Savvy food makers who specialize in jarring up tasty seasonal goods can be a huge help when you come back from market with hundreds of pounds of leftover tomatoes. Processing excess produce not only keeps it out of the compost pile but also saves the money and hard work that went into growing and picking the crop. With some forethought, you can turn leftover produce into a shelf-stable product that can be sold all winter and beyond.
What Crops to Use
What crop are you known for growing? Do you have a following for growing the sweetest dry-farmed tomatoes or the crunchiest cucumbers? Start there—customers will naturally be drawn to a product that they already know tastes great. Using a crop you always have in excess, like berries, tomatoes, or cucumbers, is advisable as well.
Consider color as well as flavor. You might try jarring up single varieties of tomatoes for sauce, sticking with one color and variety per jar. It may inspire customers to buy more than one because they want to test out how the flavors differ.
Talk to Farmer Friends
Ask your farmer friends where they get their products made. Were they happy with the flavor of the product? What about the price of production? Talking with growers who have gone through the process can tell you a lot.
Contact the Co-packer Early
Co-packers often have farms pre-booked, especially during strawberry and tomato season. If you are considering a co-packer, get on the list early to be sure you are included.
Have a Consultation With the Co-Packer
Set up a consultation with the co-packer. Discuss products, pricing, and labels.
Describe the product you would like to make. Is it a simple tomato sauce with minimal ingredients? Or do you want a complicated product like a bloody mary mix? The production price increases if the co-packer has to purchase ingredients or if the product is time-consuming to make.
Other questions to ask your co-packer:
- Are there limitations on what types of products a co-packer can process? For example, can they only process high-acid or high-sugar products?
- What jar sizes and types are available for your product?
- How is the product sealed into the bottle? Is only the cap sealed, or does the product come with a shrink seal around the lid and neck of the jar?
- What food handling and food safety documentation does the co-packer provide?
- Is the co-packer registered as a food processor with the appropriate government agencies?
Let the Co-Packer Know How Much Product You Want Produced
Depending on the shelf life of a product, you have one to two years to sell it. Think about all your sales outlets. Will you only sell the product directly to consumers? Do you want to try wholesale as well? Estimate how much product you will sell at every sales outlet. Then calculate the total and communicate it to the co-packer.
Don’t forget to take storage into account when calculating the amount of product you want produced. You will need to store your co-packed goods in a dry, cool place in order to maximize the shelf life. Do you currently have space to store the product? Is there a limitation on how much product that space can hold? Alternatively, will you need to obtain a storage shed to hold your co-packed tomato sauce? If so, how will storage costs impact how much product you can hold?
How will you get the produce to the co-packer? Will you transport the produce yourself or hire a trucking company? Figuring out how the produce will be delivered not only allows you to coordinate transportation logistics with the co-packer but also helps you identify transportation costs.
Plan your labels in advance. Often co-packers can help you identify what you need to include on the label because they are familiar with the process, but it is always good to confirm that the information is correct.
What to Include on the Label
Learn more about food labeling requirements from your state department of public health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. If you are located in California, check out the California Department of Public Health’s Close up on Food Labels fact sheet. University cooperative extension is another place to find information on food labeling requirements for small food businesses.
Where you sell your product may impact what needs to go on the label. Labels for retail sales may be more complex than labels for products sold directly to consumers.
If your produce is certified organic and you want to label your co-packed product organic, you must use a certified organic co-packer. In addition, the co-packer must use ingredients approved for organic processing. Be sure to check with your organic certifier to add the co-packed product to your farm’s Organic Systems Plan and organic certificate and to confirm what records you will need to keep. Get your product labels approved by your organic certifier prior to printing.
Have the Co-Packer Apply the Labels
If the co-packer offers to apply the labels, take them up on it. It’s much better than hand-labeling products yourself (believe me, I’ve been there!). You may need information on how the labels feed into the co-packer’s labeling machine in order to know what direction they should be printed.
Print Your Labels Early
Make sure you have the labels printed before your produce goes to the co-packer.
Setting the Sale Price of the Product
Calculating Production Costs
How much does it cost to produce your product? Add up your co-packer fees (this should include the jars), as well as transportation, labeling, and storage costs.
Let’s say, after crunching the numbers, I calculate that it costs $4 to produce a 16-ounce jar of tomato sauce. This does not include the costs of growing and harvesting the tomatoes. The co-packer should be able to tell you how much fresh produce is needed to make a jar of cooked product. If a jar holds one pound of tomatoes and your cost to grow the tomatoes is $1 per pound, it costs a total of $5 to produce that jar of tomatoes.
Setting Your Sales Price
People are willing to spend more for value-added products from small farms, but there is still a ceiling on the amount that people will pay. Consider the jar of tomatoes that cost $5 to produce: If you can get $9 for the retail jar and $7.50 for the wholesale jar, this markup would make the effort financially worthwhile.
Offset Costs with Food Processing Grants
The USDA offers Value Added Producer Grants to assist farms in processing and marketing new value-added products. The deadline for the 2021 grant period has passed, but keep an eye on the program for future funding opportunities.
Display and Marketing
Once you have received your products from the co-packer, display them safely and smartly at your farm stand or market stall. Showcase the product by lifting it up off the table with a shelf. And don’t forget to include signage with the product name and ingredients.
If a product sells well, be sure to make the same product each year to keep customers coming back. You may decide to build a product line by adding a new product each year.
Co-packing is a great way to mitigate food waste, bring in additional income, and extend sales into the winter months! With a little forethought, you can produce a winning product for your customers and your business.
About the Author: Jamie Collins, owner of CCOF-certified Serendipity Farms near Monterey, California, has farmed organically for two decades. She sells produce via farmers’ markets, CSA, and other direct-to-consumer outlets. On the side, she works as an organic inspector and a farm and marketing consultant and writes about food and farming for various publications.
Funding Acknowledgement: Funding for this blog post was made possible by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service through grant AM180100XXXXG055.