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A Berry Good Idea?

December 13, 2010 8 comments

Figures. A day after I complain about not being interested in the #reverb10 prompts, the one for Monday morning is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last year, and especially the last two months.

December 13 – Action When it comes to aspirations, it’s not about ideas. It’s about making ideas happen. What’s your next step?

There’s some background I have to cover before I get to the idea. My wife, Jenne, is unemployed. Well, right now she’s working a seasonal job doing data input. She had this same job last year for a little over a  month, this year they hired her back in October. But it’s going to come to an end before Christmas. She hasn’t had a full time job in a few years, and it’s got to the point now that she’ll send out resume after resume, and not even get a ‘thanks but no thanks’ letter. The black hole, she calls it. If we want her to be employed full time and not sitting around the house going stir crazy 10 months out of the year, we have to start a business ourselves.

She tried the craft fair circuit in Des Moines a few years ago with fabric crafts. That didn’t work out. However, I noticed that the people who always had good sales, and lots of them, were people selling things you could eat or smell. Soaps, baked goods, jelly and jam. Jenne’s been doing a lot of home jam making the past couple of years. Our ‘root cellar’ room in the basement has three shelves covered with different jams, jellies, conserves, and apple sauce.

So that’s idea #1. Commercially produce small-batch jam, and sell it at farmer’s markets and craft fairs. Lots and lots of them in the Chicago area, definitely a better market than Des Moines, and a more interesting product, as well. I remember the lines around the building to sample Clear Creek Orchard’s jams at the Iowa State Fair, I’m sure we could move product.

The biggest hurdle to this idea is food safety. I have a lot of research to do to figure out exactly what regulations and testing we need to comply with. The biggest one is that we need a certified commercial kitchen to prepare the jam in. Not exactly sure where I would go to rent one of those. There are some ‘kitchen incubators’ in Chicago and close-in suburbs that rent kitchen space by the hour to small entrepreneurs, but that’s a good 1.5-2 hours away from us. I’m going to be researching this in the coming months, and we’ll get Jenne in a class to get her foodservice sanitation certificate.

Separate but closely related is idea #2. To me, it’s the more exciting one, but certainly the much more challenging one. Let’s grow some of this fruit we want to process ourselves! My family’s home farm is in a rapidly urbanizing (okay, honestly, it’s already urbanized) part of northeast Illinois. It sits on a major state road only a few miles from I-94, and the amount of vehicle traffic the road has these days is staggering. You could not ask for a better location to do value-added agriculture.

My initial plan would be to start with a small planting of raspberries, perhaps an acre’s worth. This is something that I could manage myself part-time, with drafting some help in during harvest season. Taking this idea to the perhaps logical conclusion would include more raspberries, strawberries, rolling in and expanding my mother’s small sweet corn business, a you-pick operation, and a nice building to contain Jenne’s commercial kitchen, storage, and a small retail store front.

This is the pie-in-the-sky idea. The biggest hurdle, and probably the one that is near-impossible to overcome is family (the second being money, but if I can’t overcome the first hurdle, no need worrying about the second). I don’t have any say into the running of the home farm. If it was just my parents, I think we could work something out. But there’s an uncle and an aunt on the farm as well, and another aunt off the farm. When my grandmother passes it’s fairly likely there won’t be a farm anymore…which is another blog entry entirely.

So how am I moving these ideas forward for 2011? As I mentioned earlier, have Jenne get her sanitary certificate. That’s a useful bit of knowledge to have, anyway. Start to research food safety regs for canning. Call around, and see if I can finagle a tour of some of the other small-batch jam makers to see what equipment and processes they use. Find a commercial kitchen we can rent. We could realistically get this idea going by the end of the summer and be selling product before Christmas 2011.

For idea #2, well…Jenne and I have decided to go to the Wisconsin Small Fruit and Vegetable conference in January. It’s closer than the Illinois version that is in Springfield. Again, more knowledge can’t hurt, and I can get some ideas on just how much work I’d be biting off in moving this idea forward. Beyond that, I’m not sure. Have some more difficult conversations with my parents, I suppose. I brought the topic up with my mother, recently, which is good since she will probably see this blog (hi mom!).

So, anyone want to buy some jam?