Functional Value-Added Fruit and Vegetable Processing, Product Development, and Marketing for Small Farms

Project Overview

FNC04-537
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2004: $17,646.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $17,923.00
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:

Commodities

  • Fruits: apples, berries (other), berries (strawberries)
  • Vegetables: cucurbits

Practices

  • Education and Training: farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, cooperatives, budgets/cost and returns, marketing management, market study, value added
  • Sustainable Communities: new business opportunities, public participation, employment opportunities, social capital

    Summary:

    PROJECT BACKGROUND
    The group of producers who participated in this grant all operate small farms or orchards, and all market their products directly to local families and institutions through GROWN Locally, a community farm marketing cooperative. The goal of GROWN Locally is to diversify and strengthen member farms by providing fresh, high quality farm products to our local communities. All farms are family-run and either use organic practices – that is, free of synthetic inputs – or IPM strategies to minimize their use of synthetic inputs. See the People section below for a list of GROWN Locally producers participating in this grant.

    GROWN Locally has been marketing to local institutions and households since 2000. Before receiving this grant, GROWN Locally had built a state-licensed processing facility on Sunflower Fields’ land in order to provide lightly processed produce to our institutional customers. This grant helped us supplement our sales of whole and lightly processed produce with sales of frozen and canned value-added foods.

    PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
    GOAL: The goal of this grant is to develop value-added products from our vegetables and fruits, market them locally, and while doing so, create a product-development methodology to share with other small-scale producers. More specifically, the goal is to address the fact that locally-raised fruits and vegetables are less available during the winter and spring in the north central region. This interrupts both the supply of local foods for consumers and cash flow for farmers. By preserving the farmers’ own produce simply during the growing season and processing that produce into a value-added product during the winter season, we – and other small farmers like us – can address these issues. Our goal was to develop two products during the first year of funding, and two in the second year. As we developed those products, our goal was to taste test and market them locally, as well as document the process for use by other small producers.

    PROCESS: Developing and Marketing Value-Added Products. Our first step was to identify a potential local market for value-added products. To that end, we surveyed GROWN Locally’s household customers in August 2004 regarding the types of value-added products in which they’d be most interested. We received a broad diversity of responses; the majority responded that they’d be most interested in fully-prepared foods which would require little seasoning or preparation at home. Some responded that they would prefer unflavored value-added products, such as plain frozen corn, peas, or green beans. We decided to pursue more fully-prepared foods, both because of the stronger consumer interest and because we felt we could create more distinctive products.

    For each product we then developed, we preserved the fruit or vegetable simply during the growing season, and then made some test batches during the winter. Those test batches were taste tested with various groups of local consumers, refined, and then, if deemed marketable, produced for sale. For each of the five products developed, below is a description of those product-development steps.

    1. Dill Pickles and Gherkin Pickles – Fall 2004 to Winter 2005
    Simple preservation: We harvested pickling cucumbers, washed them, and preserved them in a simple salt brine. We monitored the brining tubs and recorded their status, along with our periodic additions of salt. Please find a sample brining worksheet in the appendix. [Editor’s note: For a copy of the appendix, please contact the NCR-SARE office at 1-800-529-1342 or ncrsare@umn.edu]

    Test batches: After brining the cucumbers until early winter, we made both sweet gherkin pickles and dill pickles. We kept records of the process followed for each batch of pickles using a “make sheet,” or a simple recipe checklist. See the appendix for these forms. [Editor’s note: For a copy of the appendix, please contact the NCR-SARE office at 1-800-529-1342 or ncrsare@umn.edu]

    Taste testing: In January and February 2005, we taste tested our pickles at four Community Tasting Fairs held by GROWN Locally in various towns in our delivery area. The feedback gained from those taste tests told us that most people liked the flavors in the gherkin pickle and the Dill 2 recipe but that the Dill 1 recipe was too strongly spiced. We also learned that, across the board, people wanted a pickle that was crisper than the ones produced by our brining method.

    Production for sale: Again, we harvested and washed pickling cucumbers. Our research suggested that by removing the blossom ends of the cucumbers, we could achieve crispness without using potentially-harmful additives like alum. We did this and followed the best brining protocol from the year before. However, even with the blossom ends removed, our pickles still were not crisp enough. We decided that it would be best to focus our energy on other products, rather than creating a final product from the brined cucumbers.

