Business is popping at Smude’s Sunflower Oil in Pierz.

Seven years ago, Tom and his wife, Jenni, central Minnesota cattle farmers, began working with AURI to develop Minnesota’s first cold-press sunflower oil manufacturing company. Now, Smude’s Sunflower Oil is expanding into microwave popcorn.

The fast-growing company’s newest product is made with Smude’s heart-healthy sunflower oil. Tom and Jenni Smude launched Smude’s Brand Microwave Popcorn in August and it’s already available at major grocery store chains, including Coborn’s and Lunds & Byerlys.

Smude’s Brand also includes cold-pressed, high-oleic sunflower oil and flavored sunflower dipping oils. Their cold-press process uses no chemicals or heat, which maintains the oil’s natural flavor and nutrients, says Tom Smude.

AURI has worked with the energetic Smudes since 2010, when they founded their on-farm sunflower crushing enterprise. “Tom and Jenni are true entrepreneurs,” says Michael Sparby, AURI senior project strategist. “Food ventures are particularly challenging,” he adds. “They’ve done a good job at building their brand.”

A Favorite Snack

Popcorn is one of America’s favorite snacks. In fact, Americans consume about 14 billion quarts of popped popcorn a year, according to industry group, the Popcorn Board. That translates to roughly 43 popped quarts per person, annually!

Sunflower oil is a natural for popcorn, Tom says. Like olive oil, sunflower oil is high in monounsaturated fat and Omega fatty acids, which help lower “bad” cholesterol. It’s also high in Vitamin E, a natural preservative. It holds up under high cooking temperatures and has a light, buttery taste. Mann Movie Theatres already use Smude’s Sunflower Oil in their commercial corn poppers.

With the majority of popcorn, 70 percent, consumed at home, microwave popcorn was a logical way to extend the market for Smude’s sunflower oil, Tom says. “People kept telling us we should make a microwave popcorn. We all lead such busy lifestyles, so microwave popcorn has an advantage.”

Wholesome Snack

Smude’s Brand Microwave Popcorn contains just three ingredients: popcorn seeds, sea salt, and premium sunflower oil. That appeals to today’s health-conscious consumers who want convenient, wholesome snacks with ingredients they recognize, says Ben Swanson, AURI food scientist.

Most microwave popcorn contains primarily saturated fat from palm or coconut oil, Swanson says. Because Smude’s popcorn uses sunflower oil, it has far less saturated fat per bag than other brands, Swanson says — only about one percent, and the liquid oil coats the seeds uniformly for more even popping, he says. It reminds me of popcorn my grandma made on the stovetop. It has a very clean taste — no oily, fake butter taste.

Engineering a paper bag for popping that wouldn’t leak liquid sunflower oil took some doing, Tom says. He worked with a packaging technology company to develop a patented bag design and seal. “We use a chemical-free bag without a wax coating.”

AURI help

AURI provided nutritional analysis and labeling, shelf life testing, and salt content guidance. Those services are a great boon to start-up food companies, Swanson says. “The people we work with have great passion and belief in their products, but they don’t have a lot of money for research and development activities.”

To begin with, Tom and Jenni expect to process one semitrailer-load of popcorn a week. Smude’s works with five Midwest food distributors and sells nationwide through its website .

Their target market is “the natural foods market and high-end grocery stores,” Tom says. Smude’s brown paper popcorn bag really captures “the natural foods vibe,” Swanson says. “They are launching at a good time,” he adds, “when the natural and local foods trends are in full swing.”

Sparby seconds that. “The local foods movement is a bright spot for small food companies” like Smude’s, which are commanding growing sections of supermarkets. “Many retailers are clamoring for local food products.”

AURI adds cold press

AURI’s new cold-press oil extractor will help small food companies like Smude’s Sunflower Oil develop new, value-added products from Minnesota oilseeds.

The single-barrel screw press, made by Oil Press Company in Mondovi, Wisconsin, is housed at AURI’s co-products lab in Waseca. Unlike most commercial methods, a cold-press extracts oil without using heat or chemicals, says Al Doering, senior scientist, coproducts.

“We’ve had a lot of calls about cold pressing oilseeds without chemicals,” Doering says.

A number of alternative oilseed crops, such as flax, pennycress, cuphea, and camelina, hold promise for Minnesota farmers, says Michael Sparby, AURI senior project strategist. The new oil press will let AURI test process and explore new uses for these and other oilseeds, Sparby says. It will also let AURI help companies like Smude’s improve their processing efficiency and profitability, he adds.

An entrepreneur’s story

Tom Smude remembers a bit of advice he received early in his career: “Persistence wears down resistance.”

That counsel guides him now as he works 90-hour weeks to build a new food brand.

“It takes a lot of work to bring a food product to market,” says Michael Sparby, AURI senior project strategist — and, of course, there’s no guarantee of success. However, “Tom is determined and relentless.”

“My wife would say crazy!” Smude jokes.

Seven years ago, Tom and his wife, Jenni, central Minnesota cattle farmers, started Minnesota’s first cold-press sunflower oil manufacturing company. It all started with droughts in 2007 and 2008, which hammered crop yields, and forced the Smudes to buy expensive cattle feed. So they looked for an alternative crop to diversify risk on their sandy soils.

Sunflowers require much less water than corn or soybeans. In 2010, they set up a cold press on their farm near Pierz, Minnesota to crush their first sunflower harvest for livestock feed and oil.

Initially, the Smudes viewed sunflower meal as their primary product. It’s a nutritious feedstuff, comparable to soybean meal in protein and energy content. The oil was a secondary commodity, which they planned to sell in bulk for biofuel production.

But when oil prices plunged, they quickly changed direction. With help from AURI, they set up a bottling plant and started selling food-grade sunflower oil in retail outlets.

Beginning with farmers’ markets and a handful of local stores, they widened distribution to major chain grocery stores, restaurants, and movie theaters across the Midwest. They also supply bulk sunflower oil to Barrett Petfood Innovations, a rapidly growing premium pet food manufacturer in Brainerd. “We expect to grow along with them,” Tom says.

Tom and Jenni “have done a tremendous job of marketing their oil and moving it into a variety of products,” says Al Doering, AURI co-products scientist. Doering provided nutritional analysis of the leftover sunflower seed meal and hulls, which helps the Smudes boost their crushing plant efficiency. The Smude’s Brand line now includes six varieties of flavored sunflower oil, such as garlic-pepper and tomato-basil; eight kinds of scented massage oils; and sunflower-oil soap and lotion.

U.S. Popcorn Consumption

Smude’s Brand Microwave Popcorn is already available at major grocery store chains, including Coborn’s and Lunds & Byerlys.