Like many of my projects, The Oil Barn started out very different than the end result. In fact, it didn’t even start with safflower. My interest in oil seeds started more than 10 years ago with the idea to grow my own fuel. I started with a Chinese oil press, a homemade reactor to make bio-diesel and a relatively new crop: camelina.
After a few years, I found the camelina grew very well for us. But I could never get our Chinese press to work properly. Eventually, we replaced it with one made in Germany and while it was a great deal more expensive, my 14-year-old son could operate it.
Next, we discovered the reactor we were using to make the biofuel was pretty pricey all the way around. It was expensive to run and the cost for the chemical analysis required for quality control made it unrealistic in the long run. Not to mention it produced a lot of unwanted byproducts. So I went looking for alternatives.
Sure enough, in Germany I found a company that sold small, mechanical components that could be added to your diesel. These components would allow a diesel engine to burn straight vegetable oil without the process of making it into bio-diesel. I was ecstatic, but there was a catch. The oil needed to have a high oleic-acid content and be low in polyunsaturated fats. Camelina is high in omega-3, a polyunsaturated fat, whereas safflower is high in oleic-acid. The perfect replacement… until we realized high oleic safflower oil was also the best kind of oil for high-temperature cooking and could sell for as high as $16.00 a gallon. At that point it seemed foolish to use it solely for fuel.
A high oleic oil, like safflower, is best suited for high-temperature cooking because it’s much more stable and will last longer than most other cooking oils. In many ways, safflower oil is superior to the currently popular olive oil. It contains vitamin E and has been known to lower bad cholesterol while helping to maintain good cholesterol. And they’re discovering new health benefits all the time!
I could see the potential; the opportunity to create a high-quality, organic product was at my fingertips.
When it was clear this was going to be more of a product-based business venture, I recruited my son-in-law, Andrew Long, to help me. Fresh from college, he and my daughter, Bridgette, moved into the house my parents used to live in on the farm and we got to work remodeling the old barn into a fully-functional food manufacturing facility. And The Oil Barn was born.
While the actual process of extracting the oil hasn’t changed, Andrew has certainly streamlined the process over the last few years. But it all starts in the field.
Safflower, full grown, is about knee-height and grows very well in our dry, northern Montana climate. It has bright yellow flowers that turn orange in the early fall. And it is also very prickly, which is why we use them on our farm as a wildlife deterrent around our corn fields.
Last year we grew about 400 acres of safflower on the farm and contracted another 1600 acres from local organic farmers. But safflower requires a hot, dry climate and this last August was exactly the opposite. Our resulting crop was a lot less than we hoped it would be. This year we are anticipating a more plentiful harvest.
The harvested seeds are cleaned and stored in bins outside the barn. These particular bins differ from the other grain storage bins on the farm because they’re equipped with small augers at the base that feed the seeds directly into the barn and to the presses.
Inside The Oil Barn, the seed is stored in two large hopper bins located above the presses. At the bottom of the bins are several tubes. There are no mechanics guiding the seed here, each tube uses gravity to feed into the presses. Inside each press, which looks like a giant hamburger grinder, is a huge metal screw. This screw continually presses the seed, extracting the oil through several circular perforations and excreting the remaining safflower byproduct through the end. We call this byproduct “mash” and actually sell it to local ranchers, who use it as a natural protein supplement for their cattle. The whole process maintains a temperature of less than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, so our oil is really cold-pressed.
The oil extracted through the presses isn’t what you would see in a bottle on the shelves at your local grocery store; there is still a good amount of plant material left in it. So, to purify the oil, we run it through a series of filter cloths and filter paper. The result is a pure, golden-colored oil as nature intended, without being decolorized or deodorized, as most commercial oils sold in the stores are.
Overall, the entire process takes about 10 hours and the operation runs constantly, Monday thru Saturday with little maintenance. The oil itself is stored in glass bottles, 5 gallon containers and 55 gallon drums in a dark, temperature-controlled room in the barn before it’s shipped. But that’s not the last we see of it, nor did we lose sight of the original objective.
When our customers are finished with the oil, usually used in deep-fat friers, we pick it up when we deliver our fresh oil and bring it back to the farm. Turns out, even used, safflower oil is still a very good potential fuel. We dewater and filter it to use in our tractor. So in the end, we achieved precisely what we set out to—we grow and process our own fuel right here on the farm. We also completely avoid the food versus fuel debate by using our fields to grow the food and after it’s spent, we use it for fuel in the fields. This effectively solves the dilemma of having to choose between two ideas when both can be done simultaneously.
What started out as an attempt to grow our own fuel, has evolved into The Oil Barn, producing a healthy, sustainable food product whose byproducts are feed for animals and fuel for tractors. And that’s what organic farming is really all about: health and sustainability.