Recipient of 2006 USDA Value Added Producer grant.
Katrina Frey grew up picking chokecherries along dirt roads in Wyoming. So when she moved to her husband’s rural Nebraska farm and found chokecherries growing on the property, she saw an opportunity to please her grandmother, and made juice out of the berries so her grandmother could continue to make chokecherry wine.
It was her husband, Greg, who suggested making jelly. She hit up other women in the community for recipe suggestions and advice, and finally crafted a recipe that worked.
“And before I knew it,” Frey said, “I had enough to feed the county.”
Today, her extensive line of gourmet jams, jellies, syrups, baking mix and toffee are sold in specialty food stores, supermarkets and other retail outlets throughout the United States.
Frey and her husband had for years taken the sweet corn from their farm near Stapleton, Nebraska, to a weekly farmer’s market in nearby North Platte. Another producer brought her homemade jellies to the same market and when she moved, Frey jumped at the opportunity to fill the void, figuring she could simply earn some extra spending money by selling her jellies at the market.
“It was very successful,” she said. “So the next step was to make it a business and get it in stores. I felt like I could be more productive by selling case by case at many locations rather than jar by jar at one location.”
Frey picked plums and made plum jelly, and her van started making frequent stops along county roads to pick native berries such as elderberries and sand cherries. Today, she stops and picks berries wherever she can find them. She likes to put about 1,000 pounds of chokecherries in the freezer to keep up with demand for the jelly.
“I need to have a bumper sticker that says, ‘I brake for chokecherries,’” she said.
She worked out a lease agreement with the local fair board to use the kitchen at the Logan County Fairgrounds, and had it inspected and certified through the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Dairies and Foods.
But she soon realized that arrangement would need to be short lived. She loaded her jars, juice, sugar and all of her other supplies into her van, drove to the fairgrounds, unloaded the van, washed and sterilized the kitchen and her utensils, made jelly all day – she was renting by the day – and then loaded everything back into the van, drove home and put it all in her basement.
“You find out quickly that that’s quite a feat,” Frey said. “I really needed someplace where I could have all my inventory and supplies and everything that I would need in one place.”
She now operates from her own commercial kitchen on Main Street in Stapleton in a building she shares with a meat market.
Hitting the Road
Stapleton, with a population of about 300, is in a remote section of the United States. The nearest city, North Platte, is 30 miles away. But even North Platte’s population is less than 25,000. The nearest mid-sized city, the state capital of Lincoln, is a three-hour drive.
That has, at times, inhibited her ability to establish a distribution network. Getting her product can be challenging, but keeping it there often presented an even greater challenge.
On a typical Saturday, Frey loaded her car with jams and jellies and headed north, south, east or west, hitting every store on the path. Ahead of her first trip in February 2004, she made a batch of jelly, printed out some computer labels and a quickly put together a brochure with her list of jellies.
“And surprisingly enough, it was so easy,” she said. “It was amazing to me how easy it was.” Two businesses pre-ordered 30 cases, which was a sign that she needed to make a go of it and turn Heavenly Creations into a business. “By the end of the summer, I had over 60 stores in Nebraska, just from driving up and down the road.”
Today, she collaborates with other business owners who are also working to distribute product. Frey said they often trade off, perhaps with one person going north and another going south. She also began working with a representative who picks up and delivers her products, which has spared her the added time on the road.
“For 15 percent, it’s worth that versus the gas and the time and the time away from production,” she said. Frey manages a 40-hour work week, with her time spent in production, doing paperwork and picking berries, though there are times in mid to late summer when berries need to be picked and she’s out on the road. In 2007, she hired part-time help but was able to spare that added payroll expense in 2008. She said it was a combination of a decline in business and her ability to operate more efficiently.
“I’ve tried with my labeling to portray a large company image, even though I’m a one-woman show, to build that customer confidence,” Frey said.
Heavenly Creations offers jams and jellies made of native berries, such as chokecherries, plums, elderberries and sand cherries, which Frey picks in Nebraska. She sources raspberries, blackberries and blueberries, and also buys jalapenos and peppers for pepper jelly. In addition to her 11 flavors of jelly, she sells a baking mix and six flavors of syrup, three of which are native syrups, the other three being all-natural maple syrups. “There are times when you make jelly and it doesn’t turn out and it becomes syrup so I felt it was an opportunity to market rather than wait for the mistakes,” she explained.
Frey also makes gourmet English toffee. It was a way to extend the buying season to incorporate Valentine’s Day and also the candy market. As a result, the owner of a coffee company also contracted with Frey to produce a coffee-enhanced gourmet English toffee. He provides her with a liquid coffee concentrate that she then uses to make the toffee, which they label and package through their business. She also does custom baking for other businesses and has done some private labeling, with store owners paying her to produce products that are packaged carrying the store’s name.
Growth and Expansion
As she moves closer to becoming debt-free, Frey looks to the day when “I’m not stirring the pot myself.” An automated mass-production system, she said, would boost her profit margin.
But she is hesitant about making plans for the near future. In 2008 she opted not to expand or add new products in order to pay off some debt. She may do the same in 2009, depending on the status of the U.S. economy.
“I have expanded at such a fast rate over the past few years that it’s hard to meet up with that demand,” Frey said.
She also hopes to expand her distribution network across the country. Currently, Heavenly Creations is available at stores in 15 states, primarily in the Midwest. She has already expanded into the grocery store market, and more recently was accepted into Whole Foods.
In order for Whole Foods and other grocery store outlets to begin to carry Heavenly Creations, Frey needed to modify her product labels. Those stores required bar coding information directly on the label, something Frey had yet to implement. A USDA Value Added Producer Grant issued in 2006 covered the cost of the new labels, which included a UPC bar code as well as nutritional information. It was a critical step in her efforts to expand distribution.
“Something they (grocery stores) all wanted was the bar coding information,” she said. “I don’t think I would have been able to redo my labels had I not qualified for the grant.”
Frey said the successful expansion of her product line and the fast-paced growth of her distribution network can be attributed in part to support from her fellow Nebraskans.
“I think that’s a huge part of it,” she said. “It has been amazing how well Nebraska people support Nebraska-made things.”
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/)