Middlebury's Full Sun Hopes To Grow Market For Oil Seeds

Sep 7, 2015

A Middlebury-based cooking oil company is back in stores with cold-pressed sunflower and canola oils.

But the company, Full Sun, is also looking to help expand opportunities for Vermont grain farmers by providing a market for oil seed.

At a warehouse in Middlebury, Zach Hartlyn holds up a handful of small black canola seeds from one of the huge bags that fill the room.  “They’re like little marbles,” he said.

This canola was grown in Prince Edward Island but eventually, the company he works for, Full Sun, hopes much of that seed will eventually be grown here in Vermont.

Netaka White and David McManus began laying the groundwork for the company four years ago. Both had been working in the bio-fuels industry and they saw opportunity in non-GMO cooking oil from sunflowers and canola.

Their first run of the product was sold last year. In October, the company turned their attention to opening this new mill, and began pressing oil again in June. It’s now showing up in stores around Vermont.

Netaka White says as the company grows, they are relying on sunflowers from Minnesota and New York, while building relationships with farmers in Vermont.  “We doubled our expectation, we were shooting to have 100 acres under contract, we actually had close to 200 acres under contract. This was a tough year for growing, for getting any crops in the ground, row crops or grain crops.”

White says the weather in June made it impossible to plant sunflowers on some of those fields. Still, farmer Jack Kennett will soon be harvesting a field of sunflowers at a farm in Addison to be pressed into oil. On his own farm, he decided to grow rye for a local distillery, and his sunflower crop failed.  

“We’re making plans for next year to hopefully get some canola growing, and possibly some more sunflowers,” Kennett said.

Kennett says having options is an important way for grain growers to cut their risk.

“Vermont is a hard place to grow grain so being diversified in different crops is a good thing and I think it’s the way of the future,” he said.

Netaka White agrees. For farmers, taking on a crop that they're not familiar with is risky, but he thinks with a growing market for grain and oil seeds, sunflower and canola could fit well into a crop rotation. And he sees opportunity for synergy with the local breweries and distilleries popping up around the state, including a number just down the street from Full Sun.

“One of the things that we’ve heard consistently when we talk to other growers in Vermont and that is by us offering market for sunflower and canola, which grow very well in rotation with the crops like soybeans and corn and even grass that Vermont farmers are more used to, by us offering that market it opens up new possibilities when the commodity prices go up and down,” he explained.

And Full Sun offers a good price for specialty crops. White says the company will always rely on oil seed grown out of state to ensure a consistent supply. As the company grows, they plan to be on store shelves in Boston and New York, and add employees in Middlebury.

“Right now there’s three of us working full time, we had two part time people through the summer. Adding one or two full time employees per year is how we see growing and the way that we’ll do that is by building strong sales,” White said.

And Full Sun is finding markets for their byproducts. The oil that doesn’t mean the standards for cooking gets sold to a bio-fuel company. The crushed seeds left behind in the pressing process is sold as animal feed and fertilizer to local farms.

“It’s really good being able to provide those three products. From one seed you get a whole lot,” he said.

Eventually, White would like to have 50 percent of their production needs, as many as 2,000 acres of sunflower and canola growing in Vermont and Essex County, New York, so Vermonters may eventually be seeing more sunflowers in bloom alongside the hay and corn fields.