To the left of my cooktop sit two cruets of cooking oil. A dark one holds California olive oil and a less opaque one contains organic, refined safflower oil. I use the former, sometimes mixed with a pat of butter, to add flavor to sautéed fish or vegetables. I use the latter to sear meat or mushrooms in a sizzling hot pan. Sesame oil hangs out with the hot sauces on the fridge door, waiting to assist with a weeknight stir-fry. And in the very back of the cupboard are a couple of bottles of special occasion oils. I keep generic, probably GMO corn oil for the rare fried dough adventure, and I save an expensive bottle of Italian olive oil for drizzling over perfectly ripe tomatoes.

These oils are staples in my larder for a variety of reasons: flavor, ability to handle heat, nutritional benefits and affordability. I’d not really considered the sustainability quotient of any until I tried to source a Maine-made cooking oil and couldn’t find one.

Back in 2007 Albion dairy farmer Henry Perkins bought a tabletop-mounted oil extruder – a mechanical press that coaxes the oil out of seeds high in oil like sunflower, flax and hull-less pumpkin seeds, soybeans, rapeseed and corn kernels. He didn’t want the regulatory bother of pressing oil for human consumption, but he did try growing sunflowers and pressing them into oil to use as biodiesel fuel on the farm. The meal leftover from the process helped to feed his cows. But Perkins stopped pressing oil a few years ago for a litany of reasons: Grey sunflower moth, turkeys, deer and migrating blackbirds ate the crops; delinquent vendors created cash flow issues; and a lack of help and old age slowed down production. Producing a local cooking oil takes a lot more than a cook looking for a bottle might think, Perkins says.

Aroostook County resident Tate McPherson agrees. As a marketing consultant pushing Maine grains and seeds into as many commercial operations as he can, McPherson has his finger on the pulse of which new markets are feasible for Maine farmers. The pulse of the local cooking oil market is, it seems, pretty weak. Not enough acreage of oilseed crops is being grown in Maine to make a commercial processing facility here feasible. A few Maine farmers supply small amounts of rapeseed to the canola oil market, but they ship the seed to Canada to be processed, says McPherson. Sunflowers grow well in Maine, but the best commercial outlet for them right now is the bird seed market, McPherson said.

Raw, rolled-out cracker dough ready for the oven. Photo by Christine Burns Rudalevige

In nearby Vermont, several farmers who grow sunflowers offer local customers sunflower oil on a very small scale. One outfit, Full Sun Company in Middlebury, for three years operated a commercial press. Full Sun distributed canola and sunflower oils in health food stores in Massachusetts, Maine, New York and Vermont. But in September, according to its Facebook page, the company stopped production and put the business up for sale.

Blaine, Maine, farmer Tyler Yost grew sunflower seeds for Full Sun, and was left with a stockpile of seeds when its owners shuttered their operation. He’s now in the experimental stages of pressing his own sunflower oil. By mid-March, he hopes to have some wholly Maine, cold-pressed, non-GMO sunflower oil ready to sell. His oil – both in terms of flavor and likely price-point – isn’t the sort of oil a home cook would use to deep fry food. “We’re looking to produce something like an olive oil replacement,” Yost said. Think drizzling over pasta, emulsifying into a vinaigrette, and quickly sautéing garden vegetables. Yost is considering both on-line and retail locations for sales, but first needs to figure out just how much oil he can reasonably provide.

To encourage more Maine farmers to produce local cooking oil, more cooks need to be clamoring to get their hands on it, McPherson says. Farmers must be convinced they can scale a boutique crop of oilseed into a winning commercial venture. So if you are a cook looking for a local oil to keep in your cupboard (or perhaps refrigerator, as these local oils may need to stay cool), ask for it early and often to help seed this particular market.

CHRISTINE BURNS RUDALEVIGE is a food writer, recipe developer and tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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