WOMEN@WORK

Values added: value-added agriculture in action

Posted Aug. 04, 2011, at 9:18 p.m.

My introduction to Aroostook County came through value-added agriculture. One holiday season while I was a college student in Florida, my future in-laws sent me a potato sampler from Wood Prairie Farm. I was so enchanted by the fingerlings nestled in their box and the sweet taste like no other tubers I had encountered that a decade later, I moved to Aroostook County to be closer to my family — and my food.

What do we mean by value-added? Beth Calder, assistant professor in the department of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine, notes, “Basically value-added means to take an agricultural product and to process it into a higher-valued product for the consumer.” Speaking from the manufacturing perspective, Muriel Mosher of Time Wise Management Systems defines value-added as “taking raw materials and changing the form into a function … a process activity that adds value to a product.”

Living in the breadbasket of Maine, one sees firsthand the impact that value-added agriculture has on the bottom line of Maine farmers. Jim and Megan Gerritsen of Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater show how value-added products generate sustainable revenues, as well as how underlying values drive the value-added entrepreneurial process. Initially, the bulk of their business was organic tablestock potatoes, giftable potatoes, and vegetables. Over the years, their percentage of seed sales rose, a sign of their mission to help build the organic community.

“We feel that growing the best organic seed is our outward demonstration of that mission. Good seed allows our customers the ability to grow great crops,” Jim noted.

Adding processed organic grains milled on the farm and other value-added products helped spread out the cash flow across the year, balancing the seasonal peak of seed sales. Direct sales through a mail order catalog and website ( www.woodprairie.com) drive revenues and build the organic movement.

“It’s a two way street: We support the organic community and it in turn supports us.” He concludes, “The essence of strong community is that you treat the members the same way you treat family … focus on good works, and the money will find its way,” Jim said.

Trust is a key value for distributors as well as producers. Marada Cook, who took the reins of the family business Crown O’Maine Organic Cooperative ( www.crownofmainecoop.com) after her father, Jim Cook, passed away in 2008, notes that “at the heart of cooperation lies integrity. Getting farmers to cooperate has historically been a difficult task — except where a common sense of integrity allows producers the trust factor.”

“Acting with integrity allows trust to build between vendors and Crown O’Maine — trust that the customers participate in when they purchase from us,” Marada Cook said.

The ethics, values and cooperative process in the organic movement are themselves a value-added factor in food production, particularly in a market that increasingly rewards local and sustainable production, distribution and consumption.

Kristi and Kevin Brannen of Spring Break Maple and Honey ( www.mainemapleandhoney.com) provide another example of value-added agriculture in action. During the long spring layoff from his logging business, Kevin began tapping trees for sap to make maple syrup. The pastime turned into a profitable business when production surpassed what Kristi and Kevin could use themselves and they started first giving away and then selling the syrup. Next on tap were maple candy, sugar, cream, jelly, taffy and maple-coated nuts.

“Realizing that added value products gave me a better return on investment, I started making them and adding them to my product line,” Kristi said.

In 2010, Kristi and Kevin purchased Smith’s Maple Products, one of the largest maple candy makers in the state. They have been making maple candy daily while expanding into out-of-state markets and more than doubling the business. Again, entrepreneurial values dovetail with the value-added process, as Kristi notes that their success comes from “working hard, being honest, friendly, and producing good-quality products.”

Quality is the name of the game for value-added food producers. When I asked Robin Jenkins of Fort Fairfield, owner of Robin’s Chocolate Sauce ( www.robinschocolate.com), what motivated her customers to purchase her products, I expected to hear environmental reasons. After all, the business mission is to be “more than a delicious dessert topping. It’s a resource for the education, awareness and advocacy of the issues concerning communities and the environment both locally and globally.” But what keeps customers coming back for more?

“We think that what motivates our wholesale and retail customers to purchase our products is the taste and quality of the sauces,” Robin said.

The most recent twist for Robin’s Chocolate Sauce is a new layer of added value as Mount Desert Island Ice Cream shops are serving Robin’s Bittersweet sauce as a topping and incorporating it as an ingredient in one of their most popular ice creams, Stout with Fudge.

The bottom line: Values boost value. Food producers who incorporate value-added products can increase their revenues and smooth out seasonal ups and downs in sales by providing high-quality products that are competitive in the marketplace — and that speak directly to their customers’ desire for delicious and ethical food.

Erica Quin-Easter is microenterprise coordinator for Women, Work, and Community in Aroostook County, where she provides training and technical assistance to clients from Sherman to Fort Kent. WWC classes in Aroostook County include an Introduction to Self-Employment workshop on Aug. 22 in Caribou and Aug. 29 in Presque Isle, and the 12-week New Ventures entrepreneurship training starting Sept. 12 in Presque Isle. For information or to sign up for these free classes for your business, visit www.womenworkandcommunity.org, call 764-0050, or email erica.quineaster@maine.edu.

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