Somewhere near the crossroads of ingenuity and opportunity, Driftless Organics in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin is growing acres of sunflowers in order to provide another ingredient on our list of local foods—sunflower oil. Rich in Vitamin E, antioxidants and unsaturated fats, their single-source, farmer-direct oil is grown, pressed and bottled in Wisconsin. Perhaps even just 50 years ago this might not have been big news, but for today’s locavores it is, because cooking oils have been hard to come by in Wisconsin.
“I’m really happy to have a local oil product in the store,” said Dean Kallas, Merchandising Manager for the Willy Street Co-op. “From my perspective, if you’re going to cook, you need oil. And if you want to buy local foods, this is a kind of revolution, because you can’t get olives in Wisconsin. You could make soy oil, but there are just not that many oils around from this country. So, for the buy local movement this is pretty important,” Dean stated.
SHARING THE WORK
Co-owners Josh and Noah Engel, along with co-manager Mike Lind, share the daily work it takes to produce vegetable crops, manage workers, equipment, production, distribution and administration for the farm. Not only do they produce sunflower oil, but they also grow vegetables for a CSA, wholesale accounts and farmers’ markets. During the height of their growing season, as many as 12 to 20 workers are employed by Driftless Organics including tractor drivers, mechanics, field and packing house staff.
THE LAY OF THE LAND
Cultivating on a patchwork of fields spread across a 15-mile area of Wisconsin’s driftless region, Driftless Organics rents over 150 organic (QCS-certified) acres in and around the township of Star Valley, where Josh and Mike also rent their home and packing house. Sometimes carving out long, thin swatches of flat land along a creek, they have found tillable acres in the complex terrain on their parents’ nearby farm where they also utilize equipment and extra storage space for the seeds and oil. Despite being unable to find reasonably priced acreage in the area to purchase and call their own, Josh says there are advantages to their disadvantage. “There are a couple of upsides to it,” Josh said, “We have this fantastic ability to rotate stuff, and we don’t have insects or diseases going from year to year.” Growing sunflowers and other cover crops on several plots, sometimes miles apart, enables them to rotate the sunflowers to a different field each season during the recommended four- to five-year rotation schedule to avoid infestation.
Having already weathered two seasons of serious flooding since forming Driftless Organics in 2005, both the CSA farm and sunflower oil business are clear examples of their drive as well as early lessons learned while being raised on an organic dairy farm. The young Engel brothers, given a quarter-acre to start with in 1994, decided to grow a colorful variety of potatoes. After harvesting a bountiful crop of potatoes, their mother enrolled them as vendors at the Dane County Farmers’ Market where they were known as Rainbow Potatoes. In 2002, they were briefly one of the first vendors at the Eastside Farmers’ Market. The two men later attended college and worked for other Midwest organic farms before coming together to create Driftless Organics.
After receiving welcomed relief money (Sow the Seeds Fund through Willy Street Co-op) and starting to recover from the flooding that wiped out major portions of their crops in 2007, Josh and Noah began to consider high-oleic sunflower oil as a farm product. Now entering their fourth season cultivating sunflowers, they’re looking forward to another run at it with 35 acres. Because sunflowers are planted, grown and harvested very much like corn, Jake explained how they were able to adapt a corn combine owned by their parents to harvest the sunflower heads in autumn when the moisture content of the plants reaches between six and eight percent. With ideal growing and harvest conditions, it is expected that one acre of flowers will reap around 1,500 pounds of oil.
Processing of the seeds was another major challenge requiring an enterprising attitude because there are few options for small-scale processing of seeds in the region. Josh explained, “It used to be, every feed mill in every town in Wisconsin [had] a fanning mill or a seed cleaner and that’s all gone now.” With no mills or milling equipment to clean the seeds, Josh searched for a used fanning machine at auction before locating one in Canada. Now installed in a nearby warehouse, the large fanning machine separates and cleans the seeds that are then dried before being shipped to Badger Oil Company in Spooner, Wisconsin. This unique Wisconsin processor specializing in biodegradable, cold-pressed oils and serving small-scale producers, uses an expeller-press procedure (under 105 degrees) that leaves the unrefined oil with more of its inherent nutrients intact. Most of the oil is then bottled and sent back to Driftless Organics, however some portions have been reserved for fueling one of the farm’s tractors, which has been converted to use vegetable oil. Josh admits he’s hoping to acquire the equipment necessary to begin pressing their oil closer to home; based on their past performance, it’s not hard to imagine that happening.