Rutgers facility advocates for value-added production
ATLANTIC CITY — Nolen Lewin, of the Rutgers Food Innovation Centers, advocated for farmers to consider value added production of their crops and how the centers can help turn an idea into reality.
Lewin spoke at the New Jersey Agricultural Convention and Trade Show at Harrah’s Hotel and Casino on Feb 5.
Staff at Rutgers’ FIC in Piscataway, near New Brunswick, and a much larger facility in Bridgeton, work with a wide range of farmers and food producers to help them create value-added products that can eventually find their way on to supermarket shelves Rutgers’ two centers are a unit of the Rutgers Agricultural Experiment Station.
“Our mission is to stimulate and support sustainable economic growth and prosperity for the food and agriculture industry,” he said, noting both centers support all kinds of companies and focus on the marketing, technical, regulatory and manufacturing components that are critical for success.
Unlike other Rutgers entities, Lewin said, “we are not academia, but rather we help guide businesses that want to enter the food and beverage space. We’re a small group of industry experts who have worked for large companies like Campbell’s Soup, Unilever and Hanover Foods.”
“I personally am a 30-year veteran and I was a plant manager for a long time, and I know what a boot on the back of my neck feels like when you’re under a lot of pressure to perform and put cases out,” Lewin said.
“Our business and technical mentoring is what I call the meat and potatoes of our business. We really try to help as many people as we can in terms of what they need to know,” he said. Some people will come in with their grandmother’s recipe for something in a jar or package and with the broad range of sub-facilities and kitchens at the Bridgeton site, “we can put any low acid beverage into a bottle or package or pouch so it can be sold as shelf-stable item, and we also do a lot of baked goods.”
“We have USDA inspectors on site, and we’re certified for all FDA manufacturing so you can sell your product across state lines — virtually around the world — if it is made in our facility,” Lewin said.
He displayed a map showing how many food industries are sprinkled around the Garden State, including large food processors with dozens of product lines like Goya Foods in northern New Jersey.
“This map shows us that New Jersey is a food-centric state, and that’s mostly due to the fact that we have so many great farmers and other people who are growing and cultivating value-added products here,” he said.
As an example, offered up Circle M Farms, a south Jersey peach producer.
“They came to us and said we’re growing these peaches, they’re not all going to market; they asked what else can we do with this product?”
The Bridgeton center helped them get grants from the USDA, did marketing and sales support including label and logo design and found a processor in Georgia that could process whole peaches without crushing the pit.
So now, one of the associates at Circle M takes truckloads of peaches down to Georgia that are not quite ready for the prime market, where “they process the product into peach cider and peach salsa among other things.
“They process it there and ship it back to New Jersey.”
The Bridgeton center also worked with Alma Farms in Cape May County, a farm that specializes in beach plums and aronia berries.
“They come in a couple of times a year to manufacture product and that’s one of the great things we offer is that you can come in and make products for a couple of weeks or months, whatever you need, and then come back again when you need it for the season, and manufacture exactly what you need for the farmers market season or the fall season,” he said.
For smaller farmers who want to pursue their value-added ideas, it’s helpful if they have a business plan but not absolutely necessary, he said.
“Sometimes people just come in who want to figure out a way to get into their local farmers’ markets or start to do something with national distribution of their product,” he said.
Both the Piscataway and Bridgeton centers have helped about 3,000 companies in developing their products, Lewin said, and stressed, “what we have is the ability to look at and identify the potential success, because most food products today — everyone knows the statistic — it’s like 80- to 90-percent failure rate. With us guiding things a bit down that pathway, we’re able to identify more likely scenarios that are going to be successful for them and once we identify that, we have them come into our R&D space in Bridgeton.”
In closing, he said farmers in New Jersey are fortunate to have an ethnically diversified market in between two major markets in New York City and Philadelphia.
“As farmers and producers, think about the ethnic Indian market, they use onions, okra, eggplant, all those things, does it make sense for you to think about putting some of that okra into a value-added product, because you can sell that jar for 8, 10 or 15 dollars instead of trying to sell an eggplant for one dollar,” he said. “Produce sells for the same price today as it did 30 years ago.”
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