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How A Minnesota Farmer's Experiment With Sunflowers Led To A Thriving Microwave Popcorn Brand

PEIRZ, Minnesota (WCCO) -- Our neighbors to the west, the Dakotas, are known for their colorful sunflower crops. But the flowers have been popping up in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes, too.

For a farmer in Pierz, in rural northwestern Minnesota, the plants started as a good protein source for livestock before turning into a popcorn source for consumers.

Tom Smude, the owner of Smude Enterprises, never thought he'd become a sunflower farmer. He initially planted the flowers to save money on feed costs for his cows, but he was impressed by the flowers' root structure and how it helped his soil.

"They'll go down seven feet and actually break up some sub soil," he said.

The flowers helped feed his cows, made his steaks taste better, and as they popped up, Smude learned their oil was good for popcorn.

"Corn goes in, oil goes in, the salt goes in," he said, while watching a machine package his product.

After 10 years of experimenting and getting things just right, the Smudes can now produce over 1,300 bags of microwaveable popcorn in an hour.

The sunflowers are also used for pet food, cereal, gluten free products and even protein bars.

"This is a by-product of what's left over after we crush the seeds," said Smude while holding the material.

But there's another by-product here. The field's sunny demeanor has grown on people.

"From wedding pictures to graduation pictures, we get people coming up and painting and they'll set up an easel and just paint for four or five hours," Smude said.

It's not uncommon for people passing through, like Shar and Lily Gordon, to stop and take it all in.

"I haven't been up close and personal with a sunflower. I didn't realize how large they get," Shar said. "It's a beautiful thing. A lot of people love sunflowers."

So do the thousands of bees that visit and pollinate. The only real competition is the blackbirds that fly in from Canada, so the Smudes have to harvest before they arrive. Otherwise, you could say business here is blooming.

"The oil, it amazes me where it all goes," Smude said. "It's neat to employ in small town, rural Minnesota."

For more information on Smude popcorn and sunflower oil, click here.

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