Farmers get a taste of the possibilities of value-added farm products

Dec 2, 2014

When you're in a jam because you've grown more apricots than you can sell before the fruit quality deteriorates, what do you do? Make apricot jam!

Farmers, food artisans, agricultural support organizations and representatives from Sonoma County agencies recently gathered to share ideas for creating small-batch and artisanal “value-added” products featuring locally grown fruits and vegetables. On Nov. 3, UC Cooperative Extension hosted “Taste the Possibilities: Adding Value to Your Ag Business” in Sonoma County.

“Value-added production is an emerging food trend with the potential to help grow the local economy and support farmers' livelihood by tapping new revenue streams from preserving the peak of harvest and farm seconds that may otherwise go to waste,” said Julia Van Soelen Kim, UC Cooperative Extension advisor for the North Bay Area.

Farmers shared their inspiring success stories and business people provided insight on sourcing local produce, using commercial kitchens and co-packers, obtaining the right permits and registrations, and leveraging best practices in business planning and marketing.

There are new and emerging opportunities for value-added production including Cottage Food Operations, which allow individuals to prepare and package certain shelf-stable foods in home kitchens, and the recent Sonoma County zoning-code change that allows small-scale agriculture processing on farms.

But not everyone has the time, interest or ability to make the products themselves, said Merrilee Olson, a specialty food producer who participated in the workshop.

Her business, PRESERVE Sonoma, does custom co-packing services and private labels for growers and food entrepreneurs. As a co-packer, Olson makes value-added products in her commercial kitchen and cannery. She also helps food entrepreneurs connect with farmers and other sources of local produce.

“I started this business to help farmers get value-added products made,” said Olson, who opened in 2011, before the cottage food law passed. At that time farmers were losing money to overproduction and they didn't have very many options.

When a farmer found himself with an extra 1,500 pounds of ripe apricots, Olson turned them into apricot jam, which he is selling at the farm's store and farmers markets. Some people come to her with old family recipes and their own ideas for products. For tomato growers, she has made pasta sauce, salsa, tomato soup and bloody mary mix. “The bloody mary mix was the farmer's idea, and that will be on Whole Foods shelves,” Olson said.

“The idea of value-added products is well-known to farmers, but they may not know they don't have to do it themselves,” Olson said. “Some farmers don't really want to make the product, they want to farm. Even if you have a well-equipped home kitchen, making cottage foods isn't for everyone and you need insurance so it's easier to pay someone else to do it. We are a licensed cannery, which means we can make products like pickles, which are not covered in the cottage food law. ”

Olson thinks of the value-added farm products as preserving a way of life as well as food.

“Many farmers weren't aware of the range of options for value-added production that can help them use the abundance of their harvest, diversify their operations and generate new income for their ag businesses,” said Karen Giovannini, UC Cooperative Extension agricultural ombudsman in Sonoma County who helps local farmers expand their agriculture enterprises and navigate the regulations and permitting needed to do so.

“These emerging opportunities support farmers and food entrepreneurs, as well as regional economic development, and help to build a more robust local food system,” said Van Soelen Kim, who specializes in food systems for Sonoma County as well as Marin, Mendocino and Napa counties.

The workshop was offered as part of the “Opportunities in Ag Business” series presented by UC Cooperative Extension and Sonoma County Department of Health Services and was sponsored by American AgCredit. The educational workshop series aims to help make family farming economically viable, inspire the next generation of farmers, and support the development of a vibrant local food system.

By Pamela Kan-Rice
Author - Assistant Director, News and Information Outreach