Smude's Sunflower Oil is a golden workhorse in my kitchen, the go-to for vinaigrettes, sautés and baking. Unlike olive oil, sunflower oil can take the heat.
"Its smoke point is close to 400 degrees, so it's especially good for frying fish on the beach," said Tom Smude, of Smude Enterprises in Pierz, Minn. "Olive oil is good up to 320 degrees."
Tom and Jenni Smude had been farming soybeans until 2007, when a hailstorm destroyed their crop destined for China, where it was to be processed into tofu.
He began researching crops to farm, beyond corn and soy. After considering canola, he landed on sunflowers because they are well suited to this region, able to tolerate our extreme weather far better than soybeans, and produce a healthful oil.
"We chose a sunflower variety with seeds that have a high oleic content," Tom Smude said. These are a different from those seeds roasted into "spitters" that many of us eat at the ballpark.
"Our oil is high in monosaturated fats — the good fat — as well as vitamin E," Smude said.
The Smudes began cold pressing and bottling sunflower oil on their farm in 2010, using a machine that operates at less than 120 degrees to retain the oil's nutrient content and flavor. The leftover high-protein byproduct is turned into animal feed pellets. Their biggest challenge was in marketing.
"Jenni and I love to cook, and we could attest firsthand to the oil's flavor, cooking and health benefits. We were able to get it into the nearby Coburn's store in Little Falls. It caught on, so stores in St. Cloud and Sauk Rapids took it and pretty soon other stores wanted it, too," Smude said. National distributors became interested and now it's in 400 stores in all 50 states. The oil has becoming increasingly popular with local chefs, as well.
In 2015, the business grew 41 percent with new accounts being added by the day. The Smudes, needing more sunflowers than they could supply, rely on surrounding farmers to meet the average 100 gallons of sunflower oil they press daily on the farm. The oil is bottled in a nearby plant that includes a kitchen where Jenni has been creating a new line of seasoned oils.
Tom Smude credits much of their success to the food shows they and his distributors attend across the country.
Getting to know the customers is the best way to understand the market, he said, "That and not giving up. We just keep at it. Every successful small business starts out in someone's garage, and it feels like a long haul. But persistence wears down resistance every time."
Smude's seasoned sunflower oils sell for $10 per 8-ounce bottle. Smude Sunflower Oil is available by the gallon ($27), half-gallon ($17) and in 16-ounce glass bottles (about $10). smudeoil.com.