From Farm to Freezer

The Valley Advocate. December 18, 2014. By Hunter Styles. 

Getting kids to eat their veggies ain’t easy. But it’s even harder when you’re serving soggy samples from a thawed-out block of greens. For the first four years of operations at the Western Mass Food Processing Center, that’s about as good as it got.

The center processes produce —chopping it up, freezing it and packaging it for sale — for area farmers. Until very recently, the results haven’t been stellar.

“When you open it up and thaw it out, it’s mush,” said Nico Lustig. “Fresh, flavorful, locally-grown mush, but still. It didn’t have the texture and quality that kitchens are expecting.”

Lustig joined the Franklin County Community Development Corporation in January as a food business development specialist. One of her goals has been to increase production capacity at the nonprofit organization’s food processing center in Greenfield.

The first thing to upgrade was the center’s time-intensive freezing method: vacuum-packing blanched veggies, then putting those room-temperature bags in a freezer and waiting overnight for them to harden.

It’s been a year of big growth, thanks in large part to the Franklin County CDC’s investment in an IQF fast-freezer. Using quick blasts from a liquid nitrogen cooling system, the IQF (Individually Quick Frozen) process freezes fresh local produce faster — and therefore, fresher.

In other words: no more mush. Which is great news for Lustig, since the Franklin County CDC works closely with the Farm to School Project, a federal program with a Massachusetts headquarters in Amherst.

Lustig said clients like the British-owned Chartwells, a large contract food service company that distributes to many North East regional K-12 schools, have been supportive of the center during its pilot years. But with fast-frozen produce now shipping, she said more distributors are excited to buy.

Kitchen staff at cafeterias can scoop these frozen veggies as recipes require, explained Barb Kempken, the Northeast regional executive chef for Chartwells. It’s a much more efficient way to cook than thawing out an entire block of carrots or greens. Plus, it makes for a more attractive meal.

“If you’re trying to get students to eat more vegetables, you want them to look and taste as fresh as possible,” she said.

The machine is cool to the touch, but it gives off a hum that fills the room. From one end, a bank of nitrogen fog pours out and rolls across the floor. A man in an apron steps up to the machine, reaches down with gloved hands into a plastic bin at the end of the conveyor belt, and scoops out diced carrots. Each little piece is frozen solid.

These are local carrots, grown by the Joe Czajkowski Farm in Hadley and purchased by the CDC. The new IQF machine can freeze a batch of carrots in about two and a half minutes. That adds up to about 40 pounds of frozen carrots every five minutes allowing them to process three times as much produce in a day, Lustig said.

The CDC runs a variety of vegetables through the quick freezer. It might be diced carrots one day, then bell peppers or broccoli the next. But it all comes out frozen as individual bits, rather than clumps or blocks, and that makes all the difference to wholesale food buyers these days.

The freezer arrived on a truck from Illinois. The CDC purchased it for $18,000 (it’s a used model; a new one would have cost $88,000). The liquid nitrogen tank cost $22,000 to install. Piping for the freezing system cost another $27,000. This has been the center’s big investment for 2014, Lustig said, after four years of saving up.

“I’m saying to farmers: Just so you know, plant big fields,” she said. “Because next year we’re going to want to buy 250,000 pounds.”

This amount of food, priced for wholesale between $1.25 and $1.50 per pound, will yield between $312,500 and $375,000 for the CDC in 2015. For planning purposes, they are projecting this revenue at $328,000 — more than 20 times their 2013 frozen food revenue ($15,000) and more than 10 times the average of their frozen food revenue between 2010 and 2013 ($31,000).

So far, things seem to be working according to plan: more demand for fresh produce from local farms, more business for the center, and more fresh food for students.

“We buy vegetables from local farmers at a fair price, similar to what they’d sell it for at a Boston market,” said Lustig. “Right now we have vegetables from six farms going through the freezer. Those are farms that have over 100 acres of land, and which can bring in a couple thousand pounds at a time.”

Those six farms are David Mokrzecki, Plainville, and Czajkowski farms, all in Hadley; Harvest and Long Plain farms, both of Whately; and Wysocki Farm of Amherst.

Czajkowski is no stranger to the Farm to School Project — his farm has been an active provider to the CDC’s food center for years.

“I work with a number of farms around here doing the farm-to-school thing, and it’s good to have the help with the processing, so that we never fall behind,” he said.

