Market Allergy-Friendly Food Using Local Vegetables, Fruit, Proteins, and Value-added Products to Increase Small Farm Sales

Progress report for FNC20-1232

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2020: $27,000.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2022
Grant Recipient: Pat & Rachel's Gardens
Region: North Central
State: Kansas
Project Coordinator:
Dr. James Leek
Pat & Rachel's Gardens
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Project Information

Description of operation:

Pat & Rachel's Gardens LLC currently farms 13 acres in Johnson County Kansas. We grow a variety of vegetables, fruits, and herbs, and have been Certified Organic since 2014. In 2015 we added a certified, state licensed allergen-free processing facility with walk-in cooler, freezer, and freeze drier. Joining the Kansas City Food Hub in 2016, we became a sub-hub southwest of Kansas City where members' products could be aggregated for distribution. Our 2018 SARE Grant explored value-added processing and freezing for our own and our members' products. Owner/operator James Leek is a current board member of the KC Food Hub and was a co-director of the 2019 SARE grant (FNC19-1175).

Red Ridge Farms is a 3.5 acre certified organic farm in Odessa, MO owned by Jim and Ami Zumalt. They also manage a sub-hub for the Kansas City Food Hub, and operate a retail & wholesale farmers market offering local produce, proteins, and allergy-friendly foods from their commercial kitchen. They have farmed for 10 years. Ami is the current Vice president of the KC Food Hub. Ami was co-director of the 2019 SARE grant (FNC19-1175).

Kansas City Food Hub is a farmer-owned cooperative providing access to wholesale markets for members through sales, marketing, aggregation and distribution. The following member owners of Kansas City Food Hub are part of this project:

Buller Family Farm, Lawrence KS. Certified organic 5 acre farm selling CSA, retail, and wholesale for 12 years. Owner/operator Tom Buller is a founder and Treasurer of the KC Food Hub.

JET Produce, Leavenworth, KS. 6 acre farm selling wholesale and retail for 5 years. Owner/operator Jacob Thomas.

Moon on the Meadow, Lawrence KS. Certified organic 5 acre farm selling CSA, retail, and wholesale for 12 years. Owner/operator Jill Elmers is a founder of the KC Food Hub.

Green Thumbs Up, Lawrence, KS. A 3 acre retail and wholesale farm with 7 years experience. Partner/operator John Edmonds is a director for the KC Food Hub.

County Line Produce, El Dorado Springs, MO. A 32 acre farmer cooperative of 5 farms selling wholesale with 22 years experience.

Boys Grow, Kansas City, MO. A 30 acre Nonprofit mentoring urban youth through agricultural entrepreneurship, 10 years.

Summary:

This proposal attempts to solve two problems: First, people with food allergy restrictions are challenged to find fresh, healthy choices meeting their nutritional needs.  Second, small farmers continue to seek ways to improve economic viability.  This grant proposal builds on our current SARE research FNC19-1175 which explored the struggles two small local school districts faced meeting the needs of their students diagnosed with food allergies.  Our work developing menu items free of the top 8 allergens using locally-sourced vegetables, fruit, proteins and value-added products shows real promise for both local farmers and schools.  We are requesting a second grant that would take our research a step further by finding other customers both in and outside of school communities while refining the business challenge of making the processes more cost effective through use of scale and bulk ordering.

Project Objectives:
  1. Identify crops and products Kansas City Food Hub farmer/owners will have available for value-added allergy-free meals.
  2. Identify needs in our local communities for allergy-free menu items.
  3. Refine and test standardized recipes created with our 2019 SARE grant (FNC19-1175).
  4. Increase scale of production beyond 2019 grant and take advantage of bulk pricing of materials to make prices competitive.
  5. Continue to test recipes among our clients using fresh, processed, and preserved products.
  6. Market products both inside and outside of school communities thereby increasing viability of our farmer members. Target research audiences include: other institutions such as nursing homes and day cares.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Alicia Ellingsworth - Producer
  • Ami Zumalt - Producer

Research

Materials and methods:

After interviewing local school food service personnel as part of our 2019 SARE grant (FNC19-1175), we identified a problem we were equipped to solve: Institutions were struggling to find allergy-friendly, healthy foods for students. Because we were small farmers, we knew we would struggle providing menu items for an entire school population, so the idea of solving a major problem for a small percentage of the population was born. Feeding community members with dietary food restrictions is a manageable subset of the larger population. 

