Made of Sunshine

I first heard about Healthy Hoosier Oils when shopping at my food coop, Pogue’s Run Grocer. As a local food enthusiast, I was thrilled to find out that there was a new local alternative for culinary oils. I didn’t know much about how the product was made, but after I took home my first bottle of sunflower oil, I knew it was delicious. Seriously flavorful.

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Once you’ve tried it, you will crave its buttery flavor.

I ended up buying bottle after bottle of sunflower oil as we drizzled it on our salads all through spring and summer. And popcorn popped in the stuff is amazing. It’s great for stir-frying too. Then there’s canola oil, which has a more neutral flavor and a higher smoke point.

Eventually I suggested to my Farm Indiana editor that we do a story on the Boyer farm in Converse, Indiana. That’s where the seed crops are raised and turned into this fantastic staple of my dinner table.

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Sunflower fields forever.

Yes, this is the amazingly fortunate position I find myself in at this stage of my life: I get hooked on a particular foodstuff, and get to go visit with the folks responsible for it. I write a story about them and collect a (smallish) paycheck.

I met Craig Boyer, the 81-year-old patriarch of a family that manages to stay tightknit and geographically close in an age where that is rare. (All of his and wife Nancy’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren live within just a few miles of where the above photo was taken.)

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Craig Boyer with a section of the filtration system for the culinary oils.

The land has been in the Boyer family since 1848, farmed for six generations and counting. The culinary oil enterprise is fairly recent, and arose partly out of Craig’s health crisis. He had to semi-retire after a major cardiac event, and he was supposed to watch his diet. His sons Mark and John experimented with converting their biodiesel operation into culinary oil production, in part because of the market—but also because their dad loved his fried foods.

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Brady Bolen bottles and labels the freshly pressed oil.

I was pleased to hear that the oils are free of solvents and additives. I actually was a bit clueless about how conventional oils are extracted (through a nasty-sounding process involving hexane and high heat). Healthy Hoosier Oils go through a cold press.

The oil crops themselves grow in a minimally-tilled row-crop setup, in rotation with the corn, soybeans, and wheat that the Boyers also raise. “We use zero chemicals,” Mark told me, speaking of the canola and sunflowers. I asked about weed control: “It actually is relatively easy in that both canola and sunflowers eventually will canopy. When they canopy, they cover the ground and protect themselves from invasive weeds to a certain extent.”

Honeybees are key to the Boyers’ strategy too—they partner with a local beekeeper to make sure that honeybees are working their magic on the crops.

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Honey from Bastin Honey Bee Farm of Knightstown is sold onsite along with the oils.

 

I enjoyed my tour of the operation that July day, even the sweltering 1940s-era corn crib (repurposed to store the oil crops). Here’s the writeup for Farm Indiana, if you’d like to read more. Locally, you can find Healthy Hoosier Oils in Kroger stores, Pogue’s Run Grocer,  and other independent grocers.

 

Localizing the Winery

When is a winery more than a winery? When it contributes to revitalizing a rural community, putting the local economy at the forefront of its mission. Owen Valley Winery, which I discovered on assignment for Farm Indiana, is just such a place.

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Here’s a look at the piece I wrote for this month’s issue of Farm Indiana.

I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with Tony Leaderbrand (pictured above), who told me the whole story of the family-owned business’s evolution. Aside from their commitment to showcasing Owen County’s locally grown and made products, the winery is unique in another respect. It is the first Midwestern winery to run on solar power.

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A grant from the Renewable Energy for America Program helped pay for the solar panels that now produce a large portion of the winery’s energy needs.

Locally grown persimmons are among the fruits used in Owen Valley Winery’s products. I was moved by stories of people bringing their excess fruit in shoeboxes and buckets every fall to sell to the winery. Tony made me see that winemaking is truly a local ag-based endeavor. (Due to demand for dry wine, they also use some California-grown grapes as well.)

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Photo by groceris, via PhotoDune

Tony told me all about the repurposed items that went into construction of the tasting room and production facility. In fact, the second tasting room is kind of an upcycling project in itself: It’s located in the renovated Tivoli Theatre, a historic building in Spencer, IN.

On a personal note, Tony talked about how eating produce from local farms is a winner both in terms of health benefits and reduced packaging. Not to mention the benefits of keeping dollars circulating in the local community.

“I think there’s such a need for us all to come full circle on purchasing,” he said. “We have to break these old habits of going to these superstores. You’ve got to know where everything you buy comes from.”

You can read the full article here (do a search on Owen Valley Winery to jump to the piece.)

Restoring the Land

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Cover page of my Farm Indiana profile of WE Farm

Dr. Lisa Harris remembers well the first conversation with the young man who would come to farm her land—they talked for hours, almost an entire day. “I was so impressed with how deliberate and thoughtful he was,” she told me.

Dr. Harris is Eskenazi Health’s medical director, a vegetarian with a lifelong interest in eating healthy food. As I learned when I wrote about WE Farm for Farm Indiana, she leases her Owen County property to Josh Egenolf and Laura Beth Wayne’s pastured beef cattle, poultry, and pork operation.

“Most people in the United States do eat meat,” she said. “So if I can be part of something that gives people access to meat from animals that have lived well, it seems like a perfect opportunity.”

Like many of us, Dr. Harris tries to live as lightly as possible, and Josh’s plans to make her land productive really spoke to that goal. “What Josh is doing,” she said, “is in every sense helping to improve the land.” WE Farm’s integrated, rotational grazing plan means the animals work in concert with nature to restore pastureland—all the while sequestering carbon and nitrogen in the soil.

The day I visited the farm last November in preparation for my Farm Indiana story, four happy dogs ran in front of the pickup truck as we drove up the lane to tend the livestock. Owen County is picturesque, with wooded hills and deep valleys. Josh showed me the steep woodlot where the hogs are periodically turned loose to forage for acorns and pawpaws. They also help him clear out understory invasives, just by doing what pigs do.

Breeder pigs enjoying their mineral rations on a frosty November morning.

Breeder pigs enjoying their mineral rations on a frosty November morning.

Josh was raised on a farm just a few miles up the road, and he treasures the richness of his a rural childhood. Giving that experience to his own child (and another on the way) is a big reason why he moved back to the area after pursuing his doctorate in ecology at the University of Georgia.

Also, he wanted to be put what he’d learned there into practice. Agriculture, he told me, has enormous potential for creating meaningful environmental change.

He said, “In 2007 I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Before that it never occurred to me that there might be anything troublesome about the way meat was produced, other than animal welfare stuff. That’s very clear to me…you shouldn’t treat your animals poorly. They need to be respected. But it didn’t occur to me that there was a single thing wrong with them eating grain and (even) industrial byproducts.”

He knows that many people still don’t realize the environmental and health issues that accompany feeding grain to meat animals, but a growing customer base tells him how many people value pastured meat. “It’s like an awakening that needs to happen.”

Josh and Laura Beth strive to keep the business as local as possible, keeping close to home in all their dealings. For more on their endeavors, check out my Farm Indiana story and the WE Farm website.