Early last week, Czajkowski dropped off 2,000 pounds of peeled carrots at the CDC. The center’s staff then blanched them in large kettles, ran them through a dicer, fed them through the IQF, and bagged them into 25-pound boxes.

Much of that product went into a Chartwells order, picked up on Wednesday, for 76 boxes of carrots.

Chartwells will distribute that order to over 100 middle schools and high schools in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and the Albany area. Kempken, Chartwells’ regional chef, said she expects to be placing orders on a monthly basis.

“It’s a unique arrangement,” she said. “I used to work for Chartwells in the Midwest, and they had a frozen food project there, but it didn’t benefit the community as much as this one does. This food is really local, not just regional. Especially now that they have the IQF machine, it really creates a superior product.”

Increasing the amount of local food on school menus is a top priority for Andrew Stratton, head of food services for the Easthampton and Granby school districts.

“There’s more demand from the schools than there used to be,” Stratton said of local foods. “We want to support local farmers. And local food just tastes better.”

Stratton designs USDA-approved lunch menus for the elementary, middle, and high schools in his districts, with support from Chartwells and from a regional dietitian. Types of local produce he’s been able to work into the menus include corn, butternut squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, apples, and pears.

He said the Farm to School program promotes buying and eating locally grown foods, but he helps a bit, too. Stratton displays posters in the districts’ cafeterias about the farms from which their food came.

“That’s our chance to promote local produce, but also to get the students thinking more consciously about what they like to eat,” he said.

Farm to School also runs a Harvest of the Month campaign, which lets participating schools highlight a different kind of produce each month. November was dedicated to kale. For December, it’s carrots.

Since the IQF machine powered up this fall, the quality of food coming out of the center has noticeably improved, Stratton said.

“When they were just starting out, I remember there were some foods, like broccoli, that we couldn’t just steam and serve straight up — it needed to be incorporated into recipes more. But the new freezing process definitely keeps the food fresher. It’s easier to work with now.”

Nico Lustig knows fresh food — she used to work as the manager of McCusker’s Market in Shelburne Falls. Not all of the CDC’s food output is sold to distributors, she explained. Some farms simply pay for the use of the facilities, then take on the sales for their product.

Amherst College pays the center to process local foods used in its dining services. Boston University places direct orders. So does Deerfield Academy, she added. “We just put some beautiful cauliflower through the IQF for them. They’re just going to pan roast that. They say their students love it that way.”

During these early months of fast-freezing, most business comes from building on existing relationships with buyers.

Since Oct. 1, the center has run food through the freezer two or three times a day. Last year, food processing happened only once every few days.

Increased production hours create a more highly trained and consistent workforce at the center, Lustig said. “The more vegetables we can freeze, the more jobs we can maintain.”

Those jobs, aside from a small handful of full-time staff, are filled through the Harmon temp agency, based in Greenfield.

“Since the IQF arrived, we’ve had a really stable group of folks working with us,” she said. “They don’t require constant oversight anymore. They know the job, they know the machines, and they treat the work with care.”

During January and February, Lustig plans to do a few weeks of test batches. She’d like to experiment more with freezing potatoes, possibly in the form of french fries, and work on a tasty vegetable medley.

“This coming year we want to start with berries. But we can freeze anything that’s grown locally and that can be delivered to us two to four thousand pounds at a time,” she said.

Then there is the retail market to consider. The Franklin County CDC recently received a grant from the USDA for local food promotion. Part of that grant goes toward exploratory work on retail packaging, Lustig said.

“We have some interest from co-ops in the area,” Lustig said. “I’d be happy to sell to them, too. I like the idea of selling to anyone local who’s looking for great vegetables.”

Until then, the schools are the target market.

“It’s at the root of the CDC’s goals,” Lustig said. “Job creation and a stronger, more vibrant local community. We’re trying to model that every step of the way.”

Czajkowski, who now runs the 300-acre farm his grandfather started in 1916, expects that a demand for more local produce in coming years will change the Connecticut River Valley landscape. You can already see evidence of this shift as the buy-local movement has grown over the years, he said.

“When I was a kid, it was all tobacco around here — maybe 40,000 acres. Now, it’s about 1,000 acres,” Czajokowksi said. “So it’s good that more that acreage now can go into crops. It will certainly help financially.”