By ML Ball
Photo: Courtesy of Hudson Valley Cold Pressed Oil
Hudson Valley Cold Pressed Oils
Staying true to roots, the land and the ageless practice of farming.
To find Kevin Haight’s roots, all you need to do is drive down Sleight-Plass Road in Pleasant Valley, because in many ways, he’s never left.
As a young boy, Kevin worked on Bill Plass’s chicken farm (now a hay farm) on that road starting around 1979, collecting and candling eggs. Decades later, he would found Hudson Valley Cold Pressed Oils on the very same spot. “This was my first job when I was nine years old,” Kevin explains. “I grew up down the road, just eight tenths of a mile away. Bill’s father bought the farm in 1915 and the original house dates from 1776, so there’s a lot of history here.”
And Kevin was not the only young person working on the Plass farm—everyone in the neighborhood worked there at one time or another. “The parents thanked Mr. Plass for teaching their kids how to work—to show up on time, work hard and get paid an honest wage,” Kevin says. “It was a great place to grow up.” Now 91, Bill Plass, still farming the same land, sold the farm to Kevin two years ago in December 2014, which is when its use partially shifted from hay to oils. “He gets a big kick out of the fact that this place is going to continue to be a farm,” states Kevin. “That’s why I bought it. I wanted to make sure this land would be protected and sustainable and would continue to produce healthy food for people.”
So how does one go from egg candling to pressing sun- flower oil? In Kevin’s case, by running away from graduate school and landing in South Africa working for a water treatment company. “We traveled to Zimbabwe to treat the water in the city of Harare, and while we were there, we were put in contact with an avocado farm that needed help clearing its oil,” Kevin recalls. “They were pressing avocado oil, and our company made a chemical that helped make it clear.” And therein began a love affair with oil.
Ever since he was 20 years old, he had wanted to make oil.
On New Year’s Eve in 2013, Kevin, owner of a swimming pool maintenance company and new owner of the Plass Farm, was looking through a trade magazine, worrying about how he was going to pay the mortgage. Noticing an ad for an oil press, a lightbulb went on. “I’m going to make biodiesel,” he decided.
Saddled with an annual $25,000 fuel bill for his pool business, Kevin determined that he could start making biodiesel fuel with used cooking oil discarded by local restaurants. He soon discovered, however, that because the federal government subsidizes food-industry workers to make biodiesel, there was no future in it. “The owners of delis are getting paid for their used oil. A little guy like me couldn’t make it in that business because I couldn’t afford it—it costs 95 cents to make a gallon of biodiesel,” he says.
Given these discouraging economics, Kevin decided he would make his own biodiesel. After much research, he settled on sunflowers as the best crop to produce the oil but soon ran into a bit of a problem—his oil was too good.
As he describes it, “My brother and sister-in-law are both CIA grads with a lot of experience in the food industry. When my brother tasted my oil, he said, ‘You can’t burn this, it’s way too good. You need to bottle it and sell it by the ounce for a culinary gourmet oil.’” With that, it was goodbye biodiesel, hello gourmet sunflower oil.
For advice in this new endeavor, Kevin turned to John Boyer, a sunflower farmer in Indiana and the “father” of cold pressed sunflower oil production in the United States. “We developed a friendship over the phone and then I drove out to Indiana twice—11 hours—to visit him. After that, I bought my presses, got a rough plan together and then just kind of winged it, trial and error.”
Currently, there are two cold pressed sunflower producers in New York State—one in the Finger Lakes and Kevin’s operation in Pleasant Valley. As a testament to how new the process of cold pressing sunflower oil was when Kevin first got into it, when an inspector from the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets came to inspect his operation, he told Kevin he needed to write his own manual so the state would know how to inspect his process. “He had no idea,” says Kevin.
A wonderful symbiotic relationship with fellow local farmers.
One of the most impressive and highly valued aspects of Hudson Valley Cold Pressed Oils is the way it works in concert with a number of local farming partners at every stage of its pressing process. This is true collaboration in action, for the good of the land, livestock and, ultimately, humans.
