2011 OYF finalist profile: Sunflower farmer Tom Smude

Since 1954, the Minnesota Jaycees’ Outstanding Young Farmers (OYF) program has been recognizing the importance of strong young leaders in the agricultural industry. 

The mission of the OYF program is to build urban awareness of farming’s impact on the U.S. economy, create greater public interest in — and understanding of — the challenges facing today’s farmers and ranchers, foster beneficial urban-rural relations and deepen appreciation of independent farmers’ contributions to sustainable development and the green economy.

The annual OYF Awards honor young Minnesota farmers for achievements in agri-business, innovation and resource enhancement, adoption of improved technology for increased income with sustainability, use of soil and water conservation practices and contributions to the well-being of the community.

MinnPost and MinnPost’s YPN are proud to be a 2011 TOYM/OYF partner, sharing the stories of each of this year’s exceptional honorees.

Tom Smude with his wife Jenni and their two children on their farm near Pierz, Minn.
Courtesy of Smude Farms
Tom Smude with his wife Jenni and their two children on their farm near Pierz, Minn.

Today’s featured Outstanding Young Farmer finalist is Tom Smude, a central Minnesota cattle farmer who recently diversified to on-farm sunflower oil processing.

From the age of 12 — when his father began running a John Deere dealership in Little Falls — Smude knew he wanted to own a farm and work the land.

Twenty-four years later, Smude works full-time with his father at Evergreen Equipment while simultaneously operating his own farm in Buh Township.

Smude purchased his 160-acre farm in 1998, breeding cattle and growing soybeans, corn and hay. Over time, Smude grew his herd to roughly 60 cow-calf pairs and 400 Black Angus cattle, which are fed out annually.

To accommodate his expanding operation, Smude and his wife Jenni began renting an additional 340 acres of land and built a new feedlot facility in 2005.

A bright idea

In 2007, when drought plagued central Minnesota and made growing corn and soybeans a challenge, Smude started investigating alternative crops that could grow in poor soils. Sunflowers — a drought-tolerant crop that grows well in a wide range of soil and climatic conditions — caught his interest as a possible replacement for soybeans.

When Minnesota suffered from drought again in 2008, Smude decided to dig up his soybean plants and sow high-oleic sunflowers.

At the time, fuel prices were soaring and Smude intended to extract biofuel from the crushed sunflowers and sell it in bulk. When fuel prices sank, Smude re-thought his plan and decided to produce food-grade sunflower oil instead, individually bottling it for sale at retail shops.

Smude Cold-Pressed Sunflower Oil products
Courtesy of Smude Farms
Smude Cold-Pressed Sunflower Oil products

In 2009, Smude invested in the construction of an oil-crushing facility and production center on his farm. At this cold-press plant, sunflowers are cleaned, de-hulled and separated, then run through a screw press that extracts 90 percent of the oil.

The oil is filtered and stored in large tanks, before being bottled in 16-ounce, half-gallon, one-gallon and 2.5 gallon containers.

In early 2010, Smude Farms became Minnesota’s first small-scale processor of sunflower oil when it started producing, bottling and selling Smude’s Natural Sunflower Oil.

The cooking oil is a flavorful, healthy, premium virgin oil ideal for grilled and stir-fried dishes, popcorn, salad dressings, garlic bread and croutons, among other foods. 

In its first year, Smude’s facility sold 10,000 bottles of oil; sales more than doubled in 2011. 

Smude’s Sunflower Oil is currently available online and at nearly 100 stores around Minnesota, including several Kowalski’s Markets.

With demand on the rise, Smude hopes to reach his plant’s production capacity of 40,000 gallons in 2012.

Smude, an advocate for healthier, hormone-free food options, takes pride in the fact that Smude Sunflower Oil is all natural and non-GMO.

The cold-press method Smude employs at his facility doesn’t use hexane (as hot presses do), allowing the sunflower oil to retain all of its natural minerals.

The resulting cooking oil has a nutty, buttery flavor, is low in saturated fat, high in oleic acids, and rich in antioxidants and vitamin E. The oil is free of preservatives but can be stored for up to 12 months.

Flower power

In tandem with his commitment to producing a healthy, all-natural product, Smude is dedicated to operating a green, sustainable business. All of the byproducts of oil extraction are put to good use — nothing is wasted.

A seed bin on Smude's farm
Courtesy of Smude Farms
A seed bin on Smude’s farm

Because cold-press extraction leaves roughly 10 percent of the sunflower oil in the mashed seeds, Smude converts the seed mash into protein-rich pellets, which he sells as animal feed and provides to his own Black Angus herd.

The hulls of the sunflowers are sold as livestock bedding for chicken and cattle. The sunflower stalks are plowed back into the soil.

Smude’s environmentalism is catching attention from chefs and a consumer market increasingly concerned with buying locally-grown, eco-friendly products. Smude even showcased his products at the Living Green Expo at the State Fairgrounds this past May.

Smude Farms now ships sunflower oil all over the U.S. and is working to gain greater access to markets that include movie theaters, restaurants, farmers’ markets, groceries and specialty stores.

Smude is currently in talks with large grocery chains about stocking the product, but the need for a keen marketing strategy remains an obstacle.

High-diversity farming

Ever the entrepreneur, Smude has launched several side businesses in the past year, including custom crushing of specialty oils, such as flax, for other food companies. Smude also operates a gravel pit and owns a construction business that produces Sioux Steel grain bins.

Tom Smude displays a bottle of Smude Farms cold-pressed sunflower oil
Courtesy of Smude Farms
Tom Smude displays a bottle of Smude Farms cold-pressed sunflower oil

By diversifying his farm and his business investments, Smude has become a model for modern and sustainable farm operations and a leader among young farmers in Minnesota.

Smude Farms can be found online at Smude’s Natural Sunflower Oil and on Facebook at Smude Sunflower Oil.

Customers are encouraged to share their uses for Smude’s Sunflower Oil and exchange recipes via the Smude Oil blog.

To hear more about Smude Farms and Tom Smude’s other entrepreneurial enterprises, watch his OYF video montage:

Stay tuned for the final installment in our coverage of the 2011 TOYM/OYF Awards, where we’ll profile beef cattle rancher — and OYF finalist — Dave Marquardt.

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