Flower Power

Something is growing on the campus of Messiah College in Grantham, PA. They can stand more than eight feet tall, will triple in number this year, and are poised to have a huge impact on campus. What are they?


Messiah is entering its second year of growing its own crop of sunflowers in an attempt to make its campus more sustainable. The seeds will be harvested in the fall and serve as a major source of cooking oil for the College’s dining operations. The project is the latest in a series of initiatives Messiah has ventured into, all with the goal of promoting sustainability on campus.

“One acre of sunflowers generates about 100 gallons of cooking oil, and we typically use around 3,000 gallons a year,” says sustainability coordinator Craig Dalen. “We’re currently on a three-year trajectory to eventually reach our goal to raise enough sunflowers to offset all of our dining service cooking oil needs.”

A Growing Project
After one year of having a five-acre crop, the school has seen enough success in the program to triple their devotion to it and will plant 15 acres this spring. That would put Messiah halfway to the 30- to 35-acre threshold of self-sustainability.

But the oil isn’t just used for cooking. After dining services is finished using the product, it is transformed into biodiesel that is then used to operate campus utility vehicles used by the grounds crew. When the project reaches the 3,000 gal. production mark, the biodiesel created will translate to more than 10 percent of the roughly 28,000 gal. of diesel fuel and heating oil the College uses each year.

Dalen believes the project is poised to have an immediate effect. Instead of just serving as making a hypothetical difference, the College is committed to learning as they go and reaping the rewards along the way.

“Other schools might be doing this on the research side but for us, the scale of this project is different,” Dalen says. “We have the opportunity to offset legitimate products on campus, and what we’re looking to do is actually mobilize research into practice. Three thousand gallons is an ambitious goal, but it does seem like it’s within reach.”

Partnering With 
the Community
Thanks to partnerships with area farmers, the school’s investment in making the project a reality has been minimal. Messiah owns many acres of farmland surrounding its campus and works with one farmer to operate the land, using his experience and equipment for growing.

Despite numerous obstacles to overcome in the inaugural growing season, Messiah was able to make the first crop very profitable. The farmer had never grown sunflowers before, but was able to do some research on best practices and apply his general knowledge of agriculture to yield success. Because last year was one of the wettest seasons on record, the folks at Messiah are optimistic that the yield this spring could be even better.

“This past year, we had some crazy weather. Instead of planting sunflowers we should have built an ark,” Dalen says. “It really was a recipe for disaster, but we were still able to raise a good crop.”
Another local farmer recently donated four presses to the school as well that are used to extract the oil from the seeds. This way, the extraction process can be done in-house.

Student Involvement
Instead of this being an initiative 
generated entirely by administrators, 
students have taken the sunflower 
project to heart. Messiah students are 
now involved in several parts of the 
process, including extracting, transporting, and using the cooking oil, as well 
as transforming it into biodiesel. Messiah has been creating its own biodiesel for more than 10 years and has its own processor.

“The sunflower project is our bread 
and butter at this point,” Dalen says. 
“It’s an example of ‘triple bottom line’ thinking. It saves cost, builds community, and demonstrates stewardship.” 

Jeff Canning, a writer and editor for Dick Jones Communications, previously worked as a reporter for
The Daily Record in Wooster, OH, where he covered a variety of beats, including school districts, various communities, and the local court system.

About the Author

Jeff Canning, a writer and editor for Dick Jones Communications, previously worked as a reporter for The Daily Record in Wooster, OH, where he covered a variety of beats, including school districts, various communities and the local court system.