first crop of sunflowers started blooming last spring, the company didn’t expect them to go viral.

“We didn’t know that when we started farming the sunflowers that it would be a tourist attraction, but it has become that,” Marketing Director Joy Galatro said during the company’s Earth Day celebration Sunday.

Not only have the sunflowers delighted droves of selfie-snapping visitors, but they’ve also allowed Pacific Biodiesel to start a conversation with the community about the versatility of the sunflowers — and what future agriculture could look like on Maui.

“It’s a game changer,” Galatro said. “It’s really helped us connect with such a wider audience and tell our story. People who maybe didn’t know who we were . . . the sunflowers opened up a whole new door.”

Starting May 1, Pacific Biodiesel will start allowing tours on its property, which the company hopes will help “stave off some of the trespassing” into the sunflower fields, while also teaching people about the biodiesel operations, vice president and Maui County Council Member Kelly King said.

Susan Campbell, sales coordinator for the company’s Kuleana skin care products, offers customers a selection of sunflower oil products Sunday at the Maui Tropical Plantation.

On Sunday, Pacific Biodiesel also launched Kuleana, its line of natural skin care products, and plans to debut its food-grade cooking oil and reef-safe sunscreen containing sunflower oil later this summer.

The growth is part business and part proof — the new products will help Pacific Biodiesel continue to produce biofuel — but it also shows that sunflowers can be a sustainable resource, and that food doesn’t have to compete with fuel, King said.

“It won’t happen if we make a crop for just fuel,” she said. “It has to be two to three different products, and it has to be beyond just fuel. There has to be a holistic push to it because that’s the only way economically it’s going to work.”

Pacific Biodiesel’s biode-gradable fuel is made up of plant oils, rendered animal fats and recycled cooking oil collected from restaurants and food-service operations and distilled at a Big Island refinery. Twenty-three years after the company began on Maui, “we’re still fighting some of the old prejudices,” King said. Some of the distrust stems from the early days of biodiesel, when people would filter used cooking oil and call it biodiesel. They’d put it in their engines, “and it would work for a few months until it gummed everything up,” King said. Others have been wary of biofuels because of concerns over using potential food crops for fuel.

“For Maui, we need crops that can be both,” King said.

Pacific Biodiesel owner and President Bob King talks about growing sunflowers during a farm tour with customers and the media Sunday.

Now, King thinks people are catching on, and the sunflowers have helped. The first crop was planted in February 2017, two months after Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. shut down operations for good. King thinks the sunflowers helped symbolize what Maui could do in the wake of sugar.

“Not only were they getting the whole beauty and the happiness factor and all that, but they were understanding that this could be prelude to marching into those . . . 27,000 acres of important agricultural lands,” King said. “It’s this visual of what Maui could be.”

Growing a crop that pairs food, fuel and technology has also attracted a new generation, King said. She said the employees of Pacific Biodiesel’s farming division are mostly under the age of 40.

“Trying to inspire young people to grow tomatoes and lettuce just to grow tomatoes and lettuce is a really difficult thing to do,” King said. “But inspiring them to grow crops where a portion of it can be used as fuel to run their car, that’s really exciting.”

King said two of the youngest employees came on board because they were excited about biofuel, and “now they’re just as excited about the food side because of all these new products.”

“We need younger farmers to step up and be the growers of our food and fuel,” King said. “Threatening them and saying ‘you’re not going to have any food for your generation’ doesn’t work, because they go to the grocery store, and they see all that food on the shelf. Really, what works and what’s sustainable is when you can inspire them to do the right thing.”

In June, Pacific Biodiesel harvested its first 14-acre crop. The company generated about 1,330 gallons of sunflower oil from the harvest, most of which went into making cosmetic-grade oils and food-grade cooking oil. The rest went to biodiesel. Owner and President Bob King said the company will likely harvest about 20 acres in the next three to four weeks, and more than 100 acres total over the next four months.

The body oils produced from the harvest are a blend of sunflower, macadamia nut and coconut oils. They’re now available to the public at several locations including Alive & Well, Mana Health Foods and Maui Tropical Plantation. The Kuleana skin care product line is made by Maiden Hawaii Naturals, a subsidiary of Pacific Biodiesel Technologies. Galatro said about a dozen spas — from hotels like the Andaz Maui in Wailea to independent spas like the Wailea Healing Center — have been using the company’s sunflower oil in spa treatments.

Details on the upcoming tours, meanwhile, will be posted on the website of Travel Plaza Transportation (tptours.com), said Operations Manager Robert Johnson. The tours will be part of the company’s “Maui Made Fresh Tours,” a package visit to other farms around the island. On Sunday, customers and media took the first official tour on biodiesel-fueled buses. For residents or community groups who don’t want to purchase a package tour, Galatro said the company also occasionally does educational tours.

“It’s really because of all the enthusiasm around our farming operation,” Galatro said. “We all the time see them come in just in love with the sunflowers and leaving so enthusiastic about everything else that’s happening.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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