Innovation and Differentiation Drive Success for Century Sun Oil

In Edible-Alpha® podcast #59, Tera talks with Dale and Pam Johnson, owners of Century Sun Oil in Pulaski, Wisconsin. They produce high-oleic organic sunflower oil on a farm Dale’s family has owned since 1882, selling at retail and in bulk to other industries.

A longtime dairy farmer, Dale switched his acreage to organic in the mid-1990s, sold off his cows and began growing vegetables. But when big corporations bought up the local canneries, he and many other independent farmers lost their contracts. Plus, a new four-lane road had been built through his property, slicing one 80-acre field into 11 sections and making large-scale vegetable production difficult.

So Dale got innovative. First, he grew organic vegetables on a smaller scale, sold them at his own farm market and converted some underused barn space into a processing facility. Next, he moved into hay, corn and soybeans, then decided to give organic sunflowers a shot. But unlike most sunflowers, the type Dale chose to grow aren’t high in omega-6 fatty acids. These seeds are chockfull of heart-healthy omega-9s, and with cold-pressing and double-filtering, they yield a rich-hued, shelf-stable unrefined cooking oil.

Around this time, Pam moved to Wisconsin and joined the business. The couple tested the sunflower concept for about three years before officially launching Century Sun Oil in 2009. They found success selling at farmers’ markets and a few stores, eventually getting picked up by a distributor.

In time, they stopped growing sunflowers altogether, opting instead to buy them from a handful of organic farmers so they could focus on making oil. Along with selling to consumers, Century Sun Oil has built a substantial bulk business catering to restaurants, foodservice operations and the cosmetics industry. The excess meal from processing gets sold as feed for cows, chickens and hogs.

Century Sun Oil is an awesome example of ongoing evolution and innovation in organic agriculture. When a crop or farming system no longer works, market dynamics shift, landscape changes or unexpected channels emerge, farmers can research, recharge and refocus in new directions.