September 12, 2018

Why an organic dairy jumped to packaged Brussels sprouts

How are you keep them down on the dairy farm when Brussels sprouts are wagging a compelling finger?

A longtime Wisconsin dairy farm is going all in on a new certified organic fresh packaged vegetable product – the first in a long time for the co-op it belongs to, Organic Valley. The four-generation Langmeier Dairy in Prairie du Chien is building a new washing and packing facility to produce retail packages and 10-pound bulk bags of Brussels sprouts that will be branded and marketed under the Organic Valley label.

“This is really our first foray into packaged items,” said Organic Valley produce program manager Annake Ramsey. “Most of our produce items have some sort of sticker … with a UPC on it. But as far as an item in a package, this is our biggest launch as far as produce here in western Wisconsin.”

Packaging matters 

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The Langmeier family and Organic Valley worked with Elizabeth Marston of Windham Packaging in New Hampshire to come up with breathable packaging that would provide maximum shelf life for both the retail pouches and bulk bags in boxes.

“Dr. Marston works with different suppliers, and our supplier referred us to her,” Ramsey said. “Dr. Marston developed this kind of packaging we will be using … so we have access to her expertise as we develop our new product, which has been very helpful.”

Marston and her colleagues have been working with controlled atmosphere packaging for Brussels sprouts for the last six years, in both the conventional and organic spaces.

“Every time we work with a potential customer, we end up determining what weights are going to be in the bag – what kind of temperature regime they’re going to see, and based on that, we develop a packaging to help them extend the shelf life of their product with that kind of temperature abuse,” Marston said.

As she explains it, the packages her company is providing for organic companies aim to maintain oxygen levels specific for the produce being packaged. For whole Brussels sprouts, that means an oxygen level of around 3 to 4 percent and carbon dioxide at 12 to 15 percent inside a bag made of breathable film.

“Our goal is to modify the atmosphere inside the bag so we have reduced oxygen content and somewhat elevate CO2, but we don’t want the bags to go anaerobic,” Marston said. “We want a certain amount of aerobic respiration going on inside the bag.

“These bags are designed to extend the shelf life of the product over what would be the case if you didn’t have a breathable bag.”

With Brussels sprouts in particular, the cut/butt ends tend to blacken if there is too much oxygen inside the bag, and the product can start to smell if the bag’s oxygen level is too low.

“It’s a cruciferous vegetable like broccoli, so you can get off odors if you are not careful,” Marston said.

The pillow-pack bags are single layer – not laminate – for recyclability. Printing is done on the surface, and these bags include a photo and information about the farm on the back.

“If it was laminate, we could laminate the printing between the two layers,” Marston said. “But with this film, since we’re interested in recyclability, we’re doing a surface print.”

Organic Valley considered other packaging options but felt its customers would prefer recyclable bags.

“We wanted to compare, especially, the pros and cons,” Ramsey said. “We considered going mesh, for example, but … for our customer base, it’s important we have a recyclable option, and we weren’t finding great options out there for a mesh that was recyclable.”

And the prospect of being able to extend the shelf life up to 21 days was hard to pass up. Combined with harvesting, washing and packing on the same day, Ramsey expects the product will achieve optimum shelf life, though Organic Valley will conduct its own shelf life tests once production is up and running.

“Your production practices are the other key to having the product stay fresh on the shelf longer,” Ramsey said. “Since we have the packaging facility there on the farm, we’re able to harvest and package on the same day and ship on the same day – as opposed to purchasing in Mexico and shipping to a distribution center and processing days later.”

Nationwide distribution 

Organic Valley distributes nationwide to what Ramsey describes as mainstream grocery stores and distributors and those in the “natural channel,” or food co-ops and others offering organic foods.

“One of the reasons we were excited to get into packaged Brussels sprouts and excited about this particular technology is our customers report to us that they’re not currently carrying any kind of packaged Brussels sprouts, and organic,” Ramsey said. “What’s important especially for a retailer mainstream chain is that organic produce be in a package with a UPC so the checkout can easily scan and distinguish it from conventional produce at the register.

“We have about equal distribution of customers interested in the 12- to 16-ounce retail packages and the 10-pound bag in a box.”

The product is set to launch Sept. 1 and ship nationally.

Back on the farm 

The Langmeiers are excited about the venture – and have been since they traveled to the Netherlands to research postharvest handling and equipment. They’ve got 50 acres of Brussels sprouts planted, and are poised to expand production if demand warrants.

It’s a big investment, said part-owner Joe Langmeier.

“If you make a mistake, you lose the farm,” he said, only partly joking.

But with Brussels sprouts gaining in popularity beyond the traditional holiday season demand in the U.S., he’s optimistic and notes the family may venture into other fresh bagged produce like berries in the future. Organic Valley is also interested in growing the program.

Meanwhile, along with the new venture, the Langmeiers are still running a grass-based dairy farm and operating under t he La ngmeier Dairy name.

“We left it that way because it’s too much paperwork to do (to change the name),” Langmeier said. “Maybe in the future, we’ll change it over.”