“It seems like a 10-year period from last year to now,” Tom Smude says. But, rather than exhausted, he sounds energized and ready to tackle another 10 years squeezed into one.
In February 2010, Smude (you pronounce the “e” on the end) put his first bottles of Smude’s Sunflower Oil on the shelves of a handful of specialty stores. In that year, he sold 10,000 bottles of oil, ranging from 8 ounces to 2.5 gallons. In the first eight months of 2011, he sold 20,000 bottles. And, with interest still growing, it seems well within the realm of possibility that he will hit his small plant’s capacity of 40,000 gallons in 2012.
Chefs at Spoonriver, Birchwood Cafe, Common Roots, Grand Cafe, Heartland, and several other restaurants now cook with Smude’s Sunflower Oil. At this year’s Minnesota Cooks event at the State Fair, Tom Smude took the stage with the Chowgirls catering team. And Smude’s Sunflower Oil is now on the shelves at nearly 100 stores in Minnesota, including several Kowalski’s Markets.
Smude is currently talking with the large grocery chain Coborn’s about stocking his oil, but he’s running up against one of the challenges of pioneering a new market: “They really like the product, but they’re telling me they have to figure out a marketing strategy. ‘If we just put it on the shelf, no one will buy it,’ they say.”
Marketing sunflower oil means talking it up as the new, improved olive oil. High-oleic oil like the kinds Smude produces have a higher percentage of monounsaturated fats (the “good” fats that decrease LDL cholesterol) and have a similarly high smoke point. The flavor is light and buttery, great for frying and a good neutral backdrop for vinaigrettes. (I made a batch of mayonnaise with Smude’s Sunflower Oil and loved it. I’ll never go back to Canola oil for that.)
The year 2007 was a dry one in Central Minnesota. Tom Smude started thinking about alternatives to his soybean crop. Then 2008 was dry again. He started exploring biodiesel fuels in earnest, and then he discovered the food-grade oil market. He picked up a bottle of sunflower oil and fried some potatoes in it at home. One bite and he was hooked. “It tasted just like butter,” he remembers. “I said to my wife, ‘Jenny, we’ve got to do this.’ She looked at me like I was nuts: ‘We’re going backward as it is.’”
But Smude got some financial backers involved, including local banks and foundations and even some neighbors. He kept looking at processing setups and soon sketched out what would become his own small plant. “There was no blueprint to work off of. We built everything ourselves, figured it all out. It’s amazing what a beer, a napkin, and a pencil can do.” He now owns Minnesota’s first small-scale processor of sunflower oil.
The Smudes dug up their soybeans and planted sunflowers. He convinced a handful of neighbors to do the same so he could buy their seeds. He cold-presses the seeds and refuses to use hexane to extract every last bit of oil like the big guys do. That means that about 12 percent of the oil remains in the mashed seeds. Rather than let those profits get thrown away, he feeds the mash to his steers, recouping the lost income from the oil when he sells them for slaughter. On the high-fat sunflower seed mash, the steers marble up just the way butchers like it; Smude says he has increased the percentage of his meat graded choice or prime from 86 percent to 94 percent.
The hulls go to a neighbor for bedding in the calf barn. “This is a no-waste product,” Smude says. “Everything that comes in gets used.”
The Smudes are busy people. In addition to running the oil-pressing business and raising two adorable kids, he and his wife Jenny keep 400 head of black Angus cattle and 60 cow-calf pairs on their farm outside Pierz. He also owns a gravel pit and another business constructing grain bins, which is doing so well he’s had to turn away customers. Basically, he’s seen a need in the market and decided he can figure out how to fill it, even if the venture is completely new to him.
Now Smude is thinking about buying a building in Pierz to house a bottling plant. He’s also noodling on ways to bottle Italian and French dressings based on his oil — they go like gangbusters when he samples them at farmers markets — and he’s sure there’s a way to cure beef jerky in sunflower oil. And, oh yeah, the popcorn. Popcorn popped in sunflower oil tastes so good that he bags and sells Smude Popcorn, sourced from Iowa; now he’s looking for a Minnesota farmer.
It’s definitely going to be another busy year.