Focus on Sustainability: Valley of the Sunflowers

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A community effort to turn a dirt lot in downtown Phoenix into a beautiful canvas of yellow and green that will eventually become biofuel.

Ted Simons: Much like Arizona's pioneers who saw promise and a future in the desert southwest, a neighborhood organization for a vision for downtown Phoenix put its plan into action. Producer David Majure and photographer Scott Olson show us why the valley of the sunflowers project is this week's focus on sustainability.

Announcer: This living canvas of yellow and green start out as a lifeless vacant lot, like many others that littered the landscape in downtown Phoenix. But one person's eyesore is another's inspiration.

Kenny Barrett: Yeah, looking at this field and thinking about possibilities.

Announcer: Kenny Barrett of the Roosevelt row community development corporation looked at this lot and saw a valley of the sunflowers.

Kenny Barrett: So everybody over here, let's go to the white truck, we can get all the rakes out of the truck.

Announcer: When we first visited in September of 2011, it didn't look like much. But with dozens of volunteers and a lot of hard work, the Roosevelt row CDC set out to transform two acres of dormant dirt into a productive field of sunflowers.

Kenny Barrett: This is our first season. This is really our experimental season. Basically the project is to plant two acres of sunflowers on a vacant lot, and grow the flowers until they bloom, let them start to dry, we'll harvest them, and then we will take the seeds and we'll press them for oil, and we'll take the oil and give it back to the bioscience high school and the kids who are already producing and making biofuel are going to create biofuel from the oil.

Announcer: Volunteers prepared the soil, installed a sprinkler system, and students from the Phoenix union bioscience high school planted the very first seeds. After plenty of water, sunshine, and patience, it didn't take long for the project to blossom.

Kenny Barrett: As you can see, sunflowers are inspiring. We have people come in and check out the sunflowers, take their pictures.

Announcer: But these vibrant colors weren't meant to last. By mid December, many of the flowers were ready to harvest.

Kenny Barrett: This is definitely what we would call a sustainability experiment. The idea behind it is sunflowers across the city of Phoenix for energy production might not be the answer, but what is the answer is having a school and a community development corporation work together to activate vacant space. One of the things we've learned too is, when doing sustainability, when trying to create change downtown, take advantage of things that are already happening. Right on that second floor of the biochemistry class they were already making biodiesel. The engineering class on the third floor was already working on a solar powered biodiesel car. So Kenny was growing sunflowers, bringing those things together, building on things that were already happening and linking them is part of what's happened here. Now we'll take these seeds from the sunflowers, we bought a oil press, we'll press the seeds for oil and they'll do just like they've been doing before, they'll make the biodiesel and hopefully within about a year the car will be ready to actually use the biodiesel and we'll have a full seed-to-engine project.

Announcer: The organizers of valley of the sunflowers learned a lot from their experiments. Its knowledge they plan to use to improve their yield during the next growing season.

Kenny Barrett: I feel like a lot of what we've accomplished has yet to happen. I feel like what we wanted to do is really create something that can show people that there are ways to temporarily be a -- these spaces in Phoenix, give them purpose, give them beauty even, give them -- create an educational opportunity. There's lots of opportunities for people to do really neat things here. So we just wanted to spark that inspiration. I feel like we've done that.

Ted Simons: Roosevelt row is preparing for its second growing season with plans to put seeds in the ground in early march. That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

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