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Pacific Biodiesel’s first sunflower crop is headed to harvest

Combine purchased to gather the seed arrives on island

Pacific Biodiesel President Bob King stands atop a combine harvester, which will be used to harvest the company’s first sunflowers from its Central Maui field. Pacific Biodiesel photo

Pacific Biodiesel has begun preparations for its first sunflower harvest this month and has purchased a combine harvester, which was delivered Thursday.

The combine will cut the sunflower plant below its head and thresh the grain from the head, said Kim Sloan, Pacific Biodiesel public relations associate, Friday. Seeds go into a bin on the harvester to become biofuel and the rest of the plant goes into the field.

The machine was purchased used from a family farm in Northern California. Sloan did not disclose the price paid by Pacific Biodiesel, but said that combines run about $350,000 new. It will run totally on biodiesel.

“We look forward to experimenting with harvesting our first sunflowers,” said Bob King, president and founder of Pacific Biodiesel. “With this combine, we’ll be able to harvest a variety of crops that we’re planning to grow in the future, including safflower, canola and maybe even chickpeas, in addition to the sunflowers.”

The sunflowers began peeking out of the ground during a February blessing of the 14 acres planted, part of a 115-acre crop site near the intersection of Kuihelani and Honoapiilani highways. The first crop is expected to be ready for harvest late this month.

The sunflower bloom created quite a stir and became a popular attraction. People were parking along the busy highways, tromping in the fields and taking pictures with the sunflowers. Following reports of thefts and defacing of sunflowers by a few “rotten apples,” Pacific Biodiesel put up no trespassing signs and the state Department of Transportation posted no parking signs near the field.

In a April 19 Facebook post, the company said: “Maui’s interest in our blooming sunflowers has been overwhelming. We are proud these symbols of sustainability have brought so much happiness to the community. However, for everyone’s safety, please be reminded that this is a working farm on private property. No public access is available to the farm at this time and no parking is allowed on the site or on Kuihelani and Honoapiilani highways along the site perimeter.”

Sloan said that since the signs went up there have been no reports of vandalism. “Everyone has been very considerate,” she said.

The sunflowers have begun to droop “and the plants next will dry down for harvest,” said King.

“People are already noticing that the flowers are starting to droop over and turn brown,” he said. “This is completely natural and part of the life cycle of the plant. When the flowers have fully matured and dried, which will happen in another three or four weeks, they will be ready for harvest.”

The seeds will be crushed for oil. The field is expected to yield 100 gallons of oil per acre with Pacific Biodiesel hoping to produce 32,775 gallons of biodiesel annually from Maui sunflowers.

The farm currently is the largest biofuel crop project in the state, the company said.

Last week, a second sunflower crop was planted adjacent to the first field, King said. It should begin blooming in two months.

“We have begun planning for safe ways to enjoy the next crop and will announce those options in the future,” he said.

In an Earth Day event April 22, more than 300 people were transported to the field, given a sunflower from the field, allowed to take photos with the sunflowers and planted a seed for the next crop.

The crop on old Wailuku Sugar Co. land does not have an irrigation system and is watered by rain. It is a nongenetically modified crop, and the company employs sustainable farming practices. No herbicides or pesticides are used, King said.

For more information, go to www.biodiesel.com.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.