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3/11/2009
Sunny seeds, sunny people and sunny skin
Sunny seeds, sunny people and sunny skin

THE AUGUST SUN beats down. In Austria’s Burgenland it’s 101 degrees outside—a bit too warm for people’s comfort. But it’s just right for sunflowers. This is when they really blossom—into seemingly endless, bright-yellow expanses of magnificently blooming flowers. We have come here to experience the sunflowers at their peak and to discover the origins of the best organic sunflower oil. Here, in the Burgenland, Ernst and Mathile Augustin grow bright, organic sunflowers, from which Weleda presses the seed oil for its caring skin products.

Organic rays of sun:

When we meet Ernst Augustin, he is hurriedly tending to his other crops, the grain harvest, while eyeing the thunderclouds on the horizon. But the sunflowers pay no heed. Instead, the splendid golden flowers languidly move their heavy heads in the other direction, toward the morning sun. And then at noon—as if by magic—they turn away from this solar source like a turtle crawling into its shell. When we mention this phenomenon, Augustin smiles. In his sunflower-filled world, this is completely normal.

An experienced organic farmer, Augustin cares for his crops and the environment with conviction. “When I ride my bike past a field that has been sprayed, I know that’s just not my thing!” he declares. He much prefers his healthy, sweet-smelling organic fields. It is clear that Augustin is grounded, calm and strong—like his plants. He explains that the organic farming of sunflowers is not very difficult if you understand what the plants need.

Sunflowers need heat, moisture and heavy soil. When each part is there in the right degree, then it is almost guaranteed that their seeds, and the oil pressed from them, will contain high quantities of unsaturated fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. It takes a lot of sunflowers, though, to make the oil. The seeds from about 60 sunflowers yield four cups of oil. On Augustin’s fields, 60,000 are blooming, all surrounded by constant buzzing. A sunflower field makes a paradise for bees. Ninety-nine percent of these opulent flowers are pollinated by honeybees and bumblebees. This is another reason why it is especially important to farm sunflowers without the use of synthetic sprays and chemical fertilizers.

Sowing the sun:

If a farmer has carefully tended to the sunflowers in the spring, they require little work in the heat of midsummer. In mid-April, Augustin sows the fields, leaving 20 centimeters between the seeds and 75 between the rows so that his tractor can easily make its way through the field. For the next 10 days, he watches his fields like a hawk—waiting to see if a protective layer of weeds sprouts up. This is a healthy sign because the weeds will later nourish the plants. As he waits, the sunflower seedlings begin to peep out from the earth. After weeks of hoeing and tilling, the weeds are fully ground into the soil as organic, natural fertilizer, and the sunflowers are growing and growing up to six-and-one-half feet tall.

One hundred and fifty days after the fields were sown, the land glows in soft, early fall light. It’s September. During the grape harvest most of the sunflower blossoms that were once so cheerful now hang toward the earth, looking dry and dismal. This means one thing—it’s harvest time!

Augustin has 50 acres of sunflower fields that need harvesting, and each acre will yield close to 26,000 small, black seeds. At this point people begin to move quickly, because unless processed within 24 hours of the harvest, the seeds will go sour and cannot be pressed into the precious oil. On this day, everyone must work even faster. A thundercloud is looming. If it rains, the seeds will be wet, and the ground will be too heavy and muddy for the harvesting machine to collect them. So the harvester goes to work, cutting the stems about a half-foot from the ground and tossing the sunflowers into the vehicle with thousands of seeds inside. Everything else that the sunflower has produced flies back out of the harvester on to the field.

Fresh from the earth, the harvest is brought to the local granary, and the quality of the black riches is tested. Furnished with Ernst Augustin’s signature, the sample is bagged and sealed with hundreds of others so that later, if there are any problems, it is easy to track back to the source. The seeds are now off to the cleaning machine, after which they are dried for an hour at 86 degrees Fahrenheit and cooled again in the “cold zone.”

Shiny like the sun:

While the dark seeds do not outwardly glow like the golden blossoms of their summer flowers, their inner oil shines. The luster is due to its outstanding ingredients, including an oleic acid (a monounsaturated, omega-9 fatty acid) content of more than 80 percent. This makes the pressed oil from this special variety—developed through selective cultivation without modifying the plant’s genes—more stable against oxidation than any other vegetable oil. Konrad Haberberger, a seed dealer, notes that other varieties of sunflower seeds include about 20 percent oleic acid. He has worked with sunflower seeds for years and now works with farmers to organically cultivate this high-quality variety in Austria, Hungary, Italy and Romania.

At the moment, he is making sure that Augustin’s crops are safely transported to the oil mill not far from Weleda’s offices in southern Germany. Once there, the seeds are mechanically pressed to obtain the valuable, organic oil. These seeds yield about 40 percent oil. (With conventionally acquired oils, even more can be obtained, but that re-quires the use of a chemical solvent.) This precious extract is then filtered several times and steam-treated so it is clear and odorless for Weleda’s skin care.

From thousands of brilliant sunflowers blossoming in the hot Austrian fields, the high-quality oil now gleams with beauty garnered from the summer sun, green hills and rich earth.