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Walmart-SunButter Connection Touted

Saturday, January 6, 2018
filed under: Utilization/Trade

       North Dakota is known for its acres and acres of sunflower fields.  The state has ranked as the nation’s top or second-top sunflower-producing state for many years.
       Meantime, Walmart is the world’s largest retailer.
       Now, the company has committed to invest an additional $250 billion in purchasing American products by 2023. It’s part of the company’s American Jobs Initiative. Walmart is holding 50 events in 50 states, highlighting one local example in each state. In North Dakota, that example is SunButter®, made from North Dakota-grown sunflower.
       “The main reason Walmart was interested in SunButter is that it represents American jobs,” explains Bob Majkrzak, president and CEO of Red River Commodities, Inc., the parent company of SunButter. “SunButter really does encompass everything from the field to delivery, all the way up to the delivery of the product to the consumer. Nearly all the seeds we use are grown in North Dakota. Some come from surrounding states, including South Dakota and Minnesota. But for the most part, this is a true North Dakota product from start to finish.”
       SunButter employs 20 people in Fargo and is quickly expanding to meet demand. As one of the fastest growing manufacturers in its category, SunButter has nearly doubled its sales over the past two years, selling millions of jars of sunflower butter across North America. But Majkrzak is quick to point out that SunButter depends on hundreds of people beyond the 20 employed by the company — including farmers, truckers, storage operators and more.
       While Walmart is recognizing one company in each of the 50 states, SunButter is one of several agricultural products to be chosen nationwide. Majkrzak says it is a good opportunity to educate people about where food comes from.
       “A lot of consumers don’t know what goes into the food they find on the shelves at places like Walmart,” he states. “It makes sense to choose an agricultural product for North Dakota. We are happy to be a part of the educational process. The more you look at the consumers today, their understanding of what goes on and how food gets to them is limited. Walmart is in a good position to awaken people to what goes on.”
       When it comes to SunButter, “what goes on” hasn’t changed much since SunButter first hit the market in 2002. But the education piece definitely has changed.
       “SunButter was created when our founders recognized the potential for a delicious and peanut-free sunflower seed butter. We partnered with USDA in 2001 to create SunButter,” says Justin LaGosh, SunButter director of sales and marketing. “Now we are focusing our educational efforts on the nutritional value of sunflower as a whole. It’s underwhelmingly unknown what sunflower can be used for. There is an awareness of sunflower butter being used as a replacement for peanut butter. Food allergies are a very real concern; roughly two kids in every classroom have food allergy, and peanut allergies are the most common and most severe.
       “We market SunButter as a food that can be used in place of peanut butter. It also happens to taste good and is nutritionally superior. But it’s not just about food allergies anymore. It’s also about providing people with a product that is a plant-based protein made with simple ingredients. That’s a big trend of what consumers are looking for now.”
       SunButter is natural, made from roasted sunflower seeds grown in the Dakotas and Minnesota.  SunButter has 7 grams of protein per serving and more vitamins and minerals than nut butter. It is also free from all of the top eight food allergens.
       And there is a demand for SunButter. In 2017 alone, LaGosh says, millions of pounds of SunButter have been shipped to retailers. Shipments to Walmart are up 62% this year, he notes, with most other retailers up strong double digits for the past several years.  He says they depend on growers planting about 30,000 acres of sunflower just to fulfill the demand for SunButter.
       “SunButter has really created a unique market where sunflower finally gets some recognition,” Majkrzak observes. “We want growers to know there is an outlet for the confection sunflower they grow. Hopefully that will motivate more growers to plant sunflower.”
       While consumers are looking for natural, healthy products, many still only think of sunflower as a salty snack. The folks at SunButter are working to change that. “In studies, we have found that the perception of sunflower is always positive; but people don’t think of it as more than just a snack. It’s so much more than that,” says LaGosh. “Sunflower is a good protein source being used in schools, food service and other retail markets. Other products are being made out of sunflower butter. We think consumers might be surprised to find sunflower in the snack food aisle, as well as in the salad toppings aisle and the spreads aisle.”
       That’s good news for growers too.
       “Growers should know what they grow isn’t just going into a bag for snacks anymore,” adds Majkrzak. “There are many different outlets for the crop, and they span the entire grocery store.”
       LaGosh says consumers can expect SunButter on shelves at even more stores in the near future. The company is working with colleges and universities, as well as several national chains and quick service restaurants, to get their product in the mouths of even more consumers. The idea, he says, is to make SunButter a convenient snack food or part of the recipe of a satisfying meal.
— Jody Kerzman                                           
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