Written by Cheryl Herrick
Published in Vermont's Local Banquet
Netaka White remembers going to some of the first local food challenges in Vermont—potluck meals to which attendees would bring food that was entirely grown or raised within Vermont, or a 50-mile radius.
“There would be all this great stuff,” he recalls, “but there was no oil. I thought, "Isn’t it interesting that we all want locally grown food on our tables, but we sure love that [imported] olive oil?’” Since those early potlucks a dozen years ago, a handful of Vermont farms have begun bottling their own culinary oil. But Netaka’s thoughts led him to wonder what he could do to get a local, monounsaturated, Vermont-produced oil onto the dining tables of Vermonters.
Netaka is now the operations manager of Full Sun Company, a Middlebury-based business that is offering culinary, Vermont-made sunflower and canola oils produced partially from Vermont-grown seed. Together, he and business partner David McManus are trying to provide a market for Vermont-grown sunflowers and canola seed by selling a great-tasting product to chefs and consumers.
The two met while working on alternative and on-farm energy projects, but they describe themselves as “foodies at heart.” David had spent years working in New Jersey with the specialty meat company Applegate as it was scaling up to meet demand for natural, ethically raised meats. “My appreciation for good food came from going out to the farms and seeing how the animal was fed, and how they’re taken care of before they go to slaughter,” David recalls. “And that’s what we’re doing here [at Full Sun] but with plants, so we can provide the best possible raw ingredients for the best possible result.”
Both David and Netaka describe the delight they’ve experienced when introducing others to their cold-pressed, organic oils. They note that consumers, accustomed to commodity oils, have often come to think of sunflower and canola oils as bland, flavorless, and devoid of nutrients. Full Sun is working to change that assessment by offering a bright, fresh flavor in their products. “The sunflower oil tastes nutty, like sunflower seeds,” Netaka says. “And the canola is earthy and buttery, with hints of a mustard sort of spice.”
The cold-press process is key to the flavor. At Full Sun’s facility in Middlebury (the only operation in Vermont that is solely processing food-grade oil from seed grown by other farms), oil is always kept at 125 °F or below, and then goes through a series of filtration steps to remove sediment. The result is what Netaka calls “a bright, clear oil. We retain the flavor of the seeds, the color, the health benefits. And we’re not abusing the fatty acids.”
Full Sun oils are currently found across Vermont in high-end eateries, schools, hospitals, and restaurants of all sorts. One chef reports putting the sunflower oil on his bagel in the morning instead of cream cheese or butter. “Now how often do you hear about someone doing that with oil?” Netaka asks.
While flavor is important, Full Sun’s owners are aware that flavor reflects the quality of the seed and its cultivation—and they are hopeful about what that seed means in terms of the larger agricultural landscape in Vermont. Full Sun oilseed is partially sourced from Vermont, but also sourced from a few other states and Canada.
Netaka notes that farmers have been growing sunflower and canola in Vermont for 10 years or so but there hasn’t been a commercial demand for the seeds from any local processors beyond the farms themselves. Full Sun is now “telling growers that we’re here, and we’re inviting growers to learn along with us.”
John Williamson of State Line Oils in North Bennington is one grower who is looking at growing sunflowers for Full Sun. He’s been producing on-farm biofuel , but with the price of diesel so low, he says the numbers just don’t make sense for farmers. “We calculate that the cost of a gallon of biofuel on the farm costs about $3.50 to produce,” he says. “With the price of diesel under $2 a gallon, it just doesn’t add up.”
John is well positioned to make the switch from fuel oil to oil for human consumption. He’s been growing oilseed for almost 10 years, and he made the initial investment in a food-grade oil mill, learning what needs to be done in order to produce a quality product. “You have to treat the whole crop differently, starting in the field,” he says. “You have to treat the combine with food-grade oil, have the seed conditioned [i.e., dried] differently, and you can’t have any contaminants. The seed cleaner has to be set up differently, then into food-grade containers. It’s a much cleaner product.”
John is one of a small group of Vermont farmers who have made an investment in oilseed production over the last decade. Ten years isn’t a long time for establishing a new crop in a region, though, and the two that Full Sun (and Vermont’s oilseed growers) are focusing on have their own demands and quirks.
University of Vermont Extension agronomist Heather Darby (who’s also a farmer) is familiar with some of the challenges and opportunities that sunflowers and canola (a leafy plant in the mustard family) present. Sunflowers can only be grown in a particular field every 4 to 6 years. They require a long growing season, and then a long time to dry after reaching maturity before being harvested, which leaves them susceptible to the birds that love to eat them. Likewise, canola has promise here in Vermont, but faces pressure from weeds and mold.
But, as Heather says, “Growing canola and sunflower can add another level of diversification for Vermont farms, and that helps farmers.” Sunflowers can help build soil health and quality too, she says. “Sunflowers are great at improving compaction. The year after you grow them, the soil is so much easier to work with. They’ve got these deep taproots that pump nutrients up, plus they are extremely drought tolerant, and conserve water and suppress weeds.”
At Full Sun, two “co-products” are made alongside the bottled culinary oil. The meal (comprised of the hull and what remains of the seed) provides organic livestock feed. And all “off-spec” oil (that which doesn’t meet strict standards for color, purity, or flavor) is separated and ends up in the hands of a Vermont biodiesel maker.
Although Full Sun is seeking additional growers with the acreage to significantly increase the proportion of Vermont grown oils in their finished product, Netaka and David readily acknowledge that they do not want to put Vermont farmers at risk by encouraging overinvestment in canola and sunflower. “We think it’s realistic for us to increase the proportion of Vermont oils significantly, and we think it’s a logical crop for grain growers to work into their rotation here,” David says.