Somebody recently asked the question, "What part of the sunflower produces oil?" Well, the answer is the seed. It seems to me that people might not be clear on how we get the oil from the sunflowers, so I figured it's time for another farming tutorial - let me break it down for you.
A sunflower head is actually a factory for sunflower seeds. In fact, each head of a sunflower is a composite flower made up of thousands of little flowers ringed by pretty yellow petals that beckon to pollinators. Each one of these little flowers must be pollinated by an insect in order for a seed to form. As all lifeforms are created for reproduction, so too is the sunflower. Once the seeds are mature, and the work of the flower (calling attention to all their buzzing friends) is over, the seeds are ready to grow more sunflowers. But, they are also delicious for birds and other animals. We farmers like to collect the seeds before too many critters enjoy them. "How do you collect the seeds?" is a good question.
To harvest our small grains (rye, oats, barley, buckwheat), corn, soybeans or sunflowers, we use this BIG GREEN machine called a combine. The front of the combine is equipped with a feeder house that receives, or hooks to different "heads" as we call them. When we harvest soybeans we use a flex head, when we harvest corn, we use a corn head and when we harvest sunflowers, we use a "sunflower head" which for us is a row crop soybean head. Yes, they work great in sunflowers. These heads cut the plant off, then an auger pushes the plants into the machine, inside the seed is separated from the stems, stalks and other debris, and finally, the seed is collected inside the hopper - that big box at the back of the combine. That tube thing you see coming off the top of the combine is used to move the grain from the combine into a truck or grain bin for delivery or storage. You can see in the photo below, William has the windrow pickup attached to the combine because in that picture he was combining oats that earlier he had swathed, or cut. The combine works very hard to separate the seeds from the chaff, stems and other field debris.
Sometime in October when we see that the sunflowers are sufficiently mature and dry, we will harvest them with the combine using the sunflower head. After we harvest ours, we typically put them in a grain bin until we are ready to sell them as seed or press them into oil. We grow black oil sunflower seeds which have a small seed and very black shell. We never shell or hull our sunflower seeds. They get sold whole as seed for other farmers, birdseed or we run them hull and all through our press to extract oil.
Pressing oil is a big messy job that William likes to do when things on the farm slow down a bit. He's been tending to press in December after the big harvest of the farm, then again in Spring when rain keeps him out of the field. Pressing oil is a good indoor project, but demanding of an entire uninterrupted day.
We're equipped to press about 30 gallons in eight hours, and this 30 gallons takes about 45 bushels of sunflower seeds. First the seeds are cleaned to remove any chaff or debris, then run through the big cone shaped hopper on top of the press. As the press does its job squishing the seeds under enormous pressure to push out the oil, we get two products: sunflower oil and expellings. The sunflower oil flows directly into a container, but the expellings come out below the machine and must be scooped up and hauled away. That part of the job tends to be a bit messy as the expellings (seed and hull residue and solids after oils has been mostly removed) has an oily residue. We use this byproduct for compost or mulch on the farm.
The sunflower oil comes out looking black as tiny particles of the hulls pass through the press, so we put it into a large tank to settle and separate for a couple of weeks. The black residue goes to the bottom and clean golden oil stays at the top. Then we pull the oil off, run it through a filter and bottle it for the store. It's quite amazing that such a delicious treat can grow on a farm!
Speaking of delicious! The next question I have heard recently is, "How do you use the oil?" The answer is simple...I use it in the kitchen as an olive oil replacement! I started using sunflower oil years ago when I was on a health and eat local kick. I discovered that not only is sunflower oil one of the healthiest oils on the planet, it can be grown here (no need to import from Italy) and, in my humble opinion, it is the absolute best tasting oil there is. There is something about the flavor that makes a dish stand out. Why does that broccoli taste so good? What did you put on it? I sautéed it in sunflower oil. Why does that salad dressing taste so good? It's the sunflower oil in the dressing. Why do those roasted potatoes taste so good? Tossed in sunflower oil before baked. Sunflower oil is delicious raw drizzled on garden tomatoes, dipped in bread, or used for all your cooking and baking needs. It can also handle the high heat needs of deep frying! It's also a tough oil not at all quick to oxidize. This means it has a long shelf life, although I go through it so fast it wouldn't have a chance in my kitchen!
The sunflowers will be glorious for another week or so. Please stop out to cut a bouquet, take some photos, stroll the field, admire their sunny beauty and get a bottle of our delicious oil.
There you have it.
Enjoy your summer and all the sunny flowers around!
Sending love from the farm,