(as appeared in Small Farm Canada March/April 2014)
There are few agricultural sights more riveting than that of more than four hundred thousand sunflowers tracking the sun across the sky.
When Dale Horeczy and Brad Daily of Kricklewood Farm settled into their 90 acre Eastern Ontario farm property they were looking for a farm crop to supplement their hobby farm’s market and farm gate sales. What they settled on was a small scale cold pressed sunflower oil production that has since become the backbone of their farm production.
The concept of growing sunflowers as a farm crop isn’t a foreign one for Dale and Brad – both are from Winnipeg, Manitoba, where sunflower fields are common sight. After reading an article about Loic Dewavrin, a sunflower oil producer near Montreal, Dale and Brad’s interest was piqued at the prospect of resurrecting the picturesque fields of Manitoba in their new Ontario location and producing a hard to find local food – high quality culinary oil. The entrepreneurs were quick to recognize a niche market waiting for discovery.
“We saw it as an opportunity to both grow sunflowers and share the beauty of the field with others,” Dale said of their decision to enter sunflower oil production, “We thought ‘if Loic can do it, maybe we can do it, too’.”
Kricklewood Farm is the perfect location for sunflower production, being close to several smaller rural centres as well as the larger urban centres of Ottawa and Kingston. Their central location offered them access to multiple farmers’ markets and allowed them to capitalize on agritourism components for their farm.
By specializing in a crop and value added product not typically found in Eastern Ontario, Dale and Brad have attracted local and regional interest in their farm and captured an edge on a niche market, putting them on track to developing a viable, sustainable and profitable on-farm enterprise.
Canada’s Sunflower Industry
Native to the Great Plains region of North America, sunflowers have been grown commercially in Canada since the early 1940’s. In 2011 there were more than 75,000 acres of sunflowers produced on 500 farms across Canada – 90 per cent of which are found in Manitoba.
There are two varieties of sunflowers – confection and oilseed. Confection sunflower seeds are used primarily for human consumption, while oilseeds are used primarily for birdseed and oil production. The majority of all sunflower crops in North America are of the oilseed variety.
While there is clearly a market in Canada for sunflower oilseed crops, if a farmer is growing for oil production, processing of the seed can be another matter. Because there are no seed crushing facilities located in Canada farmers growing seed for oil production must either process it themselves or ship it to the United States for pressing.
The Canadian sunflower oil industry has the potential for significant growth in the coming years as increased awareness of “healthy fats” leads to demand for high quality oil that is also low in saturated fats – and sunflower oil may be just the product consumers are looking for.
All Oils Are Not Created Equal
Sunflower seeds grown for oil are easily recognized by their black shells and are separated into three different varieties –linoleic, mid-oleic (Nu Sun) and high oleic. All sunflower oil is high in vitamin E and a source of B vitamins, but mid-oleic (NuSun) and high oleic oils also contain higher amounts of monounsaturated fats, and lower amounts of saturated fats and zero trans fats. Linoleic oil is the traditional oil used for many years but has limitations for frying and is higher in saturated fats.
Although mid-oleic or NuSun oils have dominated the industry for decades, market demand appears to be shifting toward high oleic oils which contain a minimum of 80 per cent monounsaturated fats compared to the 60 to 65 per cent found in mid-oleic oils.
According to the National Sunflower Association of Canada (NSAC), mid-oleic sunflowers currently make up the majority of all sunflower crops in Canada, but the trend towards healthy fats could impact oil production.
“There is a growing demand for high-oleic sunflowers as the oil competes better with the likes of canola and soybean oil in the marketplace. The [high oleic] oil profile is healthier and society is encouraging a move in that direction,” Darcelle Graham, NSAC Executive Director, explained.
If the potential health benefits weren’t enough motivation, mid or high oleic sunflower oils can be sold at a premium, resulting in more economic gain per litre of oil.
Sunflower Oil Processing
Sunflower oil can be processed in two different ways – expeller expressed and traditionally processed. Traditionally processed oil uses solvents to remove the oil from the seeds. Expeller expressed includes both cold pressed and regularly pressed – for an oil to qualify as “cold pressed,” the head of the pressing machinery used in production must not exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit during pressing.
Cold pressed is considered to be the method of processing that retains the most of an oil’s natural flavour and benefits for health and wellness. To keep temperatures down, cold pressed oil production is much slower.
Dale and Brad place an emphasis on the quality of their oil, informing potential buyers about the health benefits of cold pressed, high-oleic oils. “Some people don’t understand cold pressed, it can be a bit of an education,” Dale explained.
To cold press sunflower seed after harvesting, the seed is first cleaned to remove chaff and then fed into a mechanical press where the oil is squeezed from the seeds. The machine spits the oil out of one opening while the remaining sunflower meal is ejected from another. The oil is then allowed to settle before being filtered and bottled. As an added bonus, the by-product of oil production, called seed meal, can be marketed as a sole source protein supplement for beef or dairy cattle.
How a grower chooses to extract their oil will have an impact on where and how that oil is ultimately marketed. Deciding which method to use can be a balancing act –cold pressed oil can be marketed at a higher cost while expressed oils can be produced more quickly.
Market and Scale
In addition to farm gate sales, Kricklewood Farm sells at several farmers’ markets and stocks products in dozens of retail locations. At market, Dale offers free samples of bread dipped in oil to customers, promoting it as having a light and “slightly nutty” flavour.
