Sunflower, canola, and hemp oils: the regional delights that give back
by Kara Elder
September 28, 2020
If you're reading this blog, produced by a DC-based pickle and fermented foods company that partners with regional growers and producers, you're probably interested in local and sustainable agriculture and products. Here's another thing for you to put through the local, sustainable, equitable lens: your cooking oil.
Number 1 Sons is now selling oils from Pennsylvania's Susquehanna Mills: sunflower oil, canola oil, and full-spectrum hemp oil. If you've used Keepwell's Rosemary Soap, then you've technically already had Susquehanna's sunflower oil, just on your hands. :)
What started in 2006 as an interest in bio-diesel grew into a regionally focused cooking oil company that now partners with like-minded restaurants and organizations around the Mid-Atlantic. So why should you care about your cooking oil? Because oil is an agricultural product — and where you've got agriculture, you've got issues around sustainability, the environment, and the labor of people involved in production.
But first, some background on sunflowers: Sunflowers belong to the Helianthus genus of plants, which happens to include another friend of ours, sunchokes a.k.a. Jerusalem artichokes. They're native to North America and were an important crop for Indigenous folks. In the Southwest, for example — as Lois Ellen Frank writes in her book, Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations — "Sunflower seeds were the Southwest's only domesticated food plant before the introduction of beans, corn, and squash." (She also notes that the seeds are super nutritious and rich in vitamin B6.) Once Europeans arrived, they took seeds back to Spain, where the plant spread throughout Europe, eventually reaching Ukraine and Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church had (and still has) many rules around fasting; they prohibit, for example, butter and lard during Lent. Followers embraced sunflowers and the oil their seeds produced as an a-okay form of cooking fat, since the plant was so new to them that it wasn't on the prohibited list. Soviet plant breeders even developed sunflower varieties featuring seeds that produce more oil, and sunflower oil remains extremely popular throughout Eastern Europe and Russia.
That background was a roundabout way of saying that sunflower oil is extremely versatile. :) Use it salad dressings, put it on popcorn, bake with it (try it in carrot cake!), pour it in a bowl and use it as a dip for your favorite bread...anywhere you'd like a nutty, rich flavor, you can use this sunflower oil. When summer and tomato season return, be sure to make the classic salad found throughout the countries of the former USSR: sliced tomato, cucumber, and onion, seasoned with a little salt and a drizzle of the sunflower oil. It's truly magical.
Get the oil from Susquehanna Mills and you're also supporting multiple layers of the local food system and putting money directly back into your local economy. "We put a huge amount of effort into coordinating with regional farmers to make a regional product and distribute it pretty much regionally," says April at Susquehanna Mills.
Plus, you'll get a SUPER fresh product: "We press the oil and then it’s sold within weeks," says April. This year, they've partnered with two farms in north central Pennsylvania to grow the flowers. "We planted the sunflowers about two and half months ago," she says. "They grow and they don’t look super impressive, until they flower, then they become beautiful, extraordinary, vistas." (So basically imagine all those photos on social media with folks wistfully staring towards the sunset.)
The variety is special, too — they're black oil sunflowers, which are grown specifically because the seeds get nice and bloated with oil, says April. The sunflowers are non GMO, and farmers practice minimal tilling. "We’ve also been looking into ways to increase our odds farming with minimal chemicals by using cover crops in between plantings," explains April.
Beyond being freshly pressed, the pressing method also affects taste. The oil press that Josh, Susquehanna Mills owner, sourced from Germany adds no additional heat in the process (heat changes the flavor). As April describes:
The seeds go into this giant hopper and then they’re gravity fed down into the press heads. Gravity keeps the press flowing. The meat inside the seeds becomes oil, the fibrous pieces become meal; the meal comes out the front of the press in pellet form, the oil plops out the sides. The oil goes into a tank, the meal goes into a second hopper. Some other oil mills landfill the meal, but we sell ours to ag feed producers. The shape of the meal varies — sometimes the seeds aren’t quite ready to be pressed because they’re not dry enough, or they have a lot of hay particles or extra flora material which can affect the quality of the meal. But we’ve got a bunch of dairy farmers and feed manufacturers we work with who are happy to take this for a small fee and get a high-quality feed product.
High-quality oil with the byproduct that's normally wasted going back into the local economy? Win win.
Now let's compare this process to neutrally flavored oil that has a crazy-long shelf life. "Neutral big oil is extracted through a number of chemical processes that remove all of everything that makes the oil flavorful and perishable," explains April. Mass-produced oil has no flavor because it was extracted using alcohol and synthetics. Susquehanna uses a couple of refining steps that don't affect the quality or flavor of the oil — namely, using a mineral that attracts heavy metals and chlorophyll, and filtering the oil through a diatomaceous earth, which is classified as a sand, to capture metals and particles. This makes the finished product more shelf-stable, but you should still treat it like you would most any food — that is, enjoy it, don't hoard it forever. Susquehanna recommends using the oil within 18 months of purchase.
Now, about the hemp oil. Susquehanna Hemp Company came about after the 2018 Farm Bill passed and made it legal to grow industrial hemp in Pennsylvania. Why get into hemp? Because it presented yet another way to elevate regional agriculture. "Hemp grows incredibly fast, something like 9 weeks from planting to harvest," adds April. "There’s only one planting season but you can have yields of tons and tons of hemp fiber from one season on a relatively small amount of acres. It even makes building cement that’s resistant to flame."
There are three cultivars of hemp, explains April: hemp for grain, hemp for fiber, and hemp for high CBD flowers. The thing that makes them different is genetics but also how you plant them. Hemp for fiber is planted close together so it doesn’t bush out and instead grows tall, producing more fiber to be turned into rope, fabric, etc.
Hemp presents many possibilities — including hemp-based plastic! — and, yes, there's also the CBD side of it, which tends to attract most people's interest due to its potential health benefits and adjacency to marijuana. (There's a lot more to hemp's history – it's a very, very, very old plant — that I won't go into now, but look out for a post in the future.)
The full-spectrum hemp oil (aka CBD oil) contains 40 milligrams of CBD per milliliter of oil. Number 1 Sons is selling the 30 milliliter bottle, which is 30 to 60 servings. There's no getting around the price of $100 for this little bottle, but it helps to have context to the price: hemp seed is very expensive and the hemp plants require a great deal of tending. This oil is of a much higher quality and potency than cheaper stuff — always look to the lab reports to determine quality, and always take care to note misleading information. As Susquehanna explains on their site: a bottle of CBD from another supplier might read 325 mg on a one-ounce (or 30 mL) package; this is misleading because it fails to break down the potency, in this case about 11 mg/mL. (Theirs is almost four times as potent.) Cheaper oils also use highly processed carrier oils, while Susquehanna's uses their own hemp oil — partly to keep it local, and partly to create a market for the hemp oil itself. (Meaning they're helping create ways for local farmers to make money from the things they're growing.)
If you haven't tasted hemp oil, April describes it as sort of nutty, a little earthy, and with a mouthfeel that might remind you of something tannic, though it has a very specific and unique taste. If you'd rather try a flavored oil, Number 1 Sons is also offering the spearmint, peppermint, and orange, which are flavored with essential oils. April says customers use the full-spectrum hemp oil to help with sleep, manage anxiety, and alleviate pain. "I do wish that because the reaction to it is so strong, there were more scientific research into it," she adds. More science is something we can all hope for and work towards, no?
You can order the sunflower and hemp oils via your friendly neighborhood Pickle Van. And don't forget to tell us what you think and what you make! Share via Instagram or email, or leave a comment here if you have any tips, tricks, or questions. :)