American Farm Publications

NOFA-NJ: Opportunities in value-added production

AFP Correspondent

Lindsay Napolitano and Melanie Ganzman discuss value-added and cottage licensing advice for small-scale farmers during the NOFA-NJ conference on Jan. 27 in New Brunswick. (Photo by Richard Skelly)

NEW BRUNSWICK — A discussion moderated by Mercer County Rutgers Cooperative Extension Agent and Food Safety Specialist Meredith Melendez brought about interesting ideas smaller farmers can incorporate into their operations to boost profits through value-added goods and cottage food production. Speakers included Lindsay Napolitano of Fields Without Fences in Stockton, N.J. and Melanie and Stan Ganzman from Fluffy Farms in Egg Harbor City.
Melanie Ganzman from Fluffy Farms said she and her husband are first generation farmers who launched three years ago raising goats, chickens and some vegetables.
“Our sourdough bread has become our value-added product and the heart of our operation,” Ganzman said by way of introduction, “it all actually started here at the NOFA winter conference.” Inspired by another farmer, she said she began baking bread that winter, and urged people to learn from one another, “because when you’re plugged into a community, you see what people have done already and where you might fit in as well.”
Although she described Fluffy Farms’ value-added journey as “tumultuous,” they are grateful for the cottage licensing regulations passed in New Jersey in 2020.
“I’m not an expert, just someone who went through the process successfully,” Ganzman said.
“In order for us to sell sourdough bread in New Jersey we had to get a cottage license. So what does that mean? You have to take a food management course and have your water tested out of your well,” she said.
The license process can take five to eight to 10 weeks or more depending on the nature of the license within the Dept. of Health’s sets of regulations. Ganzman advised farmers to talk to their community and find their niche, be it pickled or hot root vegetables, sourdough bread, soups or various preserves, jams and jellies.
“Once you find your niche, get creative with it and have fun,” Ganzman said. She began by offering free sourdough bread to regular customers at Fluffy Farm, but it quickly evolved into something of a profit center as word of her talent spread. She began selling in early November a year ago and as Christmas approached in December, she was almost overwhelmed with orders for sourdough.
“I had the experience of a very large production with very low stakes but that is crucial because the process of going from making one loaf to making 10 loaves at a time is a journey in itself,” she said.
For her cottage food license she applied on Sept. 5 and wasn’t approved to sell sourdough until Nov. 15. She was initially confused and frustrated with the bureaucratic pace at the Department of Health, and left numerous messages with people she’d been referred to within the agency.
“I was very upset about all this because I kept looking at the website to see if the laws had changed, and they hadn’t,” she said. Finally she found someone at the Food Democracy Collaborative in Atlantic City who was able to cut through the red tape on behalf of Fluffy Farms.
“They looked into my license application and indeed there was a mistake with it, but I would not have been approved if I wasn’t persistent about it,” she said. If you’re rejected with your initial application, remain steadfast and persistent and “don’t be afraid or shy to talk to people and keep emailing or calling to get answers to your questions.”
“I started taking orders [for sourdough bread] on Instagram and my community responded,” Ganzman said, “we got approved on November 15th and then with Christmas coming we grew the business 500 percent. It was crazy but we were very blessed and very happy. It was a great cycle and since then we have continued to grow.”
Napolitano at Fields Without Fences in Stockton said when she and her husband began dabbling in value-added products with fruits, nuts and medicinal herbs, there were no cottage food license laws on the books in the Garden State. Since then, Napolitano has been raising a young son and focused on a concentrated elderberry elixir that is selling well in natural food and organic-oriented stores like Basil Bandwagon and other outlets. Operations at Fields Without Fences marries ecological restoration with agricultural production. These days, her husband concentrates on their consulting business with other organic and regenerative farmers in New Jersey and surrounding states, while she narrowed her focus to selling concentrated elderberry elixir in bottles with the USDA Organic seal, indicating it was grown following organic guidelines and processed in an organic certified commercial kitchen. Context is very important if you’re moving into the value-added realm, she argued. Napolitano urged smaller farmers in the audience to think about and examine their potential markets for their products.
Fields Without Fences has been Certified Organic since 2013. Napolitano and her husband launched the farm in 2012, and moved quickly into value-added products to ensure their own livelihood. They began offering herbal teas and dried herbs at farmers’ markets and then launched an urban CSA in 2015 and began incorporating healthy tinctures and tonics into their mix of products for sale, eventually expanding to over 30 products offered at local and regional farmers’ markets. All of that shifted with the pandemic in 2020.
“I found myself happily pregnant and I knew we had to move into a different phase, and at the time we had expanded from 10 acres to 45 acres so I was managing the farm while my husband was managing our off-site consulting work,” she recalled.
“I made up a new motto at that point in my life: ‘Simplify, simplify, simplify,’ because I knew I was going to have a limited amount of time I would be able to work on the farm but also limited access to markets. I wasn’t going to have time to go to farmers’ markets doing individual sales.”
They looked at their most popular product, their tasty, concentrated elderberry elixir, and began to find retail outlets that would sell it.
“We wanted to move into a certified organic product, yet it’s very hard to make a certified organic product, because you need a certified organic commercial kitchen to do so, so it’s not as if you can go to your local firehouse and make it there,” she said.
Part of Fields Without Fences’ move to scaling back to just elderberry elixir “was not just so we could sell the product at the retail level, but so that we could expand that product and become a hub for elderberry production and begin supplying other farms in the area. What we were really doing was creating a value-added product that could coalesce, so we can service other producers as well as growing our own elderberries at our farm.”
Fields Without Fences offers 4 and 8 ounce bottles of elderberry juice with the USDA Certified Organic label attached to every bottle. So far, the product appears to be a success. Napolitano hopes to soon begin selling it and shipping it via the farm’s website as well.
Going forward, she said, “we are looking to continue the value-added elderberry elixir with our co-packer for retail markets. Now that my son is almost three, I have a bit more time on my hands and we’re looking to bring back some of our herbal teas. I will be going back to a commercial kitchen to produce these teas, and I won’t be wholesaling them.”
She advised: “The quickest way to alienate people is to put out a bad product. You really have only one chance; if somebody is trying your product for the first time that’s going to make or break it. So it really does pay to make the time to do product development to make sure that your recipes are good.”
Have a clear set of goals as well with your value-added product or line of products, she urged.
“Test them out thoroughly with friends, with people, before jumping in to that one product that you’re going to be selling to people.”

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