Ag center feeds appetite for local food
Written by BILL RYAN Sentinel Farm Editor
Friday, 13 December 2013 10:33
The Center for Innovative Food Technology (CIFT) has a foundation of focusing on things local.
|Susanne Martin peels apples at the AG Incubator. (Photos: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)
Many of their efforts were highlighted on Wednesday as Rebecca Singer, vice president and director of agricultural programs, led a meeting which was primarily for growers and processors at the Agricultural Incubator Foundation near Haskins.
In addition to the various speakers, those in attendance received a tour of the accompanying Northwest Ohio Cooperative Kitchen (NOCK). The tour included the observation of one of the newest additions, a machine which automatically peels, cores and slices apples. It is located in the room used for blanching and freezing food products.
CIFT staff were working to process and freeze two crates of apples for the Seagate Food Bank which services clients in 18 Northwest Ohio counties including Wood. Because of the volume of apples being processed, some employees were also manually readying the apples to be frozen.
Singer explained the quick freeze machine uses liquid nitrogen to freeze the product, in this case the sliced apples, down to minus 50 degrees. Within a few minutes the apples were frozen and bagged for future use by the food bank.
"The machine freezes things very quickly. The process allows (the product) to maintain its nutritional value and quality," Singer said.
Last year the freezing operation at NOCK processed 36,000 pounds of fresh produce.
In addition to the apples, they have processed strawberries and a wide variety of other berries, corn cobettes (small shucked corn on the cob pieces), green beans, onions, peppers and other vegetables.
Singer said the facility is set up to process everything in bulk, with the products being packaged in three sizes of freezer bags - five, 10 and 20 pounds.
She said the food bank uses the apples to make cobblers and pies throughout the year.
"NOCK has grown above and beyond our expectations," Singer said noting 36 companies which produce their products at the facility.
The only types of products they cannot handle are meats and alcohol.
In addition to her talk, Singer invited a variety of others to speak including John Klancar from Bon Appétit Management Company.
He noted how the frozen products help his company provide fresh produce year-round to those they serve including some university food services. He said last year they used 20,000 pounds of "outstanding" products from various local growers. He noted the cobettes are a very high quality and popular item.
|Ernesto Ramirez moves frozen apples.
Alan Bernard with CIFT, spoke about a fairly recent partnership with the Ohio Department of Agriculture which matches local growers with processors locally and beyond.
He spoke of how Northwest Ohio brings in more products than it produces. He shared how producers can increase their income through some specialty crops such as asparagus, beets and kale.
"Kale is the new super food. It has more vitamins than oranges," Bernard said.
Through the Ohio Supply Chain Project, grant money is available for specific varieties of products including radishes and sweet corn.
He explained $3.6 billion is lost from the Northwest Ohio economy each year due to the deficit in usage versus production.
Noting the local resources he added, "We have the land and water and the resources to reduce this gap."
Haley Thomas of Ballreich's spoke of their use of locally grown potatoes for their products including a new line of sweet potato chips.
Shelly Okun from Sam Okun Produce shared their focus on local products and a desire to cooperate with the growers.
"Local is what we are all about," she said. "We prefer to be locally owned, to use locally-owned growers and to deliver to locally-owned restaurants and businesses."
Singer also addressed other projects CIFT uses to assist the growers such as hoop houses which are continuing to sprout up around the area including three now housed at Bittersweet Farms in Whitehouse.
"There is no heat applied in these houses and there is product available all year," she said.
Primarily greens, radishes and beets are grown in the winter months. Other products can also get an early start in the spring to get them to market sooner. She also noted experiments being done with a new type of carrot.
She also highlighted vertical growing systems made in various sizes so people can grow more product in smaller areas. This is ideal for things like herbs, peppers and lettuce.
"You can grow product just about anywhere," she said.
Singer said they are also working on a grape project which could benefit the recent growth in Ohio wineries, as well as a trellis system for blackberries which can increase yields.