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Wednesday, 24 June 2009 15:44

Value-added products up the ante for homegrown goodness

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Across Western North Carolina, an increasing number of people are discovering new and creative ways to use the bounty of produce and farm goods raised in the mountains. From jams to sauces to salves, homegrown chefs and artisans are turning a profit with their creations, which are known as value-added products.

“They are called value added because, after the work of raising products, such as fruit, the farmer or an artisan invests more time and effort to create another, more complex product, such as jam,” explains Rose McLarney, marketing and communications coordinator for the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project.

Because of the time put into creating a value-added product, farmers and producers can reap higher profits from everyday crops. George Ivey, director of the Buy Haywood program, aimed at supporting local farmers, uses the example of a tomato, a common mountain crop.

“If you just sell the raw product, it has the basic value of a tomato,” Ivey says. “But if you can turn that tomato into something else, you get paid for the labor and expertise of providing added value to the product.”

Value-added products provide a boost in business for mountain farmers. The products help create demand for local farm produce. That was one of the theories behind Buy Haywood’s value-added tomato recipe contest. Contestants created innovative products using locally grown tomatoes, giving farmers a new market for selling their produce.

Value-added items also make it possible to enjoy locally grown food throughout the year by preserving seasonal produce, in turn increasing awareness of local food.

The Smoky Mountain News spoke with four people who have found creative uses for locally grown produce through their value-added products.

 

Dairy farm trades in middle man for ice cream

When Jim Moore found his bottom line increasingly squeezed by middle men to the point of bankrupting his small dairy, he realized his farming dream would soon be over unless he took drastic measures.

“We were losing money every month,” said Moore, a dairy farmer in Macon County.

Moore had to find a way to market his milk directly to the consumer and cut out the middlemen stealing his profit. Besides, it didn’t seem fair.

“They pick up the milk, they charge you for picking it up, they sell it, then give you what they think is a reasonable amount,” Moore said. “They have no risk. All they do is market the milk.”

So in the early 1990s, Moore began reshaping his dairy to sell milk directly to the consumer, bringing the pasteurization and bottling in house. While he was at it, he thought “why not make ice cream, too?”

“I thought maybe they would like an ice cream if they came by to get the milk,” Moore said. “It took me a while to realize they would come to buy the ice cream, and might get a little milk while they were here.”

Indeed, on a recent Monday morning in June, customers began streaming in to the Spring Ridge Creamery ice cream counter in Otto as soon as its doors opened at 10:30 a.m. — and not just to stock up on cheese, butter and milk. No one, it seemed, could escape without a cone of ice cream in their hand despite being nowhere near the lunch hour.

It’s been that way since Moore opened the shop in the summer of 1998. His daughter’s hand was swollen by mid-day from gouging her scooper into the frozen buckets over and over. When a friend come through the door at lunch, Moore asked him to cover for his daughter behind the counter so she could venture to town for a wrist-brace.

Today, the dairy sells 500 gallons of ice cream a month on average out the front door of its shop, one scoop at a time. He employees three part-time workers and a part-time farm hand.

Moore makes all the ice cream himself, boasting more flavors than Baskin Robbins. When Moore bought a small dairy farm in Macon County in the 1980s, he never imagined his days would be spent churning butter, pressing cheese and concocting new ice cream flavors.

When Moore was growing up in Macon County, there were 45 dairies. By 1990, there were only seven. Today, he is one of just a handful in the far western region. Moore can see why.

“I don’t know how these other dairies are making it,” Moore said. “Feed costs have gone up through the roof. They are having to sell their milk below cost.”

Other small dairy farms facing similar plights have looked to Moore for inspiration.

“People come in and see this and say, ‘Boy this is the answer for us,’” Moore said. “But you’ve got to really want to do it. You might be getting out of the frying pan and into the fire.”

A dairy farm is a 24-7 occupation. Making cheese and ice cream has to be squeezed in around it.

Moore was lucky he made the leap when he did. He was able to amass the equipment he needed cheaply, watching for used items to come on sale. He had to have equipment to pasteurize, homogenize and bottle the milk. He needed walk-in coolers and walk-in freezers, not to mention the kitchen equipment like a butter churn and ice cream maker. The concept of an on-the-farm ice cream operation was still novel, and there was little demand for used equipment, allowing him to pick it up cheaply.

