Flash freezing berries to feed year-round demand.
Flash freezing berries to feed year-round demand.
By Leah Chester-Davis
Ron Cottle gives a quick windshield tour of his strawberry, blueberry, and blackberry acreage in North Carolina before heading to a small airport nearby. He is greeting representatives from a large grocery chain who are looking to buy his produce for their North Carolina stores.
He is on a bit of a high, thanks to the demand for locally grown food and the potential that a giant tube-like machine provides him and other local farmers to tap a new market: the frozen food aisle.
That machine features individual quick freeze, or IQF, technology and is one of the latest investments at Cottle Farms in Faison, North Carolina. Housed in a 40,000-square-foot facility behind his farm offices, the machine freezes produce at peak freshness for the highest-quality product.
IQF opens new markets. For Cottle, it’s all about opening up more markets and revenue streams, using perfectly good fruit that may not sell on the fresh market. “It’s plump, overripe fruit that is delicious to eat. It’s just too soft for a clam shell and to send to a chain store but it’s perfect for freezing. It’s got a really good flavor.”
This new technology helps meet the demand for locally grown food every season of the year. In addition to expanding the market for local farmers, it helps ensure more good food is put to use and less wasted.
“The demand is great now for us as local farmers to be able to sell our product. Consumers want to buy locally. They want to keep money in our economy. They want to know where their food comes from.”
Time was when West Coast growers met grocery chain buyers’ needs, and growers on the East Coast struggled to find markets. “Ten years ago I could pick up the phone and their response was that they were covered. Now they are calling us, every day.”
Placing local foods in the frozen aisle. Locally grown food remains primarily tied to the fresh market due to its greater availability for consumers. Cottle is hoping to change that and he is helping lead the way in the Carolinas. His farm is the first in the state to incorporate the IQF technology as part of its operations and he serves as a co-packer for a start-up business known as “Seal the Seasons” that is working to get local frozen berries into chain stores, region by region.
“The retailers have really opened their eyes to the local fresh market. We just have to get the chain store buyers on board with the frozen side. And they are getting on board, slowly.”
Preserving at peak freshness. In mid-May, the Cottle Farms facility is humming. The IQF machine can freeze 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of berries in an hour, and it will run 18 to 20 hours most days until mid-July. Berries are processed during two shifts, with 4 to 5 hours for cleaning at the end of the second shift. Food safety standards are stringent, and Cottle’s operation has a slew of the requisite food safety certifications.
In addition to strawberries from his own 85 acres of strawberries (April and May harvest), his pickers harvest 200 acres of blueberries (late May through July harvest). Cottle has 18 acres of blackberries (June and July harvest) and 160 acres of muscadine grapes that will be ready for both the fresh market and for flash freezing during August and September. He is the largest producer of muscadine grapes in the state.
Cottle also processes berries for 15 other farmers in the region. As the word gets out and the locally frozen fruit becomes more attractive to grocery chains, his phone rings more often. Farmers seeking to preserve the part of their crops that don’t go to the fresh market are learning that this new technology can help add to their bottom line.
While he isn’t using the IQF technology for vegetables, he hopes that will be an option in the future. He grows a “full line” of vegetables – cucumbers, peppers, squash, eggplant, tomatoes, sweet corn, melons – on another 1,000 acres.
State support. The North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services has contracted with Cottle to provide frozen blueberries to school cafeterias across the state as part of its farm-to-school program. “North Carolina is getting behind NC products,” says Cottle. “Last year we piloted the program in certain counties. This year they will be offered to all counties, which is great. Our kids in the state are getting local berries.”
Scanning for new markets. While the flash freeze technology may be one of the newest features to Cottle’s farm operation, other efforts are designed to extend the growing season and produce the best crops possible despite the challenges of the Carolina climate. “We can be hot, we can be cool, we can be humid, we can be wet all the time. Our growing conditions can be boorish.”
The result is high susceptibility to anthracnose. So when Cottle, a third generation strawberry farmer, returned to work with his Dad, Ned Cottle, after college in 1987, one of his first decisions was to source strawberry plants from Prince Edward Island. “We had to go to Canada and get our plants grown there in an isolated environment where we wouldn’t have problems with diseases.” Cottle now partners with Westech Agriculture Ltd. in Canada to distribute strawberry plants up and down the East Coast. That is the portion of his business known as Cottle Strawberry Nursery, Inc.
While that helps provide healthier, disease-free plants, Cottle is on the lookout for better strawberry varieties that can hold up to the hot, humid North Carolina weather, extend the growing season, and deliver the sought-after sweet, strawberry flavor. For the past two years he has welcomed Dr. Barclay Poling, long known as the “Strawberry Doc” in the state, to his farm to conduct research. They are studying as many as 45 advance selections.
While a better berry that extends the growing season and has a sweet appeal to consumers is important to Cottle, it’s just one piece of the puzzle to his farming operation. Pair that with a diversity of crops and the new IQF technology to help him and other farmers gain space in the frozen food aisle at grocery chains, and he keeps his labor busy from one crop to the next. That starts in April when the strawberries are ripe to the fall crops that last until the first frost in November. “It’s part of putting all the pieces of the puzzle together to keep it all going.”