Local produce in New England is becoming more popular, but New England has a short growing season, making fresh produce unavailable during most of the year. To address this, farmers could bring in extra revenue by freezing their produce to be sold in the off-season.
Entering this market is not simple as many factors impact the financial feasibility, including the difficulty in meeting standards for safe and high quality frozen produce.
Before starting a frozen or value-added produce enterprise, local farmers need more information to determine if it makes sense for their business. Selling frozen produce can bring in additional revenue for farmers — but only in certain circumstances.
Fortunately, UMass Resource Economics Professor Jill Fitzsimmons led a team that considered the feasibility of producing local frozen blueberries and spinach through regional shared-use processing facilities and on individual farms. The research provides important information for farmers to determine if and how they should enter the value-added food market and provides a calculator so farmers can crunch the numbers.
The research team was interdisciplinary — Jill Fitzsimmons and Dan Lass of Resource Economics, Extension Professor of Food Science Amanda Kinchla, and Kate Minifie of the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center.
The project was funded through a Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant. The research team was assisted by an advisory board, including the Simple Gifts Farm, Atlas Farm, Warner Farm, CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture), Squash Distribution, Franklin Community Cooperative Grocer, Neighboring Food Association Co-Op, Massachusetts Department of Agriculture, and the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center, where they conducted production trials.
A survey of farmers in the Northeast conducted in 2016 found that 63% were interested in entering the value-added food market but needed more information on production cost. Sixty-three percent needed information on production costs, while 57% were concerned about food safety/quality, and 47% needed information about packaging/marketing.
To estimate production costs, the team used the facilities, equipment and staff at the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center in Greenfield—a regional scale food business—to conduct timed production trials.
Regional food business centers can serve as a shared-use facility for processing frozen produce, which could make production more feasible for individual farms. These centers cover the substantial initial equipment costs and ensure that processed products are up to safety and quality standards for small-to-medium sized farm businesses.
The study concluded, “Unless a farmer is capable of supplying large consistent quantities of product, has interest in and capacity to manage a separate enterprise, and has access to reliable supply chains and markets, the capital investments are likely too high for an individual farm operation to take on a value-added food enterprise. On the other hand, a regional-scale food business center like those targeted by recent USDA funding programs (USDA, 2022) could serve as a shared-use facility, like the one employed in this study.”
In most cases, it would be financially difficult for a small to medium individual farm to take on this enterprise by itself, but production can be profitable for individual farmers if they utilize a regional-scale, shared use facility. The research also suggests that the market for value-added produce is not equally profitable for all products. For example, frozen blueberries are likely to be profitable, while spinach is not.
The overall feasibility depends on the farm and those considering entering this market should use the calculator provided to determine if it is right for them and fully consider how regional market conditions vary from those estimated.
What can we learn from this study?
With guidance, small farm businesses can determine if selling frozen produce is feasible, whether they process it themselves or with a regional food processor. Regional farm businesses also can consider whether building regional-scale infrastructure to process frozen produce is right for them.
The full article detailing the research project can be found here:Financial feasibility of selling frozen produce in local and regional markets | Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems | Cambridge Core