Monday, October 5, 2009

Sunflower Power? An Entrepreneur's First Steps

Sunflower grower Grant Allen in a field he planted.

by Adam Burke

When farmers in the town of Dove Creek, Colo., started planting sunflowers a few years ago, many of them were motivated by the promise of a decent income — not energy independence. But an activist-turned-entrepreneur named Jeff Berman had floated a proposal with a green hook: He told farmers if they grew sunflowers, he'd give them a renewable fuel source.

"Well, when we first came in we were going to produce biodiesel, from local, sustainably grown oil seeds, and allow the farmers to use that fuel, to grow the wheat and the beans that they also grow here," says Berman, chief executive officer of San Juan Bioenergy.

His part of the bargain was to build a facility in Dove Creek that could turn sunflower seeds into biodiesel. To do that, farmers would have to start producing sunflowers. Lots of them.

"It was very attractive to think that we could raise our tractor fuel, sure," says Dan Warren, a third-generation farmer in Dove Creek, who remembers those early meetings with Jeff Berman. "With pencil and paper you could see that there was more money involved, per acre, in the sunflowers than there was in the beans and the wheat on a normal year."

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