From field to frozen for new markets

Ambrosia Farms and Farmers Frozen Foods partners with other New York farms to support local, sustainable agriculture.

For direct marketers, oversupply, undersupply, short shelf life and transportation can be major issues. Those were among the dilemmas faced by New York grower Nina Bruno. Her naturally grown heirloom vegetables were prized by discerning consumers, but her remote location made distribution difficult. Then, Bruno remembered the old saying: there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Ambrosia Farms

Bruno has operated Ambrosia Farms in Bridgewater for 20 years with the assistance of partner Gene DeBerardinis. They specialize in 15 acres of vegetables appealing to a niche market, such as heirloom tomatoes, Italian “easy peel” garlic, aqua duce fava beans and chiogga beets and beet greens. Nero di Toscana cabbage, purple Sicilian cauliflower, country gent corn, lemon cucumbers and Long Island cheese pumpkins are among other crops. Ambrosia also raises chickens, horses and hay.

Although the 100-acre farm is located within the Rome-Utica metropolitan area, Bruno found that it was difficult to combine the agricultural and marketing/distribution sides of the operation. In 2004, she tried a different approach: rather than trying to rush her delicate, perishable produce to market, she froze her harvest.

Gene DeBerardinis and Nina Bruno are co-founders of Farmers Frozen Foods.

Needs of growers and consumers

Along with the time pressures during growing season, Bruno and other farmers can find their income projections going askew when crops over or underperform. In addition, income and expense fluctuations throughout the year are challenging.

Strong consumer demand for locally produced, naturally grown vegetables helps growers like Bruno build a market. However, those consumers’ quests for regional foods are stymied during the off-season, forcing them to purchase fresh produce from other areas and/or frozen products.

Bruno envisioned a business model that would help solve all those challenges. Processing and freezing local vegetables within the community would allow local growers to maximize returns, while offering consumers a way to eat locally around the calendar, without delving into home food preservation.

“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,” Bruno wrote in a grant report.

Launching Farmers Frozen Foods

Bruno isn’t interested in supplanting Birds Eye and Green Giant; her concept centers on consumers seeking locally and naturally produced food (she doesn’t seek organic certification as she objects to the plastics used in some organic operations), especially specialty heirloom vegetables. She also wants to help other growers be more sustainable through adopting her model of small-batch processing.

Farmers Frozen Foods aids both growers and consumers by extending the shelf life of fresh vegetables.

In 2005, Ambrosia Farms received a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education [SARE] grant to develop the Farmer’s Market Frozen Foods product line; the name has since been changed to Farmers Frozen Foods, at the request of a similarly named company. Goals included introducing other growers to the concept of value-added frozen fruits, vegetables and meals as an alternative to selling fresh produce through community-supported agriculture (CSA) and farmers’ markets. There also is an opportunity to serve the restaurant industry; the local processing will drive down costs.

During the grant period, Bruno ironed out the details of her venture, from plant and seed sourcing (www.rareseeds.com and www.landrethseeds.com), preparation and nutritional analysis to package designs, with the goal of producing 1,000 fruit, vegetable and/or meal products. She created a commercial kitchen in a former dairy milk house, selecting everything from wall materials to stainless steel food preparation and cooking tools with ease of cleaning in mind. Bruno has freezers for rapid freezing and storage. Eager to work with other growers seeking an alternative enterprise, she planned to source produce from three farms in addition to her own. That arrangement fell through, leading Bruno to supplement her own crops with locally purchased vegetables.

As crops were harvested, they were individually cooked, frozen and stored for later packaging. Final products include simple vegetable preparations and purees for sale in 15 to 24-ounce packages, as well as entrees combining several Ambrosia crops. Farmers Frozen Foods’ Tuscan soup consists of pantano romanesco tomatoes, cannellini beans and Tuscan kale, a “heat and eat” product that underscores the heirloom trend Bruno favors by its nature as a “culturally authentic” dish. She found the price point of $6.99 adequate to cover expenses and a respectable return for growers. The products were well received by consumers, supermarket buyers and restaurateurs.

Next steps

Although Bruno was able to establish her preparation and freezing kitchen, which is capable of providing services to growers in a 30-mile radius, for less than $10,000, she believes expanding Farmers Frozen Foods to additional areas will be more costly. Bruno is seeking funding in the amount of $45,000 for each new processing center, which would serve a 30 to 60-mile radius. Growers could simply choose to drop off produce at the local small-batch preparation center as an alternative to fresh sales; others may find the frozen market appealing when harvests are particularly abundant. The system is ideal for specialty crops like Bruno’s, some of which have short shelf lives, making quick sales a must in a direct marketing model.

Although Bruno’s dream has attracted interest, Farmers Frozen Foods is still in its infancy. Her 2009 crops have suffered under adverse weather conditions, as have other growers’, making it difficult to build a network of farmers with available product. Despite the slow progress, she remains committed to bringing the concept and its economic advantages to fruition.

“We make deliveries once after harvesting, processing, freezing and labeling,” Bruno added, citing a somewhat hidden advantage of her venture. “That is one of the benefits: reducing transportation.”

At present, Bruno is building name recognition through a blog (http://farmersfrozenfoods.blogspot.com), presentations and sampling, while pursuing funding to establish additional processing centers.

Farmers Frozen Foods’ products are naturally grown and frozen fresh.

Others pioneering the way for local frozen foods are Flaim Farms (www.flaimfarms.com) in Vineland, N.J., which offers frozen eggplant and zucchini fries and slices. A local food processor prepares the products for the fourth-generation family farm, which distributes the frozen foods via area supermarkets. Renaissance Farms in Spring Green, Wis,. has created a line of farm market dinners. Late last year, Renaissance and partner RP’s Pasta Co. of Madison unveiled their ready-to-heat gourmet meals prepared from all in-state ingredients. Frozen entrees such as Lemon Basil Pesto Ravioli and Wisconsin Macaroni and Cheese retail for less than $8.

Locavarius (www.locavarius.com) is a frozen fruit and vegetable CSA in Ann Arbor, Mich. Area harvests are frozen and distributed to subscribers during the winter months. Clients receive seven packages monthly from November through February; a 2009-10 subscription is $200.

“The market for this product is so wide open that I hope every small farmer considers this as an alternative to fresh so that we have more alternatives and therefore more potential to stay afloat,” Bruno says.

Based in Greensboro, N.C., the author writes articles about horticulture, landscaping, agriculture and travel. She has been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for three years.