The rains stopped and a sunflower oil business sprouted in central Minnesota.

“A couple years ago, when there was a drought, I was looking for a crop that could grow on poor soils, and I checked into sunflowers,” says Tom Smude, a cattle and feed-crop farmer. With his wife Jenni, Smude is now cold-pressing sunflower seeds for oil in their on-farm facility near Pierz, Minn.

Smude Enterprises LLC raises high-oleic sunflowers, with seeds higher in unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and vitamin E than typical sunflowers. The oil is sold in central Minnesota groceries, natural food markets and gift shops under the Smude Virgin Cold Pressed Sunflower Oil label. Markets are expanding weekly.

Watching the market

Entrepreneurship comes naturally to Tom Smude (pronounced smoo-dee). Both his parents grew up on dairy farms and, while his father became a John Deere dealer, he continued to raise cattle. After college, Smude bought his first three beef cows. “Eventually, I raised that herd to 100,” says Smude who started his own farm operation with his wife 10 years ago.

When Smude decided to raise sunflowers, “fuel prices were soaring and I looked into crushing sunflowers for biofuels,” Smude says. But after prices declined, a friend “told me to check out food-grade sunflower oil.” After researching the oil, he ordered a few bottles online. “We loved cooking with it,” Smude says. And it fits their “eat local; buy local” philosophy. “I want to go from the field to the shelf and be sustainable.”

On-farm crushing

The Smudes built an oil-crushing facility that was inspected by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to make sure the process and equipment met code. Except for the presses and filter from Germany, Smude purchased most of the equipment locally and hired local contractors.

AURI scientists tested the oil for fatty-acid composition at the Marshall oils lab and Charan Wadhawan, AURI food scientist in Crookston, completed a nutritional analysis for labeling.

In late February, Smude Enterprises started processing sunflower oil and expects to produce about 40,000 gallons this year. Beside the Smudes, 10 local farmers are growing about 1,000 acres of sunflowers for the seed-oil business. Smude also planted flax, which will be harvested and pressed for oil this fall.

After sunflowers are cleaned, de-hulled and separated, the nut meat is run though a screw press that extracts 90 percent of the oil. The cold-press method doesn’t require heat or chemicals so “all the natural minerals remain in the oil,” Smude says.

The oil is filtered and stored in tanks, which hold 21,000 gallons, before the oil is bottled in 16-ounce, half-gallon, one-gallon and 2.5 gallon containers. Smude oil doesn’t contain preservatives but can be stored for up to 12 months before there’s a risk of turning rancid. After every 300-gallon production run, Smude sends a sample to the Minnesota Valley Testing Laboratories in New Ulm to test for E. coli, yeast and mold. He’s never had a problem.

From field to bottled oil, none of Smude’s byproducts are wasted. After oil is extracted, the presses extrude high-protein pellets that are added to cattle feed. The hulls are used in chicken and cattle bedding. Stalks are plowed into the soil.

Marketing assets

Consumers value high-oleic sunflower oil because it’s similar in nutritional value and composition to olive oil. Its saturated fat content — 1.5 grams per one-tablespoon serving — is lower than olive

oil’s 2 grams.

“Popcorn is the number one use; it tastes like butter,” Smude says. Some taverns with commercial poppers have tried it with raves from customers. The toasty flavor is especially good for pan-frying fish and potatoes, stir fries and salads, write fans on Smude’s blog. Smude Enterprises may soon introduce flavored oils such as garlic and jalapeno, which Wadhawan will help develop and conduct taste tastes.

“The product should sell itself,” as other cold-pressed, high-oleic sunflower oils are selling for 30 to 40 percent more online, Smude says. A 16-ounce bottle of his sunflower oil retails for about $11, close to a modestly-priced extra virgin olive oil, and it’s Minnesota grown.

“I have not seen many projects with sunflowers for quite some time,” says Randy Hilliard, AURI project director, who has helped Smude investigate other high-value markets such as massage oils and lotions.

“I give him a lot of credit for taking on a venture like this,” Hilliard says. “It’s creating economic development and job creation in a rural area, and its adding value to a commodity, which matches AURI’s mission.”

Sun up to past sundown

Smude is selling about 20 cases of oil per week online and at nearly 20 area retailers and restaurants. Besides managing Smude Enterprises, he works full time at his father and uncle’s John Deere dealerships. He currently has three part-time employees and when production increases, he expects to add more.

On the side, Smude is custom crushing specialty oils, such as flax, for other food companies. He is test crushing camelina seed for a Staples Community College research team that is investigating sustainable crops for biodiesel production. The additional business could keep Smude’s operation afloat while his markets for high-oleic sunflower oil expand.

How does he juggle all this? Easy, Smude says: “I start at 6 a.m. and go to midnight.”