    2. Scrumptious Squash Casserole – Fall 2005 to present
    Simple preservation: Squash were harvested and stored in a cool, dry place until processed. Some squash was also steamed, mashed, and frozen until used in casseroles. See mashed squash record sheet in appendix.[Editor’s note: For a copy of the appendix, please contact the NCR-SARE office at 1-800-529-1342 or ncrsare@umn.edu]

    Test batches and Taste testing: We have been making test batches of this recipe for years by serving it at our annual shareholder appreciation dinner. In November of 2005, we also made several test batches to refine the seasonings in the recipe. See appendix for recipe record sheets.

    Production for sale: The scrumptious squash casseroles were offered for sale during winter 2005 and 2006. We also offered and sold unflavored mashed squash and pumpkin puree.

    3. Dried Apples – Fall 2004 to present
    Simple preservation: Apples were stored in refrigeration until sliced for dehydration.

    Test batches and Taste testing: Al Peake had been experimenting with dehydrated apples for several years, and this grant helped him purchase a large-scale dehydrator. He made several test batches and taste tested them at the January and February Community Tasting Fairs discussed above.

    Production for sale: Dried apples were offered for sale during winter 2005 and 2006.

    4. Apple Pie Filling – Winter 2005-6 to present
    Simple preservation: Apples were stored in refrigeration until processed.
    Test batches and Taste testing: Al Peake found several recipes for apple pie filling meant for canning or freezing. A group of 12 people from GROWN Locally worked together to peel, core, and slice apples, and to assemble batches of each filling recipe. We then made single-crust, streusel-topped pies using each recipe, baked them, and tasted! We also called in some neighbors to help taste-test the various pie fillings. We all rated our choices and decided on a good filling recipe. The filling, paired with a homemade crust and crumble topping, were sampled at a series of Community Tasting Fairs in January and February 2006.

    Production for sale: We produced apple pie filling for sale from winter through fall 2006. The frozen filling was available on its own or packaged with a frozen crust and a frozen bag of streusel topping in an Apple Pie Kit.

    5. Strawberry and Raspberry Jam – Spring 2006 to present
    Simple preservation: Strawberries were washed, hulled, and frozen in gallon size bags. Raspberries simply were washed and frozen in gallon size bags.

    Test batches and Taste testing: We made test batches and sampled them among the GROWN Locally growers. We were prompted to make jam by a woman who wanted to use it as a favor for her wedding guests, so we did not have time to do extensive taste testing.

    Production for sale: The wedding-favor jam was sold, as was the excess from that first production batch. We currently have 80 gallons of strawberries and raspberries frozen, ready for processing and sale during 2007.

    Creating a Product-Development Methodology. On the way to making these value-added products, we researched the methodology and documentation required legally to produce and sell those products. To that end we documented each step in the process of making each value-added product, including storage techniques, recipe testing, production records, and lot tracking. Those forms (see the attached Excel spreadsheets) will be made available for other producers as discussed below. [Editor’s Note: For copies of the spreadsheets, please contact the NCR-SARE office at 1-800-529-1342 or ncrsare@umn.edu.] We learned that to legally produce any thermally-processed (i.e. canned) foods, we would need to attend a Better Process Control School, so three GROWN Locally producers did so in March 2005. Finally, we have researched food labeling requirements and have developed labels for the processed products we are currently marketing.

    A packet of recipe development worksheets, sample taste testing surveys, and recipe record sheets (“Make Sheets”) can be found on our website, www.grownlocally.com after January 10, 2007. They will also be made available to other producers at two presentations in January 2007 and upon request.

    PEOPLE
    Solveig Hanson – Sunflower Fields – Produces variety of vegetables on 26 acres annually – Provided cucumbers, squash, processing labor for all projects, pickle and squash recipes, taste testing leadership, methodology development, and grant administration for this project.

    Al Peake – Peake Orchards – Grows apples on 6 acre orchard. – Supplied apples, labor, and apple filling recipes for this project.

    Karel & Joyce Rawson – Rawson Berries – Raise strawberries and raspberries on 5 acres annually – Provided strawberries, raspberries, and help with berry preservation and jam recipes for this project.

    Merle Steines – Top of the Hollow Farm – Raises vegetables on 5 acres annually – Provided squash for this project.

    Mari Holthaus – Kymar Acres – Raises vegetables and herbs on 1 acre annually – Provided processing labor for these projects.

    Robert Haxton – Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals – Provided information regarding food processing regulations and laws.

    Sam Beattie – Iowa State University Extension Food Safety Specialist – Visited GROWN Locally’s processing facility and made recommendations regarding food safety, sanitation, and efficient work flow.

    Steven Ingham – University of Wisconsin Process Authority – Provided personalized advice regarding all projects discussed above, including guidance regarding make sheets and which products needed approval by a Process Authority.

