What do you do with a truckload of B grade tomatoes in August when everyone has tomatoes? Fred and Stacia Monahan of Stone Gardens Farm in Shelton, CT think outside the box. At the CSA School in Haddam, CT, Stacia described her partnership with Chefs Fred and Michele Bialek, owners of nearby a restaurant called Liquid Lunch Creations.
Preserve Excess Produce
The Monahans deliver excess or b-grade vegetables to Liquid Lunch Creations where chefs cut off any bad parts, blanch, vacuum seal and flash freeze produce in 1-pound bags. Frozen produce includes sweet corn, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, beans, broccoli, cauliflower and winter squash. Winter CSA shares will receive these preserved vegetables along with fresh greens and other offerings.
The Monahans offer CSA customers cooking classes called “Prepare Your Share” at Liquid Lunch Creations, the same breakfast and lunch restaurant that processes the farm’s vegetables. The Monahans alert the chef what is ready that week and the recipes use those fresh ingredients.
The just picked, still dirty, produce is displayed Iron Chef-style and participants learn washing, handling and cooking from the chefs. Everyone learns a new recipe and enjoys good company along with a fine meal (BYOB). Many CSA members make a family night of it and happily pay $40 to $50 for the experience.
This is a great promotional opportunity for the farm and the restaurant. Everyone makes money. Patch.com and local papers love to write about local businesses and family events.
Sauces and Salsa
The Monahans’ excess produce used to be tossed to their pigs. These days excess produce becomes sauce, salsa and pesto with ingredients at their peak of freshness. They contract with Palmieri Foods of New Haven, CT to make 100-gallon batches of tomato sauce and salsas using Stone Garden Farm’s ingredients and recipes.
The producer’s name joins the farmer’s name on the label. Palmieri Foods assumes all the product liability. “The tomatoes we grew went from a value of $2 a pound with a short shelf life to a jar of tomato sauce worth $8 with a two-year shelf life,” said Stacia Monahan.
Fred said there is still enough excess produce or seconds for their pigs.
Finding a Partner
Stacia suggested searching your CSA or customer list for a restaurant that has been buying from you. An existing customer already knows your products and supports your farm. If you do not already have restaurant customers, contact church or corporate cafeteria managers. You can also seek out personal chefs with access to commercial kitchens. There are several private label canning and sauce producers in New England.
Profit and Honor Motivation
The main reason the Monahans looked at different marketing options (CSAs and value added products) is that Connecticut has over 120 farmers markets. According to Fred Monahan, many farmers markets near their farm and farm stand include “jobbers” or middlemen who peel off fruit and vegetable stickers and sell that produce as Connecticut-grown. Monahan said, “The CT Department of Agriculture Marketing Representative just laughed at us when we brought up valid complaints. They say it would be catastrophic if the public found out the truth.” Monahan continued, “The Department of Agriculture promotes markets not farmers. They are hurting the food producers.”
For more Information
Eighty participants from across southern New England attended CSA School at the Middlesex County Cooperative Extension Annex in Haddam, CT. The program was sponsored by the University of Connecticut and the USDA Risk Management Agency as part of the Targeted States Crop Insurance and Information program for Connecticut Agriculture.