Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Yes, Please, We'd Love One!

Value-added products such as jams and jellies, cheeses, baked goods, or other types of preserved foods can provide a real boost in revenue to local agriculture and small-scale food producers. The problem is that most health and food safety regulations are written for the "big guys": they require all sorts of equipment and cleaning systems that aren't as necessary if you're producing things by hand, in small batches, rather than tens of thousands of units a day.

So how do small producers break into the value-added product business if the investment in equipment and space is so high?

One way is to change the rules: that's what the California Homemade Food Act we wrote about earlier is trying to do. So-called "cottage food laws" have been enacted in many cities and counties to allow small producers to use home kitchens (still subject to inspection on demand, in most cases) to produce value-added products.

Another way is to create a big-guy facility that is available and used by small-scale food artisans. Marin and Humboldt Counties (and many others around the country) have done this with their FoodWorks programs. In Arcata, the Food Works Center provides office/storage space and access to a kitchen certifiable for processing foods for sale. It is heavily used, with a long waiting list, but it has helped several small businesses get off the ground. Facilities like this don't just help farmers and processors. They create jobs and new businesses that could eventually out-grow the shared facility and build their own.

Community Action Marin's FoodWorks is a bit different. They have staff that helps a customer bring a new product to market, but also do a lot of private label and co-packaging work. It doesn't provide as much independence to the processors, but still provides a great service to local farmers and processors.

This type of facility could be a real boon to any county. Imagine if Del Norte -- with our abundant blackberries taking over every inch they can grab -- could be exporting blackberry jam, blackberry pie filling, blackberry cordials, and blackberry syrup. Imagine our farmers market bursting with new, local vendors selling home-baked pies and breads, small-batch cheeses (or even ice creams!), chutneys, salsas, jams, jellies, and more.

If you're going to dream, I always say, dream big. So, maybe I should change the title: I'll take TWO!

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