Josh and Noah Engel are the quintessential farmers in the Driftless region. Their farm – Driftless Organics – is located on McManus Ridge in Crawford County and has been supplying the Viroqua Food Co+op with certified organic produce for longer than we can remember.
The Engel brothers started their careers as farmers back in 1993 when Noah was nine and Josh was eleven. They lived on their parent’s organic dairy farm and that year they decided to plant a quarter acre of potatoes that included twenty different varieties. As the years carried on, they started planting more and more produce, bought tractors and other farm implements and hired their mother Marta to drive them to the Dane County Farmers Market to sell their organic produce.
Today, with the help of a dedicated farm crew, they grow 100 acres of organic vegetables, fruit and oilseed crops that are sold at the Dane County Farmers’ Market and Midwest grocery stores focused on local and organic food. Some of the main staples that we enjoy at the Viroqua Food Co+op are their five-pound bags of yellow or red potatoes and their delicious fall harvest carrots that we enjoy through the dark days of winter.
For years they had been selling a large portion of their produce through their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, but they decided to discontinue this option in 2020 due to the cost of growing such a diversity of crops with a changing climate and increased rain. They are now focusing on growing vegetables that they know will be profitable for their local organic farm.
Beyond growing delicious organic vegetables, they also produce a unique product – culinary sunflower oil. In 2007, Josh started dreaming up a way to diversify their farm income while creating culinary oils that filled a gap in the local food system. After some trial and error, they found that the best fit for the farm was growing fields of sunflowers and producing cold pressed certified organic sunflower oil.
To produce the oil, the Engels plant their black oil sunflower seeds (similar to the ones found in birdseed) in early June when the soil has warmed. From there, the flowers grow tall and come into full bloom in August. When you pass over the McManus ridge at this time, the feeling of being greeted by a large field of majestic sunflowers in full bloom is simply breathtaking.
The flower heads dry down and form mature sunflower seeds that are harvested in mid-October with a combine, dried further in grain bins for 6-18 months, then cleaned on the farm. They truck the cleaned sunflower seeds offsite to Botanical Innovations in Spooner, Wisconsin. There the seeds are cold pressed, filtered and bottled. VFC carries Driftless Organics Sunflower Oil in half-pints, pints as well as in bulk.
The Engels dub their organic sunflower oil “the Olive Oil of the Midwest” on their bottle and we have to say it really is! The oil closely mirrors light olive oil – it is low in saturated fats and high in oleic acid and vitamin E. Since it is unrefined, it has a low smoke point of 225°F that is not suitable for frying. It’s nutty flavor shines in dressings, pesto, baking and light sautéing.
Next time you see Driftless Organics veggies or sunflower oil at VFC, be sure to pick some up! You can do so knowing that you are supporting a vibrant local farm that is dedicated to organic agriculture.