Ken Seguine and Jay Gilbertson inspect pumpkins prior to harvest. Photo By Jan Shepel
Pumpkin seed oil company in Wisconsin is first in nation
Ken Seguine dreams of 500 acres of pumpkins – not the kind of orange orb that gets turned into Halloween decorations – but an unusual variety that has been cultivated for centuries in Europe to produce specialty oil from its seeds.
Seguine, of Prairie Farm in northwest Wisconsin, started the first pumpkin seed oil company in the United States with his partner Jay Gilbertson.
The two men came to Madison last week to talk to the citizen policy board for the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection about their growing business – Hay River Pumpkin Seed Oil.
“This hasn’t been in the United States before, but it has a long history in Austria,” says Seguine. “It’s very important in Austrian cuisine.”
Pumpkins were grown originally by Native Americans and when some of those early gourds were taken back to Europe they became instantly popular.
One of the things those European growers did was press the oil out of the seeds and use it in their food.
By the 1700s, Seguine said, pumpkin seed oil use was restricted and it was used for medicinal purposes.
The oil is high in omega 3 fatty acids which are known as lipid-based anti-oxidants, so sometimes pumpkin oil is produced for use in capsules as a dietary supplement.
In 2001, the men were living in the Twin Cities when they purchased their farm in Prairie Farm and that began their adventure.
At a value-added farming conference they heard a presentation by Mark Mueller, of Botanic Oil Innovations in Spooner. He talked about the viability of oilseed production from unique crops in the Upper Midwest and they decided to look into starting a pumpkin seed oil business on their farm.
(Mueller’s company now does the work of pressing the oil from the Hay River Pumpkin seeds.)
Their idea was helped along very much, Seguine told ag board members, when they got a grant from the state’s Agricultural Development and Diversification (ADD) program.
“It made us very proud to know that the state of Wisconsin was supportive of our idea,” he said.
In the years since then, they have learned that the crop is easy to grow and their product is easy to sell. It is available in specialty stores throughout the Midwest, in most Wisconsin cities and through web sales at www.hayriver.net.
Seguine, who has worked in the natural products industry all his life, said this is the “easiest sell ever.”
Their only competition is from European producers and one American company that extracts oil from squash, rather than pumpkin seeds.
PRODUCED FROM UNIQUE PUMPKINS
The oil is produced from a kind of pumpkin that isn’t familiar to most people. It is a specific variety called a naked-seeded pumpkin derived from a naturally occurring mutation that came along in 1870, Seguine said.
The seeds of these special pumpkins have thinner skins, allowing the oil to be pressed from them more easily.
As the men started their pumpkin seed oil business they found there were 15 different varieties of the naked-seeded pumpkins and they tried all of them.
The flesh is almost white and is very fibrous. When harvested, everything but the seed is left in the field to renew the soil.
After the seeds are separated from the pumpkins in the field, they are washed, dried and bagged, then taken to the Spooner processor, where they are lightly roasted.
The oil is then extruded using a cold-pressing system. It takes 30 to 40 pumpkins to produce enough oil to fill one 250-milliliter bottle.
Seguine credits Botanic Oil Innovations for sparking the idea for this business and then providing a key part of its production process. With its established system, it allowed Hay River to concentrate on the parts of the business they wanted to deal with and not worry about the regulations and legal requirements of processing.
In Europe, the oil has been used mainly in vinaigrettes and marinades and isn’t intended to be used in frying as the high temperatures destroy its texture, he said.
At Hay River, Seguine says they bottle it and intend for people to use it as a bread dip or an addition to other foods, like soup. They have even found that the oil hardens when poured on ice cream, making an unusual treat, he said.
Today, the demand for Hay River’s pumpkin seed oil “far exceeds the supply,” Seguine said.
He sees the product and the company having “big potential.”
Their vision for the company includes certified organic production and paying a good wage to the farmers who grow pumpkins for them and to the workers they hire to help with the work.
“We want sustainability to apply to the people also,” he said.
So far there are four farms growing the specialty pumpkin for them, but the weak link has been harvesting the seeds.
In the first few years they harvested by hand. Then they progressed to a piece of equipment that was custom-designed and purpose-built locally for the job.
But it was still too slow and they found harvest was still the bottleneck in their production, he said, especially when the weather turns suddenly cold in the fall.
They are in the process of getting German-made equipment that will be used in the next harvest.
With that equipment, Seguine says they will be able to harvest 6 to 10 acres per day.
Their farm and the organic fields where they contract production of additional pumpkins are certified by Midwest Organic Services Association (MOSA), and Seguine feels that having the organic certification seal on their product helps build sales.
Seguine said the trajectory of the business is in a steep climb.
He sees that within five years they will have 500 acres of pumpkins grown for their seeds and that by that time, with additional economies of scale, this could be his full-time job. (Both men have other jobs now.)
The pumpkins are a very low-input crop, he said, and are grown from seeds that get started in greenhouses. Once the crop is grown, Hay River takes care of the harvest.
They currently have more people in their area interested in growing than they have need for, Seguine said.
The product naturally includes lutein and vitamin E – two natural substances that help the product stay well preserved.
In their own adverse stability testing, they have found that the oil can have a shelf life of four years.
But since they regularly sell out of the pumpkin seed oil, there’s little reason to wonder how long it will sit on the shelf – the demand outstrips the supply.
That means it’s not sitting on shelves very long.