“I tell people to think of it as an alternative to butter,” Dale explained, “If people are still skeptical, I say come and try it; it tastes like sunshine.”
Dale explained the market for their product has been good, but stressed that the biggest challenge to their operation has been balancing the production scale they are able to attain with a growing market demand.
To make it even more challenging, prospective oil producers must determine their production scale well before entering production – with an initial expense of $20,000 for a small scale oil press , accurately forecasting what size press will be needed is critical.
Dale uses a small scale German made oil press to process between four and five hundred pounds of seed daily, producing roughly 30 to 40 litres of oil. He averages approximately 300 litres of oil per acre harvested, which, at full production and with optimal pricing of $14 per 500 ml, has the potential to gross $120,000 annually.
Although at a glance this may seem like a profitable farm venture, there are other overhead costs to consider such as planting, harvesting, equipment and utility costs, not to mention the cost of the time involved in the processing, which can be substantial.
By producing 30 litres of oil daily, Dale works roughly 150 days annually just to process the oil from the previous season’s harvest. And that number doesn’t take into account market days or days spent planting, weeding, harvesting or on administrative activities.
“Like any new business, it takes time to build it up,” Dale explained, adding that even after two seasons, Kricklewood Farm still has a way to go before reaching full income potential.
With an upgrade to a larger press and bottling equipment, Dale could produce more oil in the same amount of time. At their current scale there is little room for expansion to meet a growing demand for their product.
To become cost effective, Dale said he envisions an on-farm processing facility where visitors can watch the oil being processed and where value added products could also be sold. To accomplish these goals would require the purchase of a larger press, filtering equipment and bottler, not to mention the expense of an on-farm facility to handle the processing and retail sales.
To make things even more challenging, Dale and Brad have discovered there is not a lot of information out there about small scale sunflower oil production, giving every step of the process a steep learning curve. Tweaking production to get the best results is a constant balancing act – seed moisture, temperature, and press adjustments all affect production quantities and consistencies – but according to Dale the end result is worth it.
“It’s a reward to see people come out to the farm to see the flowers and the field and enjoy it… if the crop itself wasn’t unusual and rare it wouldn’t be as much fun.”
How much would it cost to enter into small scale cold pressed sunflower oil production? Here’s a quick look at the basic initial expenses, based on a 15 acre field rotation.
Press, Filtering Equipment $30,000
Bottles, Labels and Equipment $3,000
Machinery (tiller, cultivator) $4,000
$37,600 min. initial expense
(These costs are estimates only and dependant on a farmer’s production scale, region and available machinery)
Growing Sunflowers – Not Your Typical Farm Crop
Growing sunflowers successfully means thinking outside the traditional farming box and coming up with innovative solutions to planting and harvesting. Typical planting, tilling and harvesting machinery may need to be modified to accommodate sunflower seeds and plants – a sunflower grower will need to invest more time problem solving to overcome obstacles.
Sunflowers can be grown as a single field crop, but also grow well as a rotation crop with corn, soybeans and sorghum. Either way, they should not be planted on the same field more than once every three or four years. Sunflowers are fairly hardy and grow rapidly and best on loam, silty loam and silty clay loam soils. A good guideline for a farmer planting 20,000 seeds per acre is a row spacing of 30 inches with eight to twelve inches between seeds. Dale and Brad use a John Deere four-row corn planter to plant their seed.
Due to its size and vigorous growth sunflower plants are able to tolerate weeds well, but will likely need some assistance in the early weeks after planting or until the plants are large enough to compete with weeds. Sunflowers are able to tolerate damage from pests fairly well and infestations will not generally result in any significant economic loss. They are more vulnerable to diseases such as sclerotinia and rust verticillium and should be monitored to ensure overall yield of the plant isn’t affected.
Sunflower crops can be harvested in late fall, or any time after the back of the seed head turns brown and the seed moisture is below 20 per cent. When harvesting a sunflower crop, a combiner must adjust settings to accommodate the sunflower plant and head. Some farmers suggest using a grain head, while others prefer a corn head. The skill and experience of the combiner will be instrumental in determining which settings to use to ensure the least amount of loss.
Are Sunflower Seeds for the Birds?
Sunflower oilseeds are the preferred seed for most seed eating birds – they will preferentially seek out sunflower oil seeds in any feeder. Bird seed production is a growing market in Canada and is increasing by roughly 10 per cent annually in North America. The bulk of all oil seed grown in North America is marketed to the bird seed industry.
Sunflower oil may be a growing market for Canada, but the bird seed industry shouldn’t be discounted either for prospective sunflower growers.
Did You Know?
Sunflowers are heliotropic – in the early stages of their flowering development sunflowers will track the sun across the sky and then face east at night. During the seed development stage most sunflowers will remain facing east.
One sunflower can have up to 2,000 seeds.
A sunflower is actually composed to two types of flowers – the petals around the edge of the head are called ray flowers while the face of the head is made up of disk flowers that each form into a seed.
Sunflowers are considered mature when the back of the head turns yellow and ready for harvest when the back of the head turns brown.
Seed harvest can be put off until quite late in the season, and a late frost can be useful in drying out seed.
For More Information
Canadian Sunflower Association http://www.canadasunflower.com/
National Sunflower Association http://www.sunflowernsa.com/
Canadian Special Crops Association http://www.specialcrops.mb.ca/index.php