By Lorrie Baumann
Bradley Stroll’s childhood dreams for his future were born with the seeds he bought in his elementary school classrooms for a nickel a packet. He’d buy the seeds every year to start the summertime gardens those seeds were intended to encourage, and with his seeds in the ground, he’d dream that he’d grow up to be a farmer. Life didn’t turn out that way – at least, not at first.
Today, though, he’s up at 4:30 in the morning, every morning of the year, because that’s what it takes to be a successful organic farmer about 90 miles from Manhattan Island in New York. Stroll, his wife, Cathy, and an all-female crew of 11 employees now operate Fresh Meadow Farm, a 56-acre organic farm where they grow vegetables that Stroll sells to New York City gourmet chefs. They also make quiches, artisan pies and desserts and cheesecakes that appear on New York menus. When the growing season is over for the year, there’s equipment to be repaired and plenty of other maintenance to take care of as well as marketing trips to New York to find new customers for next year’s crops. “There’s always work to be done,” he says. “It’s just different work.”
Stroll got where he is today by way of a path that led him through a long career as a chef, including working as the banquet chef for New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Stroll then founded Food Gems, a specialty wholesale bakery that continues through this day, and that calls on the skills he practiced while he cooked and baked for a living from the time he and Cathy graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. When his kids had finished college, he and his wife were ready to add to his cooking life, and eight years ago, they decided to follow the dream he had growing up. “I love growing stuff,” he says. “I always grew stuff in my back yard.” He went looking for a piece of land he could farm.
The 56-acre parcel he found had been lying fallow for years, which meant that no chemicals had been applied to it for enough years to make it possible to obtain organic certification without the usual three-year transition time. “I bought a rundown farm and rebuilt it,” Stroll says. “We started from scratch.”
His most immediate challenge was finding his farming staff to get a crop started. “You have to nurture everyone who works for you,” he says.
Finding customers for those crops and the products they make from them came next. Stroll’s long career as a chef had already taught him that white-tablecloth chefs, accustomed to ordering their vegetables without thinking much about how they were grown or where they were coming from, weren’t always willing to accommodate the realities of New York’s growing season and its hiatus for winter. “Their delivery schedule isn’t your delivery schedule,” Stroll says. His new prospective customers also didn’t appreciate that Stroll’s vegetables had to cost more because the weeds and insects that attacked the plants had been kept under control through human labor rather than with applications of chemicals. “The reason organic costs more is not because it’s snooty,” Stroll says. “It’s because it’s expensive to grow. That’s what makes organic expensive – it’s all hand labor.”
Stroll had to visit those chefs in person to explain those realities to them face to face before he could win their business. “If it wasn’t hard, then everybody would be doing it,” he says. “There’d be no reward.”
After several years of selling to New York chefs, Stroll has the answers they need, which includes assurances that their previous produce suppliers would still be happy to have their business every winter – that if they bought local certified organic produce from him, they wouldn’t be burning the sources they’d still need to depend on when Stroll’s soil is frozen for the winter. Then in the summer, they’d have available an abundance of farm-fresh, locally grown organic produce with which to tantalize their guests’ taste buds. “When the tomatoes come due, it’s all your tomato specials then,” Stroll says. “Some guys are easy. They understand. Some don’t.”
Some of those chefs complain about the feast or famine nature of seasonal crops. Sometimes they ask why Stroll can’t sell them fresh vegetables outside their season, so that they could order eggplants from him in April and jalapenos in June, but that would mean bringing in vegetables from somewhere warmer during New York’s winter months. Stroll doesn’t do that. “If I don’t grow it at Fresh Meadow Farm, I don’t sell it to you,” he says. “Some take it very well. Others don’t.”
Americans are gobbling up more organic fruits and vegetables than ever before, from organic blueberries and organic apples to organic packaged greens and cut-up organic vegetables ready for their children’s lunch box or their family’s dinner plate.
Over half of all households in the United States now purchase organic produce. The sale of organic bananas alone – now a $165 million market – soared by more than 30 percent last year. Organic “value-added” vegetables (think chopped kale, peeled carrots and ready-to-cook squash) grew by a whopping 54 percent in 2015 to almost $150 million.
