Final Report for FNE06-566
We have provided an alternative for farmer's market produce in the form of a pure and natural frozen food line. We have received positive feedback on the gourmet quality and ease of use. The move toward promoting healthy food alternatives to the public is at a peak.
The SARE grant enabled us to pursue this idea with less financial constraints than we would have otherwise encountered. We are pursuing additional funding for packaging, marketing, and production. We are in a better position to recruit food venture capitalists to review our "value added" ideas.
We encourage small farmers to contact us so they can participate in the "Farmer's Market Frozen Foods" product line. We will replicate producation in selected locations across the Northeast to satisfy demand.
An objective of this project is to introduce more Northeastern farmers to the frozen food market. One way to approach the market is by growing, processing, freezing, and packaging heirloom vegetables. These vegetables are not strongly represented by the larger companies. As such, Ambrosia Farms frozen meals feature fruit and vegetables grown from heirloom seeds, and meals prepared with cultural authenticity reflective of seed origins.
Frozen food packaged goods are among the fastest growing processed food categories, especially organic labels, and frozen is the largest category of overall supermarket sales. The growth of this product line would benefit small (non-commercial) farmers emphasizing quality over mass production. Using the farmer’s market concept, availability of the product increases with farmer participation and locale. This project is presented as an alternative to CSA’s, farmers markets, direct sales and predominant preservation methods – namely canned and dried foods.
These vegetables will be grown in collaboration with other NYS farmers. The SARE funding will assist to defray the cost of crops or “raw materials” that will be purchased at “farmer's market” prices – a central motivation for this project. Frozen food is logical for Northeast farms, enabling preservation of abundant harvests in the short growing season for availability of locally grown products “year round”.
Additional business opportunities, such as restaurant quantity packaging, will be pursued. This is beneficial because preparation work may be transferred from higher paying Metropolitan areas to lower paying rural areas, very similar to what has occurred in the customer service sector.
Ambrosia Farms is a small farm located in New York’s Central Valley. We have been growing heirloom vegetables for 20 years. The lush valleys of this region are still dotted with dairy farms, apple orchards, and sugar maple producers.
Sustainable agriculture underlies all aspects of our farm practices from inception. We have been lifelong proponents of the humane treatment of all living creatures, the preservation of wildlife and habitat, open lands, forests, waterways, and natural vegetation. We use manure from our horses and chickens and foliar sprayed fish emulsion; a mulch of grass clippings and straw to prevent weeds; and plant with minimal concentration of items, companion planting, crop rotation, and buffer zones in harmony with wildlife and natural ecosystems. We adhere to ecological concepts as reported in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment so that ecosystems thrive throughout the farm property.
The project started with 3 farms scheduled to participate. This changed as schedules, priorities, and weather patterns changed. We used the second approach whereby we would purchase goods at market prices. The databases on the internet – farmtotable.org – are elaborate resources for connecting farmers based on specific regions of the State. Most of the product was grown at our farm since the initial production targets were feasible for us.
We had to do pre-production planning in enlisting local greenhouses for such items as heirloom tomato plants. We provided seeds to two greenhouses who agreed to perform the custom work. The greenhouses produced 4,000 custom tomato plants.
The “Tuscan Soup” product design includes pantano romanesco tomatoes, cannelloni beans, and tuscan kale. This is an example of the cultural authenticity. Each vegetable is lightly cooked and packaged individually based upon pre-determined portions. This type of processing provides for the harvest and freezing of each crop based on their optimum peak of freshness and maintained in pure form. The products are combined in the packaging stage.
The following are vendors used in the process. All seeds were purchased from heirloom seed companies - www.rareseeds.com and www.landrethseeds.com.
A large capacity of grass clippings were collected with a “Trac Vac” and a Goossen bale chopper – both were used to mulch plants for moisture and weed cover. While this is labor intensive, we prefer this approach over organic herbicides or plastic.
