How Sunflowers Helped One North Carolina Farmer Reach New Markets

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Photo credit: Michael D. Tedesco

When fifth-generation farmer Lee Britt took over R. Britt Farms in 2014, he wanted to continue the tradition of raising cattle and growing the row crops that his great-great-grandfather had started in 1910.

Britt also recognized that the fluctuating prices of commodities and decreased demand for tobacco, which was once a staple of the Harrellsville farm, would make it hard to sustain the operation. He started researching other potential crops with a focus on a specific goal.

“I wanted to direct market to our customers,” he explains.

From Soil to Oil

After much research, Britt opted to focus on gourmet oils. He considered peanut or soybean oils, but decided to focus on sunflowers because the annual crop has high-oleic oil content that can be pressed into a light-colored, flavorful oil.

Before Britt could start making sunflower oil, he had to determine whether sunflowers would grow well in North Carolina. In 2016, he planted a 14-acre test plot.

“Nobody around here raises sunflowers. Most of the literature is about North Dakota and Nebraska. There was no advice for commercial growers in North Carolina,” he recalls. “I had to figure out, can I raise sunflowers and make a quality oil?”

See more: Flower Power at Summer Fresh Flower Farm

Carolina Gold Oils

Photo credit: Justin Kase Conder

Britt pressed the first batch of sunflower oil, and the results were lackluster. The filter on his food-grade press allowed too much wax and other debris into the oil, and it didn’t produce the pristine, top-shelf oil he wanted to sell. In 2017, he planted another crop and purchased a new filter – and the second batch of cold-pressed sunflower oil was perfect.

The cold-press process, Britt believes, makes his sunflower oil special.

“When you heat oils up and press them, it affects the character of the flavor,” he explains. “I don’t use chemicals to extract the oil (out of the sunflowers) or heat the oil up to break it down. It is nothing but a screw press. There is nothing added and nothing taken away.”

In 2017, with his first bottles of Carolina Gold Oils in hand, Britt knocked on doors in Hertford County and beyond. The small-batch sunflower oil is stocked in several Harris Teeter and Lowes Foods stores, and Britt is a regular at local farmers markets and specialty food shows. Last year, sales doubled as more customers discovered the versatility and flavor of locally grown sunflower oil.

Carolina Gold Oils

Lee Britt, left, runs Carolina Gold Oils with help from his father, Ricky, on their family farm near Harrellsville; Photo credit: Justin Kase Conder

Nutritious & Delicious

Sunflower oil is hailed as a heart-healthy oil that is chock-full of mono- and polyunsaturated fats and high in vitamin E. It has a higher smoke point than olive oil, which makes it ideal for frying. It can also be used as a replacement for butter or added to bread or pizza dough to pump up the flavor. Britt is starting to experiment with adding garlic, Cajun and Italian spices to the gourmet oil so it can be used as a flavor for oil for dipping bread.

“If I can get you to taste it, I can get you to buy it,” he says.

Demand for Carolina Gold Oils is so strong that Britt has expanded his original 14-acre plot to more than 50 acres of brightly colored sunflowers, and he is racing to keep up with requests for the gourmet oils.

Despite the interest, growing sunflowers is a risky business.

Photo credit: Michael D. Tedesco

Britt chooses varieties that are high in oleic oil and plants the crop in early spring. He must press enough oil from the August harvest to last through the following season. He uses regenerative agriculture practices, including no-till and cover cropping crops to preserve soil health, but crop failure is still possible. “There is no crop insurance and no backup,” he says.

For Britt, operating the 500-acre century farm is an all-consuming venture. The help of his dad, mom and brother – who pitch in to work on equipment, help with the harvest and sell the sunflower oils at shows – allows him to focus on his passion for agriculture.

See more: North Carolina Flower Facts

Carolina Gold Oils

Photo credit: Carolina Gold Sunflower Oil

Where to Buy

Find Carolina Gold Oils online at carolinagoldoils.com.

As the market for Carolina Gold Oils grows, Britt is exploring other opportunities to press new crops such as sesame, peanut and cottonseed into oil.

Emphasizing value-added products, direct consumer marketing and sustainable farming practices is good for both the farm and the bottom line.

“Everybody wants to know where their food comes from,” Britt says, noting that there is no connection back to the farm with most cooking oils, such as canola and olive. “Direct marketing local oils helps keeps me doing what I want to do for a living.”

– Jodi Helmer

2 Comments

  1. Jean Jones

    May 20, 2020 at 6:31 pm

    My husband grilled catfish on his Blackstone tonight using the Mediterranean oil. It was perfect.

  2. Susan Stone

    June 10, 2020 at 6:24 am

    How can I buy this? I live in Salisbury, NC and would love to buy from my state.

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