One such partner is Walbridge Farm in Millbrook. Owners Doug and Cheryl Giles are Kevin’s main growing partners, planting sunflowers for him so that, combined with what he grows on his farm, he can count on approximately 100 acres of sunflowers a year, the equivalent of 10,000 gallons of oil. (To produce 100 gallons of oil takes one ton of sunflower seeds.)
On down the line, Kevin gives Walbridge Farm his sunflower meal, a byproduct of the process of turning seeds into oil—a highly-nutritious, 24 percent protein, non-GMO mixture that Giles then feeds to his Black Angus cattle. “Doug grows the seed, I press the oil, the sunflower meal goes back to him, he feeds it to his animals, and the consumer gets a higher quality, healthier, more nutritious, non-GMO beef product,” Kevin says.
“Everybody wins.” Another local collaborative partner is Taconic Distillery in Stanfordville. Barrel-aging his sunflower oil in the distillery’s whiskey and bourbon barrels, Kevin is in the beginning stages of producing a maple-bourbon-flavored oil, perfect for pancakes and waffles.
Cold pressed isn’t really Cold.
Even though “cold pressed” oil sounds as if the process and the product would be cold, they are actually quite warm. And far healthier than the “hot” alternative.
According to Kevin, what differentiates cold pressed oils from expeller pressed varieties is not only the process but the health benefits of the end product. With cold pressed oil, the oil’s temperature during the pressing process must be kept below 138 degrees, which is still very warm. In contrast, mass-produced expeller pressed oil is processed at extremely high heat, far above its smoke point. This causes it to burn and turn rancid, at which point it becomes a carcinogen (potentially cancer causing).
Cold pressed oil is not smoked in the pressing process and therefore does not turn rancid or become carcinogenic. In fact, far from it. The positive health benefits of cold pressed oil are substantial: trans-fat free, GMO free, gluten free, high in monounsaturated fat, high in omega-9 and vitamin E and very good for your skin and heart.
Committed to the Hudson Valley.
Did Kevin ever consider establishing his cold pressed oils business somewhere else, where the soil is richer and sunflowers are easier to grow (like the Midwest)? Absolutely not. “Dutchess County and the Hudson Valley is where I live,” he declares. “I grew up here, I have family here, my swimming pool business is here. I’ve been on the board of the Town of LaGrange Open Space Committee as the farming advocate for about 10 or 11 years now. We’ve been involved in four or five projects in which, by selling the development rights, we’ve made it possible for families to keep their farms.” Plus, Kevin has the only sunflower farm near New York City, a significant market for his oil.
If one needs further proof of Kevin’s commitment to the area, simply look at the label on every bottle of his oil: Hudson Valley Cold Pressed Sunflower Oil. “I want to try to keep it as local as possible,” he explains. “We grow our own seeds so we can insure the quality of our grain and so we can consider our whole operation local.”
So what’s next for Hudson Valley Cold Pressed Oils? If all goes well, in addition to the maple-bourbon-flavored oil, Kevin is planning to roll out an almond oil, a sesame oil, even a hemp oil. “It’s a process,” he says. “It’ll be three years in January since I had the idea on New Year’s Eve when I was reading through the ag magazine and saw the oil press and said, ‘Oh, I can do that.’”
And “do it” he did. Today, Hudson Valley Cold Pressed Oils can be found in such highly respected retail markets as Quattro’s Farm Store, Adams Fairacre Farms, Sprout Creek Farm, Walbridge Farm, Culinary Institute of America, Taste NY at Todd Hill and Health Connection.
In addition, local Hudson Valley restaurants that use Hudson Valley Cold Pressed Oils include All Shook Up Café, Café Aurora, Crave, Crew, Lola’s Café, Old Drover’s Inn, White- face Lodge, Elia’s Catering Company and House of Sausage, and the Crooked Rooster.
For more information on Hudson Valley Cold Pressed Oils, visit their website at www.hudsonvalleycoldpressedoils.com. █