Making Oil from Squash Seeds: Farm Collaboration Grows into Food Business Partnership

10/26/2013 7:00 AM
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant N.Y. Correspondent

After preparing its fresh cut squash, Martin Farms, a large family farm operation in Brockport, N.Y., had 30 tons of squash seed as a byproduct. Coincidentally, 12-year-old Stony Brook Cookie Company had recently relocated from Boston to the Technology Farm in Geneva, N.Y. Experts at the nearby Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences saw an opportunity that could benefit both companies and create a useful product. But the Cornell experts needed a hand. Could the 12-year-old cookie company use the discarded seeds in cookie batter? Or, could it come up with another way to make a value-added item from the seeds? The baking company’s top cookie took the challenge.

“They hoped that (by) speaking to someone closer to retailers, we could give some critical input,” said Greg Woodworth, who founded Stony Brook Cookie Company with his wife, Kelly Coughlin. “What we discovered is that an edible, food-grade oil could be extracted from the seeds.”

It’s one thing to have a good idea for a value-added item. It’s different to turn the idea into a salable item. From 2007 through 2008, while Stony Brook Cookie Company still baked mail-order gourmet cookies, Woodworth and Coughlin worked on what he called a “closet” pilot program, perfecting their new seed oil product.

To do so, the couple borrowed a 10-pound peanut roaster and a tabletop expeller press from the Cornell Experiment Station in Geneva. Though not affiliated with the Technology Farm, the Cornell station’s close proximity enabled both organizations to collaborate. In fact, one of the incentives to bring new businesses to the technology park is having the opportunity to work with Cornell experts.

Woodworth found that he could make one gallon of oil from the seeds in a 12-hour time period. Each 6-ounce bottle of oil uses 7 pounds of butternut squash, or about 10 squashes.

The couple had just bottled and labeled their first salable bottle when Noah Sheetz, head chef from the New York Governor’s mansion, visited the Technology Farm. The chef was looking for unique food items to include in an upcoming dinner at the mansion. When he sampled the squash seed oil, he immediately ordered four bottles on the spot.

“He was our first customer,” Woodworth said. “He tasted the oil and said he’d never tasted anything like it. It was a reality check for us.

“We found that we could add a roasted, toasted flavor from the drawing process that makes it really tasty,” he said. “It gives it an irresistible flavor, an intense, nutty flavor.”

The squash oil cooks more like olive oil with its low smoking point and is naturally high in vitamins E and A. Woodworth ramps up his marketing pitch with facts like these and likes comparing the oil with the fine wine that also flows from the region’s Finger Lakes wine-making artisans.

As the oil’s popularity picked up, Woodworth realized he had a choice to face. He needed financing to buy larger equipment. The recession had tightened bankers’ purse strings and Woodworth had no equity to leverage for a loan. He turned to the farm.

Martin Farms grows pumpkins, acorn squash, butternut, delicata and kabocha as well as cabbage on its 3,000 acres. Woodworth liked sourcing seeds from Martin Farms since their non-GMO seeds are grown using integrated pest management (IPM) techniques. He offered a partnership to Martin Farms and, as part of the negotiation, agreed to shutter the cookie company. The reborn company purchased a coffee roaster — which worked better than the peanut roaster — and a large expeller press.

The $20,000 expeller press was shipped from Germany, “but it was a level of investment the farm was comfortable with,” Woodworth said.

After modifying the coffee roaster to compensate for the squash seeds’ higher moisture content, the newly enlarged operation was ready to roll.

The expelling process uses about 20 percent of the seeds. But the 80 percent byproduct — known as seed cakes — isn’t wasted either. The company sells it to Mazourek Farms in Newfield, N.Y., as an ingredient for its proprietary blend of pig feed.

“We sell it for next to nothing, but it’s great to see a situation where we are a company that effectively that uses 100 percent of what we have with zero waste,” Woodworth said.

At present, Stony Brook employs six people, including its founders, and operates out of a 1,000-square-foot leased space. Annually, Stony Brook makes only about 2,600 gallons of oil. Woodworth could achieve a larger yield but he doesn’t want to use chemicals to process the seeds.

Since the oil is natural, Woodworth can market to specialty food markets, co-ops and olive oil tasting bars. In fact, 60 percent of his sales is to olive oil tasting bars.

Because many of these operate in the western U.S. and numerous cases of squash oil are heading westward, Woodworth anticipates opening a second location in Northern California or perhaps Oregon within the next five years.

“These are areas that produce squash or have climates that compliment squash growing,” Woodworth said. “With the cost of transit for shipping, it makes so much more sense to do what we do on the West Coast, too.”

Woodworth isn’t aware of any other company in the U.S. producing artisan-crafted, small-batch oil from local vegetable seeds. Since squash is, of course, a seasonal item, Woodworth constantly fights the misconception that his oils are also seasonal.

Martin Farms harvests the squash in two months and, using cold storage, processes fresh cut, ready-to-cook squash through March. Any surplus seeds are frozen, which Woodworth says does not impact the oil’s quality. Once it’s expelled and bottled, the seed oil has a shelf life of 14 months.

For more information, find Stony Brook online at www.wholeheartedfoods.com.


Is the USDA doing enough to accommodate small-scale direct-marketers of meat?

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9/30/2014 | Last Updated: 8:45 PM