Blue Ridge Food Ventures
Blue Ridge Food Ventures
Recipient of 2004 and 2008 USDA Value Added Producer grants.
North Carolina farmers interested in further processing of their products have a common place where they can go to develop process and market a new food product. Blue Ridge Food Ventures (BRVF), located in Asheville, North Carolina, is a shared-use, value-added food processing center that serves food entrepreneurs throughout western North Carolina. It provides services to small business startups in the food industry, local farmers who wish to add value to the products through processing, and caterers and bakers needing a certified kitchen. This regional “kitchen incubator” was the first of several incubators that have sprouted up in North Carolina. Since BRVF opened in 2005, three more sister incubators in rural North Carolina have been established.
The facility is a renovated 12,000 square foot multi-purpose facility. Clients can rent equipment and space they need for developing or perfecting their food product. Some of the equipment BRFV has include: an apple cider processing line, two large processing kitchens with bottling capabilities, two 80-gallon steam kettles, apple peeler, slicer and pulpier, and much more. It also has extensive baking equipment, ovens and freezers and other equipment needed to create innovative food products. Located in the same suite of buildings is the local small business development center, which can assist producers in developing business plans, financing, etc.
A recipe that tastes great when made in small batches may need significant changes when larger quantities, such as150 to 200 jars, are made at a time. BRFV works with food entrepreneurs to modify recipes as needed to accommodate the scaleup. BRFV also provides assistance in nutritional labeling and graphic labels needed to market a product that is attractive and effective in moving the product off the shelf.
BRFV is inspected by the North Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Service and the NC Department of Agriculture. Clients cannot (at this time) further process meat products, because the group is not yet certified and inspected by USDA. The facility is opened seven days a week, 24 hours per day.
BRFV is an initiative of Advantage West Economic Development Group. The group has received funding assistance from the Golden Leaf Foundation, Appalachian Regional Commission, North Carolina Department of Justice, North Carolina Department of Agriculture, USDA and significant in-kind support from groups such as the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation. “We have received tremendous support to get the facility established and running. Our challenge now is to balance the amount of fees that budding entrepreneurs can pay to rent the facility reconciled with the costs of running a facility like this,” says Mary Lou Surgi, executive director of the kitchen.
Since its inception in 2005, BRFV has served more than 110 clients onsite. Another 200 have received advice and counsel but have not processed their items at the facility. Sixteen of the local food entrepreneurs have established their own processing or catering facilities and no longer need the services of the kitchen incubator. Twenty four of the on-site clients have been farmers who are looking for ways to create products that will lengthen the income generating time of their products. Farmers have used the facility to make jams, jellies, cider, salsa and other unique products. Recently several of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farmers have started to work with BRFV to develop products that help extend the season for their CSA members through both food and further processed fruits and vegetables. Some of the CSA farmers have used the freezer facility and will thaw the product later in the year to make jams, etc.
Some of the other products that have been developed, perfected and processed include quite an array. Examples include bamboo pickles made from locally grown bamboo, salsas, hot sauces and even organic chocolate. There is an extensive selection of apple products ranging from cider to dried spiced apples.
One entrepreneur imports olive oil from his family farm in Greece and processes and bottles the oil for local distribution.
One of the challenges for farmer clients is keeping up with all the food safety issues and new food regulations, “because in addition to just raising a quality product, they also have to be concerned with traceability of all their inputs,” says Surgi.
The food incubator itself has the challenge of not only finding the right mix of customers and fees but also helping a broad range of clients. The questions can vary significantly but BRFV strives to be responsive and helpful to all the clients. There is not just one source of information, but Surgi has tried to maintain BRFV’s website so that it can help answer many of the questions and links to numerous resources for food entrepreneurs.
Another issue with a multi-use facility is with food allergens, which are becoming an increasing health concern. A shared facility can’t always control allergens because something that was previously processed, even though cleaned, may still carry the potential of food allergens for hypersensitive individuals.
BRFV’s clients are located near many local high-end markets. With the emphasis on local food and people interested in lowering their carbon footprint, farmers in the area are trying to capture this market. Through further processing such as canning or freezing, local farmers are able to capture their usual summer produce market and offer local, high-end products later in the season to clients. Without the kitchen, this may have been difficult for some local farmers.
Blue Ridge Food Ventures is currently conducting a feasibility study to explore a branding and marketing campaign for locally produced foods and aggregating of the local products. These products would be collectively marketed in selected high-end specialty stores. “Local food firms cannot afford to individually distribute their products, but through a collective umbrella, it may be cost effective,” indicated Surgi.
Use of VAPG Fund
The North Carolina Farm Bureau worked with farmers in the region to apply to the VAPG program for funding. They received a grant in 2004 whose purpose was to help the farmers who were using BRFV’s services. Early use by significant numbers of clients no doubt helped spur growth of other similar incubators in the region. While this project is not an entirely novel idea, getting started and generating interest has always been a challenge where this was tried before. The grant helped spur interest, test the model, and validate demand and method for imitators to copy and most importantly to help key innovators respond to markets.
Surgi says, “The North Carolina Farm Bureau is an invaluable partner. They work with potential farmer/food entrepreneurs and make referrals to the facility. Additionally, through their media outlets and outreach activities, they share the successes of the value-added activities of local farmers. These stories plant a seed in the minds of producers to consider creative opportunities with their agricultural products.”
For More Information:
Mary Lou Surgi, email@example.com, 828-348-0128
Jay Boyette, Ag in the Classroom, firstname.lastname@example.org, 919-788-1019
About USDA VAPG
VAPG funding has been offered by the USDA periodically since the early 2000s. A new round of funding is anticipated to be announced in the coming months. To be considered value added, projects must show how products are differentiated in specific ways from commodity crops. Typically, projects must also show how they may deliver greater returns to producers.
Independent producers, farmer or rancher cooperatives, agricultural producer groups, and producer-owned business ventures, including non-profit organizations, may apply. In previous cycles, applicants were required to be producers of the raw commodity who will maintain ownership of that commodity through the process of creating a value-added product. Grants have been available for planning projects (such as marketing and business plans and feasibility studies) and working capital projects (which might include wages or packaging supplies). (http://www.rd.usda.gov/)