Rick Kersbergen is nationally recognized for his role in building
the state's organic dairy research and the University of Maine
Cooperative Extension program.
He has helped foster strong collaborations for organic dairy
research between USDA agencies and the Cooperative Extensions of
UMaine, the University of Vermont and University of New Hampshire.
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The late-summer scene was enough to make passersby stop and
stare. In a two-acre field at the University of Maine's Rogers Farm in
Old Town bobbed the weighty heads of 45,000 organic sunflowers.
UMaine Cooperative Extension researcher Rick Kersbergen admits that the
sight was an attraction in the landscape. But for him and members of
Maine Organic Milk Producers (MOMP), the value of the sunflowers was
evident long after the beauty of the flowers faded in the field.
The sunflowers were grown and harvested for their potential as a
value-added crop for organic milk producers in the state. Kersbergen, an
Extension educator in Waldo County, led the research to grow organic
sunflower seeds that could be cold pressed to produce oil for human
consumption and a high-protein meal to feed livestock.
Quality organic feed protein is expensive and hard to find in the
livestock market, says Kersbergen. For that reason, MOMP members are
exploring alternatives, such as organic sunflowers that also might yield
a by-product to sell on the human market.
The sunflowers grown for the pilot project were a type high in oleic
acid. The monounsaturated oil is a healthy, trans-free alternative for
consumers, according to the National Sunflower Association. With a
neutral taste, it can be used for baking, frying and spray coatings.
For now, the sunflower oil resulting from the pressed seeds is
considered experimental, with marketing opportunities still being
explored, Kersbergen says. The dry seed residue resulting from the
pressing will be analyzed for its protein and amino acid content as a
Kersbergen and MOMP are applying for a grant from Northeast Sustainable
Agriculture Research and Education to conduct more trials to determine
if organic sunflowers can be an economically viable crop for Maine.
The sunflower research is one of a number of joint grant projects
spearheaded by Kersbergen in cooperation with MOMP to feed organic
herds, expand grain production and usage on organic dairies in Maine and
Vermont, and reduce dependence on grain brought in from the Midwest and
Canada. Similar studies are under way at the University of Vermont.
Maine has the highest percentage (20 percent) of organic dairy farms in
the nation, says Kersbergen.