Company launches effort to attack food waste problem
Problem: A downturn in the economy helps shine a light on the need for diversification.
Problem: Too much fresh produce gets left to rot in the fields where it’s grown.
Solution: For The Woerner Companies, based in Alabama and operating farms there and in Florida, Louisiana, Colorado and Hawaii, start a fruit and vegetable drying processing arm. Woerner also operates five landscape stores as well as other companies.
The company expected to open its new 40,000-square-foot Bon Secour Valley Ingredients plant in Foley, Alabama, in December. It’s been a major undertaking that will continue to evolve as the plant gets up and running, but they couldn’t be more excited about the possibilities as well as the strength they believe the facility brings to their overall operations.
Adding value – and stability
As CEO/President George Woerner tells it, the company concluded after the economic downturn of some eight years ago that they needed to find a way to create a value-added product they could process or market directly.
“Our experiences over the years (were that) the prices of fresh market were up and down, and we knew about a third of our product was never making it to market because … of a glut or too much production. Then it gets very particular on everything you grow – every kind of blemish (means a lot gets rejected and left in the field),” he said. “We decided we wanted to put in a plant to begin processing.”
Six years ago, Woerner began learning how to extract and dehydrate the pulp from sugar beets.
“I picked out some of the equipment I wanted to narrow in on, and through getting engineers involved, they really made it all compatible,” he said.
Woerner also experimented with chicory to see if it would grow in south Alabama for use in the coffee market. He worked with one consultant who had a background in pet food and told him there’s big demand for vegetables in that segment. With that, Woerner researched pet food as a niche, discovering that the industry is moving toward FDA human-grade ingredients and that various slices and dices of dried produce are being used in pet treats.
“Then I started looking into that (human-grade) market and it began to take on a life of its own,” he said. “We decided we were going to narrow in on what crops are in overabundance and where there’s a waste factor, and saw that there’s a stream of produce all over the Southeast that is being discarded.”
Woerner farms have long grown sweet potatoes, so they focused on that crop as one of their products. Contacting other growers, they also found there would be a steady supply of off-grade sweet potatoes for their dehydrating facility.
“While one of our people in our company was evaluating the supply, I was evaluating the marketplace,” Woerner said.
Bon Secour hired Mike Murphy as general manager in 2015. With a background as a food broker and fresh-cut manufacturing manager, and having owned and worked in distribution companies, he didn’t know a lot about the dehydration business when he started. However, he said, “I thought it was a good opportunity since you could basically take produce that didn’t make it … to retail and foodservice, and you could recover that and add value to it.”
“And we could do it in a platform that it’s shelf stable for 18 to 20 months and the storage is not refrigerated, the shipping is not refrigerated on it,” he said. “You can ship several loads of dehydrated product for what you can ship one load of fresh product. So there are a lot of economies.”
Murphy, collaborating with leadership in the city of Foley, helped the Woerners see the value in expanding the operation they envisioned from a $500,000 facility to a $10 million plant. It became a joint venture with the city, which provided infrastructure support and from whom they’ll rent the building in the initial years, said Christina Woerner McInnis in marketing and sales at Bon Secour Valley.
“I don’t think we are that smart we could have figured it out in the beginning, but after six years, we kept digging in and it just began to evolve,” Woerner said. “We’re just extremely fortunate to be where we are today.”
Making the most of crops
And where they are today is setting up a process to bring in raw product – produce that doesn’t meet standards for other distribution channels, and what’s left after other demand is met – and dehydrating it per customers’ needs.
Murphy said company representatives have been in the marketplace for nearly a year, contacting prospective customers.
“We will be selling food ingredients to other food manufacturers,” Murphy said. “Sweet potatoes will be our number one product. Carrots will probably be our number two product.”
Woerner grows chicory, and that will probably be next in line. Murphy said substituting chicory flour for some regular flower in baking makes for a healthier product. Chicory root contains inulin, said to provide multiple health benefits.
“Dehydrated chicory has the highest inulin content,” Murphy said. “It’s really good for the gut.”
They’ll also be dehydrating kale – all of the commodities sourced from their own farms, as well as others as needed and product is available.
“We have a carrot producer over in Georgia that processes carrots and is dumping over 150,000 pounds a day, a part of the carrot, which we can use to produce powders,” Murphy said. “We see recovering these types of things and adding value to them as a way we can go to market and make money for our company.”
Kale isn’t in oversupply right now, so McInnis said they’re having it grown for them.
“It kind of goes both ways,” she said. “Sometimes we have to request a whole crop to be grown and other times we have crops that are just getting wasted, and we’ll go capture that.”
The new Bon Secour Valley plant operates with two types of dryers: a tray dryer that will be used for specialty cuts like disks or french fry slices; and an internal rotary drum dryer for dehydrating in bulk volume for small particulates and specific powder sizes, which can be used in baby foods, cereals, smoothie mixes and other recipes.
“What we can offer them is a sweet potato powder or kale powder or carrot powder that they can reconstitute and have a lot less handling problems than (when) they are trying to deal with a fresh product,” Murphy said. “We can give them a very clean label – our label for sweet potatoes will be one ingredient: sweet potatoes.”
While they will be producing product in bulk, a co-packing operation that activates in March will make it possible for Bon Secour to produce product for customers who want it in small packages.
“We can do the powder in 50-pound bags, 40-pound bags, or we can put it in totes on pallets,” Woerner said. “In March when we do the copack line, we will be able to do half-pound, pound, two-pound (packages) in the same facility.”
Going into processing might not be right for all farms. But Woerner said it holds potential for those that do.
“There’s an opportunity to turn a waste stream into a higher-value product that could (turn out to) be even more high value than your number one product,” he said. “Everywhere I go and talk fruits and vegetables, every one of them has a huge waste stream that is being lost.”
It’s all a new frontier for a family farming operation with a more than 100-year-old legacy. But Woerner and his family and employees are ready.
“It’s a radical change,” Woerner said. “But it’s still in agriculture – what we know.”
— Kathy Gibbons, contributing writer