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134-year-old farm trades cows for sunflowers

JEFF BOLLIER
USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Century Sun Oil founder Dale Johnson holds a sample of his company's organic sunflower oil, left, and a competitor?s oil. His farm was originally a dairy farm, which his family has worked since 1882.

PULASKI

A 134-year-old dairy farm in rural Pulaski might seem an unlikely place to go to learn about an emerging, artisan sunflower oil business.

Yet that’s where to find Dale and Pam Johnson, fifth generation Shawano County farmers and producers of certified organic Century Sun Oil. Dale Johnson’s family has worked the same land since 1882. It was a dairy farm until 1997 when Johnson decided to get ahead of the curve and switch to organic farming.

In 2009, the Johnsons sought a way to add value to the family farming business. They came up with sunflowers and producing sunflower oil, a relatively unusual tack in the annals of Wisconsin agriculture.

“This is not a big sunflower state,” Dale Johnson said. “We’re trying to get more local farmers to plant them. Organic farmers always need another rotational crop. And sunflowers adapt quite well to Wisconsin.”

Samples of Century Sun Oil's organic sunflower oil.

With that, the Johnsons founded Century Sun Oil to produce high-oleic, certified organic sunflower oil that’s high in monounsaturated fat, also known as the "good" fat. The product has one ingredient: pressed sunflower seeds.

“It’s comparable to or better than olive oil,” Pam Johnson said. “It’s low in polyunsaturated fats, transfat-free, has a high smoke point and it’s locally grown. We know what’s in it because we put it there.”

Century Sun Oil got off to a bit of a slow start seven years ago. The couple grew 12 acres of sunflowers in 2009 and were met with slow sales when they brought the product to the market.

Those days are behind them now. This year, they’ve contracted with organic farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa to grow 400 acres of sunflowers. Each acre of sunflowers produces about 2,200 pounds of sunflower seeds. It takes three pounds of seeds to make one pound of oil.

Century Sun Oil founder Dale Johnson walks past two 55 gallon drums of his company's sunflower oil waiting to be shipped from his rural Shawano County farm.

“We think we can sell every bit of that,” Dale Johnson said.

The oil ends up on the shelves of places like Waseda Farms Market, Festival Foods or food co-ops. Century Sun Oil also sells to a Wisconsin tortilla producer, an Illinois food processor, a Maine producer of natural mosquito repellants and cosmetics companies that value sunflower oil for its high vitamin E content.

“It’s a very diverse product,” Pam Johnson said.

“It’s a biblical oil,” Dale Johnson added. “Traditionally, it’s been used for skin care.”