It was a risk nonetheless to rack up more debt when he still owed on his farm.

“It was one of those things where you had to have a lot of confidence in yourself that what you would be doing would pay for what you were adding,” Moore said.

Moore was lucky on another front: the location of his farm right on U.S. 441, a major tourism corridor into the mountains from Atlanta. During his daydreaming phase, Moore sat by the road doing traffic counts and realized just what a gold mine all those cars could be.

The dairy has become a requisite stop for tourists and second-home owners pouring into the mountains, as well as a final destination to stock up on specialty cheese before heading back home.

Moore got a good offer on his farm several years ago and almost sold it.

“But I’m glad we didn’t,” Moore said. Fans of ice cream no doubt agree.

Moore not only kept the farm, but worked with the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee to place it in a conservation easement so that it would always stay a farm, even when he’s gone. Like any true farmer, his love of the land comes first.

“I’ll have to work until I drop pretty much,” Moore said. But he can’t complain.

“Most farmers, if you can put food on the table and roof over their head, that’s all they want,” Moore said. “If you see somebody who is really satisfied, that means more than wealth or income.”

 

Chef turns local approach into recipe for success

As the owner of the Lomo Grill in Waynesville, Chef Ricardo Fernandez has spent 16 years putting his farm-to-table philosophy to practice. Fernandez grows much of the produce for the restaurant on his family-owned Wildcat Ridge farm. So when he got the chance to expand his mission of eating locally and helping community farmers, he jumped at it.

Fernandez entered his restaurant’s famous sauce in a local recipe contest which stipulated the use of Haywood County-grown tomatoes in each entry. Fernandez’s Mediterranean and “Mucho Macho” sauces grabbed second and third place respectively — and since then, demand for the product has skyrocketed.

Fernandez’s three tomato sauces — the Mediterranean, with olives, capers, and roasted garlic; the spicey Mucho Macho, made with 16 varieties of slow-roasted red peppers; and the Tomato and Basil, can now be found in 17 Earthfare locations across the Southeast, as well as a small number of Whole Foods retailers and the Greenlife grocery store in Asheville.

Fernandez is involved in every step of the process, from making the sauces in his Lomo Grill kitchen to hawking the products at tasting booths at various food retailers.

“We crush and blanch the tomatoes, and process the product, at our restaurant,” Fernandez says.

It’s a complicated process, Fernandez says, one that can be both timely and costly when it comes to getting the right certifications. All for-profit canning operations in the state must comply with strict USDA regulations. Canners must attend pickling school, and must monitor things like the acidity and pH levels of the tomatoes.

“There are a lot of health issues to take into consideration,” says Fernandez.

Besides the process of actually canning the sauces, Fernandez had to develop a business plan, a label, and a marketing strategy. That involved him reaching out to food retailers directly by himself. On a recent weekend Fernandez traveled to Greenville, Knoxville and Johnson City, stopping by a different store in each city to give samples of his sauces.

Fernandez’s product has found a niche, which is part of the reason it’s been so successful. It’s one of the only locally-made tomato sauces in the region. Plus, it appeals to an audience looking for healthier, fresher foods. The sauce is low sodium, gluten free, with no fillers or preservatives. It doesn’t use sugar or tomato paste, and it’s 100 percent vegan.

“People are amazed — it’s hard to find flavor so fresh,” Fernandez says.

In January, Fernandez will travel to a San Francisco food trade show to introduce the Haywood-grown sauce to the West coast. As the product’s reach expands, the competition gets tougher — but so far, the sauces have held their own. Since Fernandez started selling the product in October of 2008, he’s sold nearly 8,500 jars.

“The toughest part is who you’re competing with,” Fernandez says. “For us, the possibility of being on the shelves and competing with the best has a lot of merit and rewards.”

But to Fernandez, perhaps the best reward is helping to keep Haywood County tomato growers in business. He hopes his contribution is part of a growing trend.

“Sustainable agriculture needs to stay in business,” says Fernandez. “I’m glad the local community is helping.”

 

Trout farm adds tomato jam to repertoire

Sunburst Trout Farm in Haywood County is the region’s long-standing champion when it comes to value-added products.

