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Wright Farms Sunflower Oil

Monday, February 5, 2018
filed under: Utilization/Trade

       An effort to diversify their farm has sparked a brand new business for the Wright family of Bird City, Kan. In 2015, the family established Wright Enterprises, LLC and started bottling sunflower oil, made from sunflower grown on their 3,500-acre northwestern Kansas farm. Now, they’re ready for even more new adventures in 2018.
       Jody Kerzman visited with Dennis Wright about his family’s business and plans for the coming year.
Explain the idea behind your company.
       I am a fourth-generation farmer on our land near Bird City, Kan. I farm with my dad, and as producers we have always tried to think outside the box.
       A few years ago we were discussing how we could diversify and expand our operation. We went to some farm conferences and had some conversations that made us see there was a market for sunflower oil. Consumers were looking more at where products come from and wanted something minimally pressed.
       We started doing more research and came up with cold-pressed sunflower oil. We have always raised sunflower, so it just made sense for us.
       In 2015 we started Wright Enterprises, LLC and built our building by the end of that year. In 2016 we learned the ropes of the business and started experimenting on how to get the product we wanted. In 2017 we felt comfortable with our product and started marketing it. We have received a very positive response and are excited about what will happen in 2018.
What makes your products stand out?
       What makes us different is our process. Everything happens right here on our farm.  We plant the seed ourselves on our own ground, raise the crop, harvest it, store the seeds, clean the seeds, press it and bottle it all on the farm.
       The building we put up in 2015 is on our original farmstead where we have been farming for four generations. From start to finish, the seed never leaves our farm until it’s pressed into sunflower oil.
       We make small batches so when the oil goes out to customers it is anywhere from two days to a month old. We try to have the freshest product possible out there, so it truly is straight off the farm. We don’t refine our oil. Our oil is filtered repeatedly so it keeps that sunflower flavor. It has a mellow sunflower flavor that people really enjoy. 
Approximately how much sunflower oil do you produce per year?
       It really depends on demand. Our sunflower has an oil content of about 40%. Of that 40%, using the process we use, we can get about 85-90% of that oil. We cold press our oil, which retains the health benefits and makes for a higher quality oil. Typically, it takes about 28-30 pounds of seed to make a gallon of oil. We have more seed than we can press ourselves, so whatever extra seed we have we deliver to the ADM plant at Goodland, Kan.
       We can get a large order pressed out in a day. We press our oil in small batches so we don’t end up sitting on a lot of oil that will get old. But we’re pretty excited about the shelf life of our oil. K-State (Kansas State University) did an analysis for us and determined our oil has a shelf life of two years.
What kinds of challenges have you faced along the way?
       We are a small company. In fact, our company is made up of the “four Ds:” my wife, Dana; my dad, Donald; my mom, Donna; and me, Dennis. We do all the work ourselves, from the planting to the pressing and bottling to the distributing.                                                                                          
       That’s partly why we wanted our facility to be on our farm, so we’re always around. We originally wanted to renovate a 100-year-old barn on our farmstead, but in order to bottle sunflower oil you have to do that in an FDA-approved commercial kitchen. We were told it’s really tough to get that certification when you do a renovation, especially an old building like our barn. So we went to Plan B, which was to put up a barn-like building on our farm. It works out well because it’s right on the farm. We set up the plant so that once you turn it on it’s pretty automated. We can check it in the morning, go do the farm work, and check it again at night.
       The only real manual part is the bottling. Our oil is all hand bottled. We did purchase a bottling machine, but we still have to manually fill the bottles, put caps and labels on. If the demand is there we could become automated someday; but for now we are just using our farmer ingenuity and doing this the best way we can without taking out a bunch of loans.
       The great part is it really isn’t super labor intensive. We still have time to farm, and I have three kids—ages 13 and 8-year-old twins—who are excited to help put the caps and labels on. I grew up in Bird City, and finding a job as a teenager isn’t easy. So part of me thinks maybe we can create some opportunities someday for young people looking for part-time jobs.
What market segments do you supply?
       Our oil is in about 24 stores, most of them down Highway 36 in Kansas. We do sell our oil online. We are From Land of Kansas members, so our oil can be ordered through their website. All the orders ship from our facility, they just help process the orders.
       The stores that carry our oil are mostly independent, locally owned stores in Kansas. We do have oil in a flower shop in Nebraska. We are working hard to get our name out there and to create a demand for our product.
Are you doing advertising, PR, social media or grassroots efforts to promote your product? If yes what?
       We have relied mostly on word of mouth. I did a television cooking show in Topeka, and we have a Facebook page— — but most of our advertising has been done by giving out samples, going to events, and offering samples of our oil to people.
       We try to explain that our oil tastes and smells like sunflower, but until people actually taste it, they don’t seem to understand that. It’s neat to see their reaction; many people tell us our oil tastes like they’re chewing a mouth full of sunflower seeds.
What does the future hold for your company? New products? New promotions or marketing strategies?
       We started really small and just wanted to get our feet wet and see where this would go. We tried to design the company to be fluid and liquid and to meet a demand. We are farmers by trade, but we’ve always been willing to try new things. We typically grow sunflower, corn, milo and wheat. Once in a while we grow soybeans, and one year we even tried safflower. My dad would always joke and say, “We don’t farm, we run an experiment station!”
       What we like about doing the sunflower oil is that we’re not just growing a commodity, we are growing a product. We wanted to find a way to make what we grow worth more and to increase the value of what we have. I think we’re doing that.                                                                           
       And I have more plans, more things I’d like to incorporate. One thing I’d love to do is create a Google map of a field where we have sunflower growing. I’d like to set up a video camera and show people the growing process from start to finish. I think that would be pretty neat and could help people understand more about where their food comes from.                             
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