Nestled on a quiet road in Norfolk County, Pristine Gourmet is Canada’s only cold press sunflower oil operation.
“We are the only processor in Canada producing sunflower oil, and a lot of people are a little bit surprised by that,” said Jason Persall, a fourth-generation farmer. “It’s an opportunity for us.”
Why it matters: Entrepreneurial cash crop farmers like Persall are expanding into food manufacturing for niche markets, including restaurants and consumer packaged goods.
Seventeen years ago, Persall and his wife, Linda, began producing field-to-table extra-virgin artisan gourmet oils made from 100 per cent non-GMO sunflower, soybean and canola grown on their 1,000-acre farm.
In the early days, Persall made sales by knocking on the door of high-end Toronto restaurants to share samples of his locally grown and processed oils. But a well-placed article touting the taste and flavour of his products, as well as a call from British chef and TV personality Nigella Lawson, saw their business take off.
“We wanted to work deeper into companies with consumer-packaged goods, food manufacturing. We wanted to really broaden our market completely,” Persall said during a recent Farm and Food Care tour.
The farm’s heritage, integrity and purpose-driven business helped accomplish that goal. It’s a win for everyone when a chef can explain the source of an ingredient in a dish, tell the farmer’s story and be confident of its quality and seed-to-table traceability, said Persall.
He developed relationships with food manufacturers before the pandemic, which paid off when restaurant demand dried up.
“That side of our business (food manufacturing) ramped up like crazy… and picked up all the slack,” he said. “Before the pandemic, we were producing sunflower oil, canola oil, soybean oil, pumpkin seed oil, and just starting work with sesame oil.”
In short order, demand for sunflower oil outshone the others, and Persall modified production to focus solely on that product.
“We just started filling that void of the market demand, and then with the war in Ukraine … the demand on sunflower oil is beyond what we can manage here,” he said. “We’ve been in a demand over supply situation for nearly two years.”
In the next month, Persall will take delivery of six new presses, which were supposed to arrive in June but were delayed due to supply chain issues. Once installed, his 18 presses will run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, producing 12,000 to 13,000 litres weekly. Ideally, he’d like to build a new mill to focus specifically on sunflower production and utilize the existing mill for his other niche markets.
“With a new mill, we’ll be changing our process just a little bit because we need to improve our capacity,” he said. “The mill we’re (considering) at present will improve our capacities by four times. So, it’ll be a big change.”
Persall is working with Agriculture and Agri-food Canada and an American company to grow the northernmost acres of sesame to add to the restaurant line-up.
Over the last few years, he has worked with food manufacturing companies to find a market for the oil press byproducts, especially around protein isolation and purification of sunflower protein.
“Food manufacturers are looking for these types of things to help them improve consumer acceptance of products when it comes to cleaner labels, protein, healthier products, better tasting products and customer experience,” he said.
Building a circular business model is about being sustainable and also about adhering to a biodiversity platform encompassing wildlife, bush, streams and any component directly related to soil.
“Sustainable is just holding the line. We need to go further than that,” said Persall. “We need to step over the line and put ourselves in growing forward, developing and doing more. We need to be more than sustainable.”
Persall also believes the shift from globalization to more North American or Canadian food demand will continue, especially in the restaurant and food manufacturing industries.
“We’re always working on the next thing. Is (sesame) something that’s going to be on the market for us next year? Likely not,” he said. “It could be three to four years out from that.”
But customers are interested in the oil, the protein byproduct and how it might integrate into their business.
“We’re going to see a rise in quality food products, Canadian-driven food products,” he said.