A few years ago father-son duo Don and Dennis Wright decided that instead of expanding their century-old farm they would diversify it by creating a value-added enterprise using one of their existing crops: high oleic sunflowers.
They explored several options but ultimately decided pressing sunflower seeds to make oil made the most sense.
Now Wright Farms Sunflower Oil is available in more than 30 stores and restaurants across Kansas, and the family is pleased with how the venture has gone so far.
"We just want to produce an honest product at an honest price," said Dennis Wright at their processing shed located roughly 25 miles east of the Colorado-Kansas border near the town of Bird City.
"We're the only ones I know of who take the whole process from start to finish," he added. "There are a few small processors out there, but not all of them grow the seed themselves or do the pressing on their own farm."
The Wrights decided to buy a small European style screw press and filtering equipment after failing to find adequate custom processing services to hire out the job.
The process begins with harvesting whole seeds and storing them in a small grain bin next to the shed, which is set up to auger seed directly into a hopper that feeds into the expeller press. The screw press, which is automated and can be set up to run for several hours without human intervention, squeezes out the oil and drops pelletized sunflower meal into large tote bags. The meal is sold to a local rancher who comes by and picks it up periodically.
The press can produce 30 gallons of raw oil a day. The Wrights typically run it for a day or two once a month.
After being pressed, the oil goes into a holding tank. From there, it is re-circulated through a machine with a series of ten filter plates until it runs clear. A hose transfers it from a secondary holding tank into the adjoining commercial kitchen, which is equipped with a small bottling station. (The pressing and packaging must be done in separate rooms to comply with food safety regulations.)
The oil is packaged in various sized plastic bottles and labeled using a customized labeling contraption Dennis jokingly calls "the farmer-ingenuity part of the operation." Don built it by tinkering with spare parts, connecting a foot pedal to a $10 automatic drill that spins a lawnmower belt and rotates the bottle while the printed label is adhered.
"We make the oil as we need it, because we want it to be as fresh as it can be," Dennis said.
Most of the equipment they use comes from Germany — expeller pressed oils are common on the European continent — and the bottling machine was bought secondhand from a California winery.
"We wanted to do something that was low overhead and pay-as-you-go. This has cost us about the same as buying a new piece of modern farm equipment," Dennis said.
They sell 16-oz. bottles at a suggested retail price of $5.99, with larger bulk sizes available.
"We're trying to be price competitive. We don't want anyone interested in a healthy lifestyle to feel like they can't afford this," he added.
Because the oil is cold pressed and never subjected to high heat refining, it is high in Vitamin E but has a relatively low smoke point. Wright recommends it be used on a low-to-medium stovetop or in an oven heated to 375 degrees or less. It is usually possible to lower the heat and extend the cooking time to adapt recipes to fit those parameters.
Only highly refined sunflower oils are recommended for high heat cooking and frying, he said.
"What sets us apart is we do the whole process very slowly, so the oil is more golden in color, and it's also a little thicker than highly refined oil," he said.
High oleic sunflowers, which are quickly becoming the industry standard, not only produce oil that contains less saturated fat, but the oil is also more shelf stable, Wright explained. It's the saturated fat in the oil that goes bad and creates impurities.
Unrefined sunflower is hard to find and most of what has traditionally been offered in big box stories is from the Ukraine, Wright added.
The family business is taking an everything-under-the-sun marketing approach that includes smaller grocers and specialty shops, the regional High Plains Food Co-op, and many small-scale soap and cosmetics makers who love using the product in their formulations.
"Local or regional sourcing is a big deal because it helps other small businesses sell their own products," Wright said.
From the Land of Kansas, the state's food marketing program, has helped with bar coding, shelf-life analysis and product promotion.
According to an analysis done at Kansas State University, the oil stays good for two years. It doesn't require refrigeration, although Wright recommends keeping it out of direct light and heat.
While Don and Dennis are in charge of making the oil, their wives are involved with packaging, shipping and promotion. Dennis' wife Dana has a master's degree in accounting, and Don's wife Donna is a barn enthusiast who loves giving tours out at the farm.
The Wright farmstead has volunteered to host a stop during the Big Kansas Roadtrip, an agritourism experience organized by the Kansas Sampler Foundation, scheduled for May 2-5.
Wright said one of the biggest impediments to their business so far is the cost of shipping. They use FedEx, which charges $24 to ship a dozen 16-oz. bottles. That adds $1.20 to the price of every bottle.
For that reason, whenever they travel, the Wrights make deliveries and do sales calls and product sampling.
The business is a fun side project for the family, but Dennis hopes to see it grow. He has twins who are 9 along with a teenager at home, and he is thinking about what opportunities might be available for them down the road.
The desire to raise his family in a rural setting was what prompted him to leave a corporate job and return to his hometown a dozen years ago.
"I'd like my kids to have the option of staying in Bird City," he said. "It's a great place to live, but it can be a hard place to make a living."
Their new venture is designed to be scalable.
"With our set-up, we can easily increase our production if we need to, just by installing a bigger press," he said. "We wouldn't have to change anything else, and we could increase our output 20-fold."