THEY WERE BRIGHT YELLOW FACES STARING up at the sky, basking in the sunshine, causing drivers to slam on their brakes and pull off the road. People piled out of their precariously parked cars, phones in hand, just to grab pictures. By autumn, the big sunflower faces, some almost a foot wide, are hunched over as if in mourning, standing like silent sentries at a cemetery.
Five acres of sunflowers in the town of LaGrange (Dutchess County) became a field of dreams for brothers Jeff and Kevin Haight and their families, the owner/operators of Hudson Valley Cold Pressed Oils, one of only two sunflower oil producers in New York State. Their “corporate headquarters” is located on two farms totaling more than 300 acres that straddle Pleasant Valley and LaGrange. From the top of their hilly acreage you can see the Shawangunk Ridge and the Catskill Mountains on the other side of the Hudson, more than 25 miles away.
Sunflower oil is commonly used as a biodiesel fuel, but Jeff and his wife Allison “thought it was a way better food product than a fuel product.” They realized that the taste, health benefits and high smoking point of sunflower oil made for a three-tiered bonanza just waiting to be harvested in the Hudson Valley.
Kevin drives a large combine through acres of dead flowers in November after “four blackbirds appear in the field,” as an old superstition dictates. It takes about one acre of sunflowers to make 100 gallons of oil, or 20 pounds of raw seed to make a gallon. The sunflowers are fed into a seed cleaner that removes the stems and other pieces of the head, leaving just clean seeds, which await pressing in two large gravity bins alongside the old barn. A stainless steel, food-grade cold press squeezes the shelled seeds without any need for added chemicals, giving a healthier, more natural oil. Only about a quarter of the seed is pressed into oil by this process; the remainder is extruded into high-protein pellets for livestock on neighboring farms that get this delicacy to supplement their grazing.
The thick, unfiltered oil is golden toned, with tiny black bits of seed; once filtered, the oil will be its recognizable, clear yellow color with a rich, nutty taste. The Haights’ high-oleic sunflower oil has monounsaturated fat levels of 80 percent and above and contains only 7 to 8 percent saturated fat (compared to coconut oil, which is 70 percent saturated fat). It’s also gluten-free, non-GMO, and is high in Omega 9 and high in vitamin E.
Hudson Valley Cold Pressed Oils can be found locally at Adams in Poughkeepsie and Kingston, Duo Market, Taste NY, Walbridge Farm or online. Stop by the farm, by appointment, for a tour, and you might spot the two woodchucks that are their unofficial mascots. They make frequent guest appearances around the farm but don’t munch on the seeds. “They like flowers better,” Allison says.
Note: Top photo, field of sunflowers, by Steven Cawman