Small specialty crop growers are finding that selling value-added food products can bring larger profits and stretch their income beyond the harvest season. Whether it’s jams and jellies to sell at the farmers market or exotic specialty foods for grocers, if you can imagine it, they will buy it!
For example, vinegar, that cooking staple, has seen hundreds of variations created by imaginative growers and cooks using plants harvested from their market gardens, such as rose hips or edible flowers.
Jimmy Berke, a Florida tomato grower, uses a solar room to dry the tomatoes he uses to create delicious specialty food products, ranging from sun-dried tomatoes to pesto, tapenades and marinades.
Berke says “The sun-dried tomato pesto is the best seller. I’ve rarely had anyone taste it and not buy it.” He believes the formula for success with specialty foods is to control the whole process from seed to customer, using direct sales and tastings to create demand.
When he started, Berke experimented with several different tomato varieties. “Not every tomato dries the same, and standard tomatoes have too much water in them,” says Berke. He found the best tomatoes for sun drying were the plum varieties in the Amish Paste and Purple Russian families, as well as Austin’s Red Pear and Yellow Roman Candle.
The tomatoes are picked, washed and cut by hand to an exact three-sixteenths of an inch. Next, they go on the drying rack in the solar room for a day. Then the dried slices are packaged for sale or made into pesto, tapenade or marinade. A local produce buyer claims “These tomatoes have a depth of flavor. The naturally sun-dried products are hard to find, so it’s not easy to get great food.”
Berke markets his sun dried tomatoes under the “Leechango Plantation at Turtle Creek” name. The dried tomatoes are mixed with basil, olive oil and garlic and sold in an 8-ounce container of pesto.
Although the pesto out-sells his other specialty food products three-to-one, his second best seller is a sun-dried rosemary marinade, with tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and rosemary. Third on the best-seller list is a tapenade using yellow tomatoes, garlic and olive oil.
Why not put your creative cap on and think about what might work for your specialty crops. To get you started, here are a few of the most popular value-added specialty food products being sold today:
- Chutneys and Salsas
- Dried herbs
- Garlic braids
- Herbed vinegars and salad dressings
- Jams & Jellies