Farmer Jim Laine is an innovator. He farms about 800 acres in central New Jersey, growing grains and mixing feeds for everyone from gentleman farmers and horse owners to commercial livestock farmers. The farm grows corn, spelt, soybean, rye, barley, wheat, oats and hay. It also grows sunflowers.
Several years ago, as a part of New Jersey Audubon’s efforts to increase habitat for birds, while also enhancing profits for farmers, Laine planted several acres of sunflowers as part of a small group of farmers participating in the S.A.V.E. (Support Agricultural Viability and the Environment) program. The S.A.V.E. program focuses on bringing to market products that are beneficial to the environment, as well as to New Jersey’s farmers.
Not only does Laine participate in New Jersey Audubon programs, he has developed a value-added product of his own.
The S.A.V.E. initiative focused on the planting of black oil sunflowers to harvest seeds for birdseed sales. But doing so profitably has been challenging, with the cost of production of the seed almost reaching the sales price per bag, Laine said.
While New Jersey Audubon pays farmers a premium to grow the black oil sunflowers for the S.A.V.E. program, “it’s easier for the farmers to make a better price point” on the seed by pressing oil. Food grade sunflower oil offers farmers an additional value-added option, and the potential to earn a premium on this high-value product.
Laine began to explore pressing sunflower seeds not suitable for birdseed sales, potentially for use as a biofuel to run a generator, which he used to heat greenhouses. The oil and by-products can also be used for livestock feed. But an even better option became clear: investing in a facility to press and bottle the sunflower oil into food-grade oil for human consumption. When pressed, sunflowers produce 40 percent oil, and 80 percent of the crop can be utilized in the final sunflower oil product.
“There is literally no waste material” with the sunflower seeds, Laine said. It is a “closed loop system,” valuable “just for the sustainability alone.”
Laine found a suitable press and invested in building the needed facility to meet health department requirements. He now presses and bottles sunflower seed into food-grade cooking oil, under his own Sunburst Acres label. Laine not only presses his own seeds, but also those grown by other farmers in the S.A.V.E. program. Those farmers can then buy back the sunflower oil to sell in their farm markets, capitalizing on the value-added product.
The suggested retail price for Sunburst Acres Sunflower Oil is comparable to a quality olive oil. Sunflower oil has many health benefits, including potential immune, heart health, skin and cancer-fighting properties.
The sunflower oil is unrefined and unbleached. It is also non-GMO, as are all of the crops grown on Laine farm.
The sunflower oil is “sustainable, economically viable product for the farmer,” Laine said.
While the sunflower oil is a product of Laine’s own Sunburst Acres brand, he is directly purchasing and utilizing S.A.V.E. program black oil sunflower seeds to press into sunflower oil, and is donating a portion of the proceeds of sales back into the program.
“Local sustainable agriculture, applying natural resource conservation practices to the land, reducing carbon emissions through reduced trucking, and restoring critical wildlife habitat is what you are supporting when you buy Sunburst Acres Sunflower oil,” Parke said, quoting S.A.V.E. program literature on the product.
The sunflower press at Laine farms runs 24 hours/day, and requires only that someone provide the seed. Maintenance requirements are few, and cleaning is not complicated. Once pressed, particles in the oil settle out. The oil is siphoned into a centrifuge and spun, then is bottled, and labels, designed by Laine’s neighbor, are adhered. All activity occurs in the same small room where the press is located.
No human hands ever touch the oil, and the oil never comes into contact with any surface other than the press, centrifuge, and the bottle, meeting all food safety requirements.
Laine can press 15 gallons of sunflower oil per day, of which 12 gallons are useable as cooking oil. They are able to bottle about 30 gallons per day right now.
“We can centrifuge faster than we can press seed,” Laine said, although he will increase pressing capacity as the product’s sales increase, and invest in another small press.
Sunflower seeds not destined for birdseed go into the press. The cake formed during pressing is edible, and could be fried for a tasty snack. But it currently goes into livestock feed. Seeds can be stored, so pressing does not have to occur immediately, but can happen as sales volumes demand it.
“A larger portion of it goes towards oil now,” Parke said.
Sunflowers are a good rotational crop, are used in livestock feed, and offer benefits to birds, bees and farm profits. But sunflowers are readily damaged by deer and bear, and don’t do well under adverse weather conditions.
Sunflowers provide “tons of pollen. This is a crop that will bring in the pollinators,” Parke said. The crop also attracts several bee species, many bird species, and beneficial insects.
Sunflowers are harvested using specialized harvesting equipment. New Jersey Audubon has the equipment available for loan to farmers in the S.A.V.E. program. The harvesting process involves cutting off the stalk, while capturing the heads of the flowers. If the heads fall in the wrong direction, the seeds will be lost. Modifications of traditional grain harvesting heads can be made so that the sunflower heads are captured and retained.
The sunflower harvest can occur early enough, in August and September in New Jersey, so that barley can be planted afterwards, so sunflowers “fit very well” into a standard crop rotation, Laine said. Acreage devoted to sunflowers needs to be rotated every year, with at least one year before replanting the crop. Due to potential crop loss, at least 30-40 acres are needed for farmers in this region to make a profit on the seed.
Many of the S.A.V.E. program growers have capitalized on the beauty and intrigue of the sunflowers by hosting sunflower mazes. Much like a corn maze, the sunflower maze attracts families, photographers and groups who wish to stroll through the fields, enjoying the view. Cut-your-own sunflowers is also a popular activity. Wildlife tours through the crop are another angle some farmers have explored, drawing crowds to learn about birds and pollinators via educational tours and presentations.
“Sunflowers work out very well if you have some kind of consumer operation on the farm already,” Laine said.
Laine and Parke are interested in involving Rutgers Cooperative Extension in the sunflower program. They are particularly seeking breeding trials. Finding a sunflower that is more suitable to New Jersey growing conditions would help decrease the cost of production, potentially bringing the benefits of sunflower growing to more farms. Currently, the seed does not perform consistently year-to-year, and the oil content changes, too. The cost of sunflower seed is the most expensive component of production, Laine said.
Laine is pressing more sunflower oil than is being sold. He is actively and selectively expanding the farm stands, markets and restaurants that offer Sunburst Acres sunflower oil for sale, or utilize his sunflower oil in their products.
The sunflower oil is “helping the whole conservation efforts in New Jersey,” Laine said.
For more information on the S.A.V.E. program, visit: www.njaudubon.org/SectionConservation/SAVE.aspx .