Though we were encouraged that schools would be willing to pay higher prices for this help and found this to be true with some schools, other schools are looking for more competitive prices.

 

Our steps for success:

  • Determine product availability from our local KC Food Hub farmers
  • Find new clients in and out of school communities, including parents, nursing homes, day cares, and local eateries and grocery stores.
  • Advertise our products
  • Test our products with new clients
  • Research packaging [with an emphasis on minimal waste], serving sizes, and preservation techniques best suited to deliver healthy, safe products with an eye to bulk ordering.
  • Reduce production costs through scaling up and buying supplies and ingredients in bulk
  • Verify all regulations have been met. Create methodology for each recipe ensuring products are allergy free [dairy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, wheat], or free of any other required dietary restrictions
  • Create a value-added product label for each menu item meeting all institution, local, state, or federal regulations
  • Set pricing; confirm with buyers
  • Market and distribute final product
  • Assess project
Research results and discussion:

During 2020, we reached out to several businesses before Covid slowed down our progress.  We found the most interest in small retail establishments, such as coffee shops, and other small town retail markets, such as a shop in Buckner, MO.  Three coffee shops expressed interest in our value added and finished breakfast items, including an egg and cheese ‘grab and go’ sandwich, made with local and non-gmo eggs.  They were also interested in value added canned goods that are both shelf stable and refrigerated.  Once the pandemic closed most doors, we continued to do business with 2 shops that seemed to figure out a way to grow, even with the pandemic.  One of these accounts has grown from a few random sales once a month to almost weekly orders approaching $250-$400 each week.   This shop loves our focus on using locally procured ingredients, no fillers, and no artificially derived flavors- for example, the apple pies she is purchasing are made from locally procured granny smith apples.  The other business was a new business that began during the pandemic.  While they are only ordering about once a month, it is usually a $400 order, focusing on value added products.  

We reached out to daycares, and found a strong interest in foods that are free of the top 8 allergens.  Unfortunately, they need to be made in a contaminant free space, and since we use tree nuts, eggs, and dairy in some of our recipes, we would need a separate kitchen in order to guarantee the safety of these items.  We are considering adding that space, but would need to assess the need in our community for this service to weigh the costs of building a separate kitchen.  

We have found a lot more success direct marketing to individuals and families during this past year, while many of our potential wholesale partners were closed or operating in a limited fashion.  We have designed and marketed individual serving-type meals that have become popular, using the model we created last year with containers that are microwavable or oven-able.  This is a better system for many people, over the larger meals and family sized portions.  We are going to ‘flesh out’ these meals and individually packaged snacks for potential to wholesale markets.  

Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

5 Consultations
2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
2 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary

36 Farmers
2 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Because of Covid, all presentations were via Zoom.  James gave two presentations to approximately 36 interested parties.  Farm to Fork sponsored by Southwest Missouri State, and the the 2021 Great Plains Growers Conference hosted these events.  James was a co-presenter with Londa Nwadike at the Great Plains Growers Conference.  One attendee at Great Plains wrote that our presentation was the most informative presentation she had attended at the conference.  We provided a Power Point presentation and took questions.  The Zoom presentations were recorded.  A link is provided HERE. We went business to business discussing our project and gaining insight from them about how our directives could augment what their goals were as well.  I’ve not gotten any media coverage, although, we have discussed contacting media this coming year.  

Learning Outcomes

Lessons Learned:

For me (Ami), this will need to be answered after we are able to better communicate with more wholesale buyers this year.

Project Outcomes

1 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
3 New working collaborations
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.