As vegetables were harvested, they were cooked, frozen, and stored for packaging. We put together 1,000 meals in multiple combinations and sold to existing customer base. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive. We worked with the product extensively to test quality, instructions for use, packaging and waste reduction, low energy inputs and outputs, and optimum portion sizes.
A gourmet quality offering in frozen pizza - “American Flatbread” in Vermont – was used as a model. They were generous with information pertaining to start-up process. They have been distributed at various times by United Natural Foods, Tree of Life, Associated Grocers of New England. About 70% of natural products sold at retail flow through distributors. They are currently available in supermarkets such as Hannaford Bros Co and Whole Foods where they net about half of the $10.99 sales price. They recommended we start with some independent coops or bulk coop as well as a subscription to NATURAL PRODUCTS MERCHANDISER – as an informative trade journal.
Sharing information on their production process was useful: “We freeze it in a roll-in freezer right in the bakery. Not exactly flash but it does the job in about 10-15 minutes. We freeze one rack of 30 breads at a time during the baking process, then we package them and put them in a storage freezer. We don't cryovack, but just heat seal plastic bags around our breads.” We recognized the simplicity and ease of operation and eliminated the flash freezer from our capital budget.
We met our goal to produce 1,000 meals sold to existing customers. We have enough prototype left over to generate interest from potential wholesale customers and future collaborators. We will continue to utilize samples through the 2007 harvest to gain customers in both the retail and wholesale markets. The samples will be used to generate interest from farmers at farmer’s markets and similar outlets.
Customers are overwhelmingly pleased and we expect to get advanced orders for next season. We are working with a design company on the packaging. We are hiring a consultant to assist with direct sales to restaurants.
CCE sent us the latest information on food analytical laboratories for analysis and nutrition labeling. Since a critical aspect of this product line is in promoting the nutritional value of this product – we look forward to results from a private lab analysis at a cost of $730. We will report these findings to nutrition - based businesses.
The 2006 growing season in Central New York area was overcome with rain and wet conditions- resulting in reduced harvests across the spectrum. We had a surprisingly abundant harvest in a very wet season.
“Farmer’s Market Frozen Foods “is still very much a “work in progress”. Revenues from the 2006 season are $7,000 calculated as 1,000 items * $6.99 each. The items were packaged in 3 cup portions weighing 1½ lbs in total. The labor cost to process the vegetables accounted for 12% of sales. The market price of vegetables is 25% of sales. Utility expenses are a consideration due to the ovens, refrigeration and freezer storage. We have discovered that the items have to be priced on the higher end to be profitable. The current price reflects our research on other frozen food products as well feedback from customers.
The increasing attention being paid to eating locally year round is a plus for this product. The packaging is simple and includes a section to feature the farmer that grows the raw material for that item. We think this lends itself to versatility and maximizes involvement of individual farmers.
Overall, we have had as many successes as failures, but remain excited about the future of “Farmer’s Market Frozen Foods”. We are currently taking advance orders on this season’s product line.
Participant recruitment will lead other farmers to use and save heirloom seeds in growing the raw materials necessary for the production of this frozen food item.
Collaboration with other farmers proved to be more time consuming than anticipated. As farmers change priorities or deal with unexpected events, planning proves to be futile. We believe the growth of this product line will benefit from purchase of goods from existing outlets - such as direct internet sales and farmer’s markets - rather than advance planning. We will invite other farmers in different regions to use this model for local production.
We spoke with people at the NYS Historical and Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown to explain the product in conjunction with their work in the seed preservation area. We offered prototypes and samples to restaurateurs that work with small farmers. In the summer of 2006, we spoke with the chef at the OTESAGA HOTEL in Cooperstown, NY to assess what was purchased locally. In January 2007, we corresponded with the chef at the The Dressing Room in Westport, CT regarding their menu item - heirloom tomato soup – and the potential for using frozen tomatoes.
We mailed promotional materials to publications in the Northeast such as the editorial staff of the NYT “Dining In”, “Connecticut Magazine”, “The Valley Table”, and “Food Arts” for product exposure and acknowledgement of the SARE Farmer/Rancher grant.