Pumpkin Seed Oil is a Valuable Wisconsin Product

It's truly a "value-added" item

This is about an article that can be as genuine as they come—oil. But if the first image that pops to mind is an earthy, spicy, green-y fresh, organic, virgin olive oil, then this one might take a second to get your head around.

There are of course many good oils made from nuts. This oil is made from pumpkin seeds. That’s right, pumpkin seeds. We’ll get to taste in a minute. What grabbed us right away about Hay River Pumpkin Seed Oil, “America’s first pumpkin seed oil,” organically produced right here in Wisconsin, is how and why it is made the way it is.

“Value added” products are all the rage these days, and for good reason. But it’s not as easy as it might sound. Farmers need opportunities to increase revenues by using what they grow and raise in more than their raw form. Many farmers are also “enriching” these products with desired elements like health or environmental benefits, sustainable production methods, or creating social capital, essential components of creating a local food economy. So, many farmers face the dual challenges of adding elements of real value to products and creating products that must be competitive in the marketplace.

Ken Seguine and Jay Gilbertson found the product in—of all places—Austria, or to be more clear, an Austrian exhibitor booth at a natural products trade show that Seguine attended as a rep for the beauty products company Aveda.

It turns out the Austrians love pumpkin seed oil and have been producing it for more than three hundred years. It’s made from “naked seed” pumpkins discovered in Austria in the 1870s (much easier to turn into oil than hard shell seed pumpkins), and the oil is widely used for salads and marinades.

Seguine’s interest in sustainable agriculture and local economies led him from his native Los Angeles to Minnesota and eventually to northern Wisconsin. This is where he and his partner, Gilbertson, eventually found the added value for the product, in the community of Prairie Farm in Barron County, where the two men grow their certified organic “naked seed” pumpkins and—more importantly—where their neighbors help with the harvest. The result is what we would call an intentional product, an extremely well thought out endeavor that was not just about the products they were creating, but its impact on the local community.

As Seguine tells the story, a presenter at a value added agriculture conference in Eau Claire encouraged attendees to consider growing oil seed crops since there wasn’t much of that going on in Wisconsin. Seguine remembered the Austrian pumpkin seed oil, and he and Gilbertson were in business.
And so were their neighbors. The two men literally hired the folks living around them to grow the pumpkins and harvest the seeds. Seguine says on the Hay River website, “Our long term goal is to support the local economy and create jobs in the community. We feel that pumpkins fit well with the local agricultural patterns and that this project has real potential to create additional income for small farmers.” He makes it perfectly clear his idea of sustainability includes “paying a fair and sustainable wage to the folks involved in growing and hand-harvesting the seeds.”

Word is getting out. A quick search shows critical acclaim for the oil in the New York Times, Bon Appétit, the Wall Street Journal and others.

The oil is dark amber with a hint of green, very rich and very nutty. We made crackers with it and it gave them a most beautiful golden hue and slightly nutty flavor. We’d use it in a vinaigrette. Even desserts.

It’s a great product. It’s a great idea. And it gives “value added” added meaning.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com.

Read more Genuine Articles columns here.

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