New freezer means more growth: Processing Center’s building has space for refrigeration, general food storage, too

The Recorder, November 15, 2017, by Richie Davis

Work crews were putting finishing touches this week on the $750,000 freezer-refrigerator building that’s expected to heat things up at the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center.

What looks like a metal-frame building, more than 25 feet high, is described as a freezer, but the 28,000-square-foot structure is in fact, a multi-use storage area, with nearly 21,000 square feet divided equally between freezer and refrigerated space, and the remaining 7,250 square feet used for general food storage.

“Oh my god, internally, this is going to solve so many problems,” says John Waite, Franklin County Community Development Corp. executive director, who’s preparing to welcome officials, businesses, farmers and the general public to a reception Friday from 4 to 6:30 p.m. at the 324 Wells St. center that will include tours of the facility, and, of course, food.

The project should help the CDC’s commercial kitchen cook up more business for area farmers and food businesses like the nearly 50 that rent space there, Waite says. The freezer building has been more than five years in development, and involved lining up $300,000 in funding from the state Department of Agricultural Resources, a $50,000 grant and $250,000 loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The real reason we got involved with this project is that we want to give farmers and food producers other options,” he says.

The new three-pallet-high storage space, with enough room for 113,000 pounds of frozen produce and another 113,000 pounds in the cooler, should make the entire operation to more efficiently preserve local produce for later use by regional institutions.

Add to that recipe for success another $150,000 in new federal funding, which, together with $118,000 just awarded by the state for specialized processing equipment like a vibrating filler with a bag sealer and a washer-chiller dryer — all connected by conveyer belt — allow blanched carrots, for example, to be moved into a chiller bath, shaken dry and dropped into the kitchen’s individual quick-freeze equipment.

Replacing one of the kitchen’s 100-quart kettles with one that’s 125 quarts, for example, should help sauce makers be more efficient, while a “floretter” quickly prepares broccoli before it’s blanched, chilled in a stop-bath, then dried, quick frozen, packed in 25-pound boxes and sent to the new freezer.

Up until now, the food processing center has had to depend on a half-dozen trailer-size temporary coolers, as well as a commercial freezer in Westfield that’s added transportation costs and complexity to food making.

“Part of our problem now,” says kitchen Operations Director Liz Buxton, is that they have to come in on the day of processing, because there’s no place to store them. With the new cooler, we’ll be able to aggregate for more farmers. I can take in 8,000 pounds of vegetables instead of 2,000 pounds, and process it over two days because I’ll have someplace to put it.”

What’s more, she says, smaller-scale farmers can begin contributing to the CDC’s own Pioneer Valley frozen vegetable brand, each bringing in a ton of a crop, “instead of saying you have to bring in 8,000 pounds and have to have them on the loading dock at 9 o’clock, because now I have more space. We can play more, plan more and be a lot more efficient.”

Serving larger chains

The new freezer and equipment should also help entrepreneurs like Zoe Lloyd, whose Zoni Frozen Meal Kits, were launched in August, with noodles made from vegetables from Hadley’s Lakeside Organic Farm.

Lloyd, who created the business with fellow Yale School of Management student Nilofer Ahmed after they were paired in an entrepreneurial “speed-dating event,” says the coconut curry noodle, zesty peanut noodle and sweet-potato spiral kits with black bean or lentil-mushroom-kale fritters are already being sold at 10 Connecticut natural-foods stores, with plans to ramp up production to supply a Southeastern supermarket chain.

“Starting with 300 of each kit, we aim to scale up significantly to tens of thousands of each, so we can serve larger chains,” says Lloyd, who heard about the Greenfield center after the commercial kitchen they were working with in Hartford went bankrupt. “In order to scale up, we were looking to pair up with a facility that had the staff and equipment and were knowledgeable about how to use it. We want to have an impact on people’s health, and the only way is to scale up to get our costs down, so we can offer it at a reasonable price.”

Lloyd, who has the frozen meals shipped to Hartford, where she picks them up with her car to deliver to stores, says she’s begun conversations with Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture about using locally grown sweet potatoes in future recipes.

“We have a ways to grow with this facility,” she says. “We’re only producing each meal component every few weeks, and we can be producing components every single day, doing thousands a week, because we’re looking to work with distributors so we can scale up distribution.”

Meanwhile, says Waite explains that one of the food kitchen’s spinoff businesses, Real Pickles, is looking forward to making use of the refrigerated space to store cabbage and other vegetables in coming weeks so that it can continue production through the winter.

And he’s hoping that the new freezer, with a backup generator, could come in handy if local grocers face an extended power outage.

‘It’s only going to keep growing’

The CDC also has had conversations with a Hatfield farmer who now sells the commercial kitchen peppers for its school-bound frozen produce and hopes the kitchen’s new equipment will enable him to make one-pound bags of frozen vegetables he can sell along with root vegetables in his roadside store in the winter to attract more customers.

The food processing center has frozen nearly 75,000 pounds of carrots, peppers, broccoli and other vegetables this year — and expects to see that grow to 90,000 pounds once butternut squash is added. Much of that is for distribution to schools throughout the region by Chartwells Food Service.

“It’s only going to keep growing,” adds Food Business Development Specialist Joanna Benoit, explaining the new storage capacity and new equipment should attract more users, which should drive up the operation to add a second shift, further dropping production costs to make the prices more attractive to farmers and consumers alike.

The food center employs eight year-round and 10 to 15 seasonal workers.

“This is an opportunity to take the businesses we have and help them grow, because having more storage space means they can store more on site, so they can produce more,” Benoit adds. “And theoretically, they can be buying more produce when it’s in season because we have a place to store it.

“That’s why we’re so excited about this,” she adds. “This is a huge piece of the puzzle.”

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