When we think of what a traditional Thanksgiving might have looked like, many of us may conjure up images of Pilgrims and Native Americans sitting around a communal table enjoying a shared harvest meal. We’re not sure who fabricated this idealized scenario, but even though it lingers with us to this day, its likelihood is doubtful. Actually, it was Abraham Lincoln who declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, as a way to raise people’s spirits during the long Civil War.
Squeezing Out Some Sunshine
Local farmers produce cooking oil from sunflowers
Written onSeptember 01 , 2010
Many of our food plants have a rich and fascinating history, but few are as utterly loveable as the sunflower. These plants actually seem to have a personality and are often described as smiling faces or nodding heads. A field of them is a bit like a gathered crowd. Beautiful and artsy when in bloom, tastefully useful when gone to seed, and surrounded by an aura of cheerfulness and childlike playfulness—sunflowers are pretty easy to love.
Sunflower oil is a growing niche market here in Vermont, with a scattering of sunflower farmers and presses across the state. Currently, it’s a bit of a gourmet item, but most growers seem to agree that there’s also a more practical potential for it as we move toward a sustainable future: sunflower oil can be used as a biofuel in cars and tractors.
Jack Lazor of Butterworks Farm in Westfield actually feels that sunflower is one of the best choices for local culinary oil in Vermont (next to butter, of course). But that being said, Jack also notes that sunflowers are not without their problems. They are really more of a midwestern plant, somewhat displaced here in New England. They require dry weather for both growing and processing the seeds—something that’s increasingly a problem in the Northeast. “The seeds need to be very dry to get a good oil out of them—below eight percent moisture,” Jack says. “That’s hard to get unless you artificially dry them.”
What’s more, the plants can’t be harvested until October. Which means wildlife have more of a chance to ravage the fields. And the plants get moldy. And they fall over. Jack comments dryly, “The price of petroleum will have to be a lot higher before it’s more efficient to grow something here that’s not intended to grow here, than it is to bring it in from where it grows well.”
There are two basic types of sunflowers: oil and confectionary. The confectionary kind, also known as gray stripe, are easier to shell out and are used for sunflower seed snacks. The small seeds of black oil sunflowers have a high oil content, and it is these that are used for pressing. Currently, no one in Vermont is producing shelled seed for use by humans; the equipment for shelling is expensive.
Jack expects to harvest 1,200 or more pounds of seed this year from his 10 acres of black oil sunflowers. The seeds are pressed in Quebec, at a huilarie operated by three brothers from France who press and bottle the oil. It costs about $5 per one-liter bottle to produce—and, Jack says, “It’s a long drive.”
Louis Rainville, a farmer in Highgate, purchased his own oil press a few years ago to produce cooking oil. The press was not a small expense but one he hopes will pay off in the long run. “We’re a small family farm producing local oil on a small scale—we emphasize quality over quantity,” he says. He has about 5 acres of sunflowers but plans to increase that to 15 acres next year. An acre of his provides approximately 100 gallons of oil—on the high side of the average yield in Vermont.
Louis’s press works slowly but, he says, this is a good thing: the slower the pressing process, the better the quality. The press is German-made—the best for food-grade oil production—easy to clean, and every part that comes in contact with the seeds and oil is stainless steel. The seeds and oil are never heated, so the oil maintains a natural stability and doesn’t require any additives. He uses a stainless steel tank to let the freshly pressed oil settle for a week (to remove sediment), then runs it through a filter press and bottles and labels it himself. This unprocessed cold-pressed oil has a rich flavor and a more viscous consistency than commercial sunflower oil. The seed “cake” left over after pressing out the oil is composed of mostly shells, some seed meat, and about 40 percent residual oil. Its high protein content (25 percent) makes it an excellent animal feed, and it can also be used as fertilizer.
Sunflowers are one of only four major crops of global importance that are native to the United States (along with blueberries, cranberries, and pecans). They are thought to have been under cultivation as early as 2,300 to 3,000 BC—even before corn, beans, and squash. Taking a roundabout route, the sunflower went from America to Europe as an ornamental with Spanish explorers, then to Russia, where it gained popularity as a food plant, then finally back to the U.S. in the late 19th century with Russian immigrants who used it as poultry feed. In 1930 the Canadian government started breeding sunflowers using Russian immigrant seeds. Cultivation spread southward, and the sunflower finally became established as a major source of seeds and oil.
At Borderview Farm in Alburgh, Roger Rainville (no relation to Louis Rainville) grows sunflowers for biofuel, not human consumption. He also works with Adjunct Assistant Professor Heather Darby at UVM to run extensive plant trials. Roger doesn’t want to see the niche market for local culinary sunflower oil be lost to overproduction, but he, too, thinks that the oil can be a sustainable local resource for the future. “We’re building infrastructure [presses]—I think there are at least five places in the state that have oil presses. Larry Scott in Newbury, John Williamson in Bennington, and I have two here. There’s also one in Addison County…no, wait, there’s a couple others there, too, I think.”
There is also a press in Orwell and one in Hardwick. Some are being used for biofuel production, not culinary oil, but that’s simply a matter of designation; there is no difference in pressing except that a cheap press may contain lead paint. Generally speaking, the oil that comes out of a press may be used for either purpose. It’s after pressing that the processing techniques diverge.
Because growing sunflowers in Vermont weather can be a bit dicey, and because there are only a few farmers currently producing culinary oil, the availability varies. Look for it at food co-ops and natural food stores; if they don’t carry it, ask them to consider doing so. It’s a little pricey but its flavor is as complex as a fine wine. Be prepared for a more viscous consistency than processed oils, as well as a rich taste.
Pat McGovern, of the Upper Valley Localvores, notes that many people find sunflower oil too potent for use in salad dressings, but Louis Rainville’s wife, Maggie, describes the taste as “light, sweet, and nutty…unlike olive oil it doesn’t compete with but enhances the flavor of the food.” Still, she prefers it for cooked foods. She loves it on potatoes and for saucing vegetables, and says it works well for frying: “It takes a high heat really well. And if you make your own bread, it works really well with King Arthur whole wheat flour.”
Like many full-flavored native foods, unrefined sunflower oil is a bit different from what you may be accustomed to after a lifetime of bland commercial oils. One might liken the experience to exploring the delightfully different cuisine of a foreign land—without having to leave home. Give your taste buds the chance to appreciate this local treasure.
Photo by Pam Boyd/Vermont Farm Viability Program