The trout farm has rolled out an entire line of specialty gourmet foods based on its fresh rainbow trout, from smoked trout dip and trout cakes to trout sausage and trout jerky. The upper echelons of the food world can’t seem to heap enough praise on Sunburst Trout Farm for its innovative and elegant twists on the simple fish, whether it’s the Food Network or Manhattan’s top chefs.

The family-run farm’s latest addition capitalizes on a different home-grown product, however: the tomato. Sunburst was lured into creating its now-famous Smoked Tomato Jam when it heard about a value-added contest put on by Buy Haywood, a program aimed at creating new markets for Haywood County farmers.

The Smoked Tomato Jam indeed gave a boost to local farmers churning out tomatoes in the fertile river valley just downstream of the trout farm. The trout farm’s chef, Charlie Hudson, bought boxes and boxes of tomatoes from local farmers when they were in season, juiced them and froze the juice, allowing him to make tomato jam all winter.

“I am actually on my last bucket of juice,” Hudson said.

Hudson created the Smoked Tomato Jam recipe himself and won first in the contest. He reduces the juice, adds his secret ingredients and flavorings, and reduces it some more until it reaches a jam texture. Each jar of jam has the equivalent of one giant, homegrown, vine-ripened tomato. It’s a classic example a value-added product. The jam sells for $6 a jar, compared to the price that the original tomato would reap.

Hudson recently took his tomato jam — along with Sunburst’s other trout products — on the road to the International Boston Seafood Show and got a rave review from the “food sensory analyst” judging the entries.

“She said it starts out with the sweet and sour and finishes off with the smoke and that you are still getting tomato flavor throughout and all that is rolled up into one. That is super technical but it was what I was trying to do,” Hudson said.

More simply put, “Most people who taste it love it,” he said.

 

Herbalist finds value in the peskiest of plants

When people ask to see the garden Kathy Calabrese harvests her herbs from to make salves and ointments, she chuckles. It’s not exactly the neatly labeled and organized rows many people envision. Instead, her Whittier garden is something most people wouldn’t take a second glance at.

“People have this image of a lovely little English type garden, and it’s like, ‘you know folks, I’m harvesting weeds,’” she laughs.

From chickweed to plantain to dandelion, Calabrese’s garden is made up of weeds that can be found in any yard.

“The weeds that grow in our yards, the stuff we step on every day, people don’t really know a lot about them,” she says. “It’s amazing what kind of healing properties they have.”

Calabrese turns common weeds with medicinal properties into a line of salves, tinctures and lip balm. She’s been making her products since about 2000, and started out making salves largely by chance. A friend of hers had picked up a big load of beeswax, and accidentally dropped a 10-pound bundle of it as he was pulling out of Calabrese’s driveway. Calabrese decided to use up the bundle by making salve as Christmas presents for her friends and family — and the rest is history.

Calabrese keeps her recipe very simple. To make salve, she harvests a weed, chops it up, and puts it to soak in some olive oil. After a couple of weeks, she strains the herb out of the olive oil and is left with an infused olive oil. She combines it with beeswax to make a salve, or more beeswax to make her top-selling lip balm.

The salves and tinctures (a small amount of herb dropped into water and then drunk) that Calabrese makes are effective for everything from alleviating headaches to calming anxious nerves to aiding sleep. Some of the ointments even combat cancer. Calabrese has also recently forayed into making natural herbal insect repellent and poison ivy spray.

Calabrese is constantly tweaking her products based on the feedback she receives. Often, customers come in praising what a salve has done for them.

“A lot of times, people say it does work,” Calabrese says. However, “one thing that works for other people may not work for you.” Basically, unlike some conventional medicine, herbal remedies aren’t a one-size fits all approach.

Calabrese works with a variety of different herbs — pretty much whatever her garden decides to grow her.

“I see what my garden grows me,” Calabrese says. “It’s a real co-creative process. It’s not just me making the decisions, it’s me working with nature’s bounty.”

For Calabrese, the process of creating her products is a holistic experience.

“It’s this whole body experience of reconnection with the natural world, and reconnection with what’s all around us,” she says. “I’m tapping into something that’s bigger than our everyday life.”

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