    RESULTS
    The results of our project, detailed above, include: successfully preserving cucumbers, tomatoes, apples, squash, and strawberries until the winter season; adding value to those products through processing; creating record-keeping forms; using those forms for keeping detailed records of recipe testing, processing procedures, and lot tracking; researching the local household market for value-added vegetable and fruit products; carrying out taste tests; and finally, selling value-added squash, apple, and berry products from November 2005 through the present time.

    We measured our results in two ways. First, we looked at the practical effectiveness of this project. Through the product-development methodology that we developed, we succeeded in developing 4 products and bringing 3 to market. Equally as important, we had a method by which to discern that pickle production was not worth continuing. We adhered to our timeline, developing two products in the grant’s first year, and two in the second.

    Second, although sales are not our main rubric by which to judge success in this initial stage, sales of finished processed products did gross $1,010.50 for GROWN Locally. We structured our prices so that the producer is paid for their raw produce, those providing the processing labor are paid a fair wage, and any packaging and additional ingredients are paid for. Then we added in a profit margin to go to the cooperative; thus, the growers involved benefited directly from these sales.

    Finally, the success of the product-development methodology component is demonstrated by the packet of materials for other interested producers. Once it is disseminated, we hope that it provides guidance to other small-scale producers interested in adding value to their products.

    We were pleased with the results of this project. While we did not produce some of the products we had envisioned in our original grant application, we did produce the number of products we had planned, and they fit the consumer demands and product availability that we had. Second, we were happy that four of the five products we set out to produce made it to market. We had not foreseen the problems presented by keeping pickles crisp, but we were fortunate to have incorporated adequate consumer testing into our process, so that we knew not to pursue the pickle project further.

    When we began this project, we planned primarily to work with and market to institutional buyers. However, we learned that institutional foodservice can be a volatile business! All three of the foodservice directors we had planned to work with either resigned or retired from their posts, so we turned to our local household consumer base for product input and marketing. This turned out well, actually, as we were able to command a retail-level price for our value-added products, rather than a wholesale price.

    DISCUSSION
    The GROWN Locally producers have learned several things from this grant. First, we now know how to develop products – what steps to go through, what regulations we need to follow for each type of product, and how to conduct consumer taste testing. Second, we now know that a local market exists for our products but that we may be better served by pursuing a household (retail) market.

    We set out to extend the local food supply into the winter season, while at the same time providing some winter cash flow to the participating farms. While this did take place, it also became apparent that production of off-season processed foods likely will not be a major part of our farm income. That is, produce farming is a year-round job; the off-season, while slower, is very important for planning as well as rest and rejuvenation before another hectic season. Some winter processing was both enjoyable and profitable, and will continue to be so. However, to plan and budget for large winter sales, it would take a focused processing director and/or crew in the late fall – early winter months, and that would need to be a person less-involved in day-to-day produce production. Such possibilities remain for our cooperative and for other growers interested in a project like this.

    Along the same lines, it does take time to harvest and preserve foods – even simply, as we did – for winter processing. We had to budget those time and money costs into our final product price, and other growers will need to do the same.

    To other producers interested in an off-season processing project, I’d recommend that they pursue it. They’ll need to examine their proposed market, including the price people would be willing to pay for the product they’re contemplating. They’ll need to make some trial batches, taste test them, and then line up help to get the in-season harvest and processing done. They may be able to do the winter processing by themselves, or they make need (or want) help; they’ll just need to price their final products accordingly, and make sure the market will bear those prices.

    Ultimately, we found that there does exist an enthusiastic local market for locally-raised and –processed foods, and that sales of those value-added products could be a nice winter supplement to a small farmers’ income. That income, however, will require some true work in what may previously have been a “down time.”

    OUTREACH
    To inform people of our project as we worked on it, we wrote several articles in the GROWN Locally customer newsletter, which is distributed to 215 people weekly, describing our project and asking about their interests regarding value-added products. We also presented a display describing the project at four Community Tasting Fairs during winter 2005-6, which drew a total of 170 people. Those people also had the opportunity to taste test pickles and dried apples made as part of this project.

    To communicate our results to other growers and agricultural support personnel, I presented at the SARE National Conference in Oconomowoc, WI in August 2006. Results from this project will also be presented at the Great Plains Vegetable Growers Conference & Trade Show in St. Joseph, Missouri on January 12-13, 2007, as well as at the Midwest Value Added Conference in Redwing, Minnesota on January 26-27, 2007. A packet of sample recipe development worksheets, product record sheets, customer surveys, and pertinent contacts will be available at those conferences, by request, and online at www.grownlocally.com after January 10, 2007.

    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.