Photography by Bill Stephens
RECIPE FEATURED WITH ARTICLE: Wright Sunflower Oil Tender Steak Marinade
Sunflowers are more than a beautiful symbol of our state. Kansas is the nation’s fourth-largest producer of sunflower products with a sizable portion of this crop becoming food for birds and animals. But some growers, such as the Wright family in the far western part of the state, cultivate sunflowers to create the nutrient-rich sunflower cooking oil.
Now the fourth generation of their family to farm on fields around Bird City, father and son Don and Dennis Wright built their sunflower oil business from the ground up and monitor their product through each phase, from field to bottle and then on to the consumer.
The sunflower crops are a recent addition, coming in 2015 when the Wrights diversified their farm by adding a processing plant allowing them to produce unrefined, minimally processed oil. Small batch processing of sunflower oil is a slow process, and like winemakers, the Wrights check each batch for consistency in color and clarity. It’s the same “take it slow, do it right” philosophy that guided the Wrights from day one as they adapted their century-old farm to create a sunflower enterprise.
Father and son did their own construction, and Don used his skill as an electrician to wire the plant and to engineer much of the equipment that runs the automated filtration system. He also designed their bottle labeler, which is made from spare parts, including a hand drill and lawn mover belt. The entire plant was designed to include labor-saving practices—from the location of the plant right next to the sunflower storage bin to elevating the press so that the meal by-product drops down into totes, ready to be hauled away for cattle feed. A separate commercial kitchen, located within the plant, allows the Wrights to easily bottle the oil while complying with food safety standards.
One of the biggest challenges was locating equipment that would allow them to cold press the seeds, a process that preserves nutrients and flavor. They finally found a German-made expeller press and filters that extract the oil without subjecting it to high-heat refining; it’s a method similar to what is used to produce high-quality European olive oil.
By 2016, the Wrights’ operation was approved by the Kansas Department of Agriculture. Arrangements were then made with Kansas State University to conduct a shelf life and nutritional analysis.
The Wrights knew they had a healthy product. Their research had shown that the American Heart Association recognized sunflower oil as one of the “better for you” fats. They also knew that cold-pressed sunflower oil is high in vitamin E, a fat-soluble nutrient that acts as an antioxidant, protecting cells from the damage caused by free radicals. Focus groups, used in the early stages of the project, convinced them there was a real consumer interest in healthy cooking oils and helped spur the venture onward.
Tasting groups also sampled the oil and provided feedback, which led to the mild-flavored oil that is their standard. Some described the flavor as nutty; others noticed a slightly sweet taste while others described it as light and fresh.
For the Wrights, the annual harvest process begins with a late June planting. Last year the Wrights planted 500 acres of sunflowers using black oil seeds. Unlike confection seeds that are meaty and used for snacking, the black seeds are smaller, with a high oil content that makes them ideal for use in cooking oils and cosmetics and as premium birdseed. Flowers are harvested in November using a combine equipped with special sunflower pans added to the header. Seeds are deposited in a bin where they can be augured directly into a hopper that feeds into the expeller press located in the plant. The automated screw press squeezes out the oil and can be set to run for several hours. Pressed oil goes into a holding tank and then continuously permeates though a series of filter plates for 48 hours. From there, a hose transfers it to a secondary holding tank located in the adjoining commercial kitchen where it is then bottled, labeled and boxed for shipment.
“Although the oil has been determined to have a 24-month shelf life, we make it as we need it,” Dennis says. “We want it to be as fresh as it can be.” Currently, they are pressing about four times per month.
Wright oil is sold online through their website and the From the Land of Kansas site, also through small, independent retailers. Since shipping can be problematic for a small business, they rely on their local postal service and friends and family to make retail deliveries.
Throughout the process, the Wrights have relied on family and community. Dennis’ wife, Dana, and their three children help with the bottling and boxing while his mom, Donna, is instrumental in scouting out vendors and helping with research. Students in a graphic design class at Goodland’s Northwest Kansas Area Vocational-Technical School designed the original bottle label.
Through their harvests, the Wrights say they have developed a greater appreciation for the strength and resilience of the state flower. The sunflowers’ strong, deep roots, up to seven feet in length, are able to explore the soil for water and nutrients in drought-prone western Kansas. Those deep roots also break up compacted soil, allowing them to absorb maximum moisture.
Sunflowers have definitely been a positive venture for the Wrights. Their plant and equipment, designed to be scalable, has the capacity to produce oil up to 30 days per month. “We plan to continue producing healthy high oleic sunflower oil, made the healthiest way possible, for many years to come,” Dennis says.