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New canning company helps preserve Marin's farms

By Rob Rogers
Marin IJ

For decades, Marin's small farmers have helped fuel a demand among food-conscious consumers for fresh, local organic produce.

Yet that very demand has meant that — until now — Marin's farmers have largely been out of luck during the months when the fruits and vegetables they produce are out of season.

A new San Rafael business could change that. Community Action Marin FoodWorks, a small batch co-packing company, is helping Marin farmers turn their produce into jellies, jams, sauces and salsas, giving them a shelf life far beyond the growing season.

"The idea that I could have a value-added product to take to the farmers market — in the winter time — is fantastic," said Janet Brown, co-founder of Bolinas' All-Star Organics, who attended a tour of the San Rafael company Friday.

The company launched in June as a fundraiser for Community Action Marin, a nonprofit organization that provides child care, energy assistance, mental health care and senior programs for the county's low-income residents. Staff members realized that the agency's San Rafael kitchen — used to feed about 600 children each school day in the county's Head Start programs — was empty after 2 p.m. each day.

"There were a lot of possibilities for the kitchen. This was the most trouble-free," said Dick McKee, the agency's human needs manager.

The agency hired canning expert and recipe specialist Merrilee Olson, the founder
of PRESERVESonoma, a nonprofit canning group, to act as FoodWorks' director and self-described "kitchen queen."

"Nancy Skall produces the most incredible strawberries at (Healdsburg's) Middleton Farm, and I was horrified to learn that a lot of them end up on the compost heap, because she can't sell them all (in season)," said Olson, describing her initial interest in food preservation. "I came to her and said, 'Let me help you make jam.'"

Now, like Middleton Farm, Marin's farms, vineyards and ranches with too many tomatoes — or excess strawberries, or a surfeit of lemons — can bring the spoils of their land to Olson, who will devise a recipe to turn those wares into preserves, chutneys, pickles or marmalade, and then supervise the process of doing just that. Customers leave FoodWorks with cases of their jarred products, as well as the recipe Olson has created.

"That you have someone willing to do R&D for you is tremendous," said Brigitte Moran, who operates farmers markets in Marin as executive director of the Agricultural Institute of Marin. "The people we work with aren't researchers or recipe creators. They're farmers. This helps their business."

The process isn't cheap: it costs between $2 and $3.50 for each jar, with a minimum order of 25 cases. But the ability to sell wares out of season, and to provide local farmers with a market beyond the borders of Marin — or even the Bay Area — could lure many farmers to the company's door.

"The idea is that they start selling at the farmers market, and start growing their business to the point where grocers like Whole Foods become interested," Moran said. "Some of the farmers we used to work with now sell at Costco. That's the dream."

FoodWorks has already attracted several large growers, such as the McEvoy Ranch in northern Marin and Healdsburg's Preston Vineyards. Many small farmers may soon take advantage of its services, either on an individual basis or by combining resources with other producers.

"You could have a 'five-farm soup,' with the corn, beans and other ingredients coming from five different farms," Brown said. "It could bring all of us together."

If and when the company becomes profitable — and Olson believes it soon will be — its profits will go to support the efforts of Community Action Marin. In particular, staff members hope it will provide enough funding to pay for the 30 percent of its Head Start food program that is not subsidized by the federal government.

For Olson, the chance to turn fruit that might otherwise have rotted on the ground into apple butter and tomato salsa is one of the reasons she loves coming to work.

"I have the best job in the world," Olson said. "I help other people make their dreams come true."