Columnist Claire Morenon: Pickles, salsa, sriracha and local farms

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, September 25, 2018, by Claire Morenon

We’re in the thick of harvest season, and while you might expect farmers to be working hard, there’s another group that’s cranking away under intense seasonal pressure: local specialty food producers. These businesses are making salsa, fermented foods, jam, beer, wine and all sorts of other food and drink that turn the local harvest into products that can be enjoyed all year long.

Two dozen specialty food producers have joined CISA’s Local Hero campaign and committed to local sourcing, and they take that commitment seriously. Says Addie Rose Holland of Greenfield’s Real Pickles: “We want to see a strong localized food system and local economies that support vibrant and resilient communities.”

Managing a locally-sourced food business does have unique challenges, and chief among them is seasonality — these businesses manage a deluge of crops at peak season. Appalachian Naturals, a Goshen-based producer of salad dressings, dips and more, processes over 40,000 pounds of local tomatoes into salsa and tomato puree annually — and tomatoes are at their peak for only three months of each year. To spread the labor out, they jar tomatoes and freeze onions, cilantro, and other salsa ingredients separately as they come in from local farms so they can keep making salsa after the growing season has passed.

At Real Pickles, their entire product line of raw, fermented pickles, krauts, and other ferments is made from locally and regionally-sourced vegetables, so the kitchen crew spends only half the year working with fresh vegetables. From July through January, they’re chopping, mixing, and packing fresh vegetables into barrels for fermentation, and the rest of the year is spent packing the finished product into jars for sale.

Caroline Pam and Tim Wilcox of Kitchen Garden Farm are intimately aware of this seasonal crunch as both farmers and processors. They grow 50 acres of vegetables and sell most of their crops to local restaurants, grocery stores, and distributors. In 2013 they added a line of sriracha and salsas. This addition has helped fulfil their passion for cooking, and it serves several practical purposes for the farm. Caroline says, “We realized that it made a lot of sense to grow crops that can be harvested all at once, rather than in small, daily harvests, and then spend concentrated time making a shelf-stable product that could be sold and generate income the rest of the year … but it does put a lot of pressure on those peak months on the farm.”

While production may be seasonal, the market for specialty foods is year-round, and local food processors work hard to ensure that their products are always available. This adds two business complications: storage and inventory management.

Sourcing, processing and packing an entire product line on the condensed timeline of the local growing season requires refrigerator space to hold big deliveries of raw produce and warehouse space to hold a year’s worth of finished product.

Addie Rose of Real Pickles explains, “A huge investment in our commitment to only buy local vegetables is in the size of our facility. We hear from other food businesses that they can turn over their whole warehouse every two weeks, whereas every barrel we put into our warehouse is claiming that space for much of a year. That represents our commitment to local and we’ve built it into our business planning and projections, and it works … it’s just how we do business.”

Investments in shared cold storage space, like the newly-expanded facility at the Franklin County CDC, are an important resource for businesses that need to manage seasonal storage fluctuations.

Maintaining year-round inventory poses its own challenges. Many buyers, especially larger supermarket chains, require that products be available at all times, and processors can lose shelf space if they miscalculate future inventory needs during the production season.

And, of course, these businesses must function with high up-front expenses and delayed payments. Caroline of Kitchen Garden Farm says, “All of our investment and labor costs are during the farm season, and we don’t get paid for months. That piece took us two years to figure out — we had to get a separate line of credit that tracks with sriracha season.”

Still, there are dozens of local specialty producers who are committed to sourcing from local farms and are making it work — and our local economy, farms, and kitchen tables benefit. Kristin Barry of Appalachian Naturals keeps it simple: “We will never let go of sourcing from local farms. I don’t see any reason to work as hard as we do producing food if our business isn’t making a positive impact on our region and community.”

Claire Morenon is communications manager at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).