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UMaine Today Magazine


Rick Kersbergen
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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Flower Power

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 livestock meal.

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.

UMaine Today Magazine
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