A worker pushes a cart through plastic sheeting at the Northwest Ohio Cooperative Kitchen, releasing the fresh smell of cilantro and other herbs into the cool outdoors. The scent is intoxicating and inviting, pulling visitors into the Bowling Green facility where others are busy making up batches of Willy’s Famous Salsa.
The company’s owner, Dennis Dickey, got the recipe dozens of years ago from a friend in Mexico, and when he moved to northwest Ohio, he decided the rave reviews from friends were strong enough to mass market the southwestern style product. He figured a few thousand dollars would be enough seed money to start the business but was surprised to learn how much more was involved when he attended an educational workshop hosted by the Center for Innovative Food Technology (CIFT). The center has provided technical innovations and solutions to the food processing, agribusiness and agricultural sectors since 1995.
“If it weren’t for CIFT, I wouldn’t have been able to start my business,” said Dickey, who now sells his salsa in six states at both large grocery chains and specialty retailers.
Today Willy’s Famous Salsa is one of the anchor tenants at the cooperative kitchen, which over the past 10 years has helped more than 265 businesses. The kitchen is just one component of CIFT, which works with food processors, food equipment manufacturers and suppliers, university researchers and government agencies to improve the state’s agribusiness climate. More than 30 businesses are members of CIFT, including Kroger, J.M. Smucker Co., Holmes Cheese Co., Hirzel Canning Co., Rockwell Automation and Ohio State University.
The kitchen facility is located on a 140-acre site where various groups lease plots of land for research. The property also houses greenhouses, Ohio State University’s Ohio Center for Aquaculture Development and a native landscaping company. CIFT is using part of the land for research on vertical gardens, growing grapes that have never been found before in Ohio and hoop houses, which are growing structures made of galvanized steel arches and covered with polyethylene plastic that have no permanent foundation. The hoop houses provide an economical way to increase profits and use less land and energy than traditional greenhouse structures.
On a plot of land next to the main office building are several rows of the vertical gardens, which consist of poles of stacked Styrofoam pots and are filled with fruits or vegetables. An automatic watering system keeps the plants hydrated. The low-maintenance system was designed to be used in urban settings with little space and has been used in 35 areas throughout Toledo, including at the Lucas County Health Department, senior citizen centers and hospitals.
“They were strategically placed near schools, hospitals, community centers and food banks to encourage consumption of more fresh produce,” said Rebecca Singer, vice president and director of agricultural programs at CIFT. The vertical growing system is ideal for growing green beans, lettuce, peppers and other vegetables that are not root crops. At the research center in Bowling Green, CIFT is using its research plot to create guidelines on when fruits and vegetables can be planted in the Styrofoam pots and how much each pot produces.
Fresh produce year-round
Two years ago, CIFT and Bon Appetit Management Co. started working together on a project that allowed Bon Appetit chefs at Oberlin College and Case Western Reserve University to buy more local produce. Because Bon Appetit focuses on serving just-harvested produce, the two university restaurants wanted to use micro-processing to preserve the fresh taste in the off season.
With no infrastructure in place for flash freezing on a large scale, CIFT added a state-of-the-art freezer and developed a blanching/freezing process at its kitchen. The temperature in the cryogenic freezer can drop to 50 degrees below zero in a very short time. In the 2011 growing season, CIFT processed more than 25,000 pounds of produce for Bon Appetit. Several more restaurants are expected to be added to the program, creating more business opportunities for local farmers.
On this particular day, workers are busy in the freezer section, chopping up cabbage and then blanching and freezing it before it is sent to a food bank. The cabbage came from a nearby farmer who grew more than he needed for the season. CIFT is experimenting with how well chunks of the cabbage freeze for use in stews. In the past, frozen shredded cabbage didn’t work very well for food pantry cooks, Singer said.
“This is a nice opportunity for the farmer to get a tax benefit and his fields cleaned up,” she said. “By using our blanching and freezing process, we’re able to make better use of fresh, extra produce and benefit the local food bank.”
Amy Beth Graves is a freelance writer from Upper Arlington.