“The organic produce market is growing and strong, and it is driving trends in produce innovation across the board,” said Laura Batcha, Executive Director and CEO of the Organic Trade Association (OTA) on Thursday at the first-ever Organic Produce Summit, held in Monterey, California.
The inaugural sold-out event on July 13 and 14 attracted more than 500 attendees representing every facet of the organic produce industry, and included a trade show with more than 70 exhibits from leading organic fresh fruit and vegetable producers. The event showcased the booming $13 billion organic fresh produce marketplace with a series of educational sessions hosted by OTA, and featured key industry speakers and networking opportunities.
Digging deep into the produce aisle, Batcha gave a State of the Organic Produce presentation on Thursday, unveiling the findings of a report on the produce-buying habits of Americans compiled for the Organic Trade Association by Nielsen, the global information and measurement company.
According to the OTA 2016 Organic Industry Survey released in May, fresh organic produce sales in the U.S. reached $13 billion in 2015. (Total sales of organic fruits and vegetables, including fresh, frozen and canned, amounted to $14.4 billion.) The $13-billion market includes $5.7 billion worth of organic produce sold in the mass market (supermarkets, big-box stores, warehouse clubs), $4.7 billion sold by specialty and natural retailers, and $2.7 billion in direct sales (farmers’ markets, CSAs, online).
Nielsen measures organic sales primarily from the mass market, and puts organic produce sales at $5.5 billion. The Nielsen figures do not include specialty and natural retailers, nor direct sales. Further, Nielsen’s data reflect grocery coding systems, which are based on retailer description and in which organic can be under-represented.
The Nielsen figures, however, delve down to the specific types of organic vegetable or organic fruit sold, providing detailed information on the buying habits of consumers in the major category of supermarkets and big-box stores.
“We are excited to be sharing these numbers and findings on the rapidly growing organic produce sector,” said Batcha. “The more we know about the market and what consumers want, the better the organic produce grower, distributor and retailer can respond to meet the needs of today’s food buyer. Understanding the organic produce consumer will drive the future growth of the sector.”
Since 2011, the sales of produce in this country have increased over 25 percent. Convenience, a greater awareness of the health benefits of produce, and an increased interest in local food sources largely contributed to the increase. And driven by the desire to improve upon already healthy food choices, organic fruit sales have soared 123 percent during that time, while organic vegetable sales have jumped by 92 percent.
What’s big in the organic produce sector? A few standouts in the produce section:
The U.S. organic industry saw its largest dollar gain ever in 2015, adding $4.2 billion in sales. Total organic food sales in the U.S. were $39.7 billion, up 11 percent from the previous year. Organic produce sales accounted for 36 percent of the organic market. Almost 13 percent of all the produce sold in the United States now is organic.
The Nielsen findings showed that today’s organic produce shopper tends to be more kid-focused than the average produce shopper, and that the huge majority of these enthusiastic organic produce buyers – 77 percent – are going to their favorite grocery store or supermarket chain to buy their organic fruits and vegetables.
The findings bear important insights for retailers looking to draw more shoppers to the fresh produce section, as the booming demand for organic produce will spill over into purchases of conventional produce, said Batcha.
“Data show that the organic shopper is an extremely health-conscious consumer who is completely dedicated to eating fresh fruits and vegetables. Organic is a top choice because of the confidence in organic as THE choice to avoid foods grown with toxic and persistent pesticides,” said Batcha. “Because of this health-driven commitment retailers should not be afraid to differentiate organic produce on their store shelves. Shoppers recognize the USDA Organic seal and respond to positive messaging about what organic delivers, but at the end of the day they want to fill their carts with farm fresh foods — benefiting the entire produce section of the store.”
By Lorrie Baumann
La Pasta’s Radicchio, Parsnip & Apricot Ravioli has won the 2016 sofi Award for Best New Product. Radicchio is sauteed with a little bit of balsamic vinegar to bring out the sweetness of the vegetables and then folded into ricotta, parmesan and mozzarella cheese together with roasted parsnips and dried apricots. The filling is then enclosed in La Pasta’s signature pasta with black pepper pasta stripes.
“We got lucky. It happens,” said Alexis Konownitzine, President of La Pasta, “Our chef Kristen made the product and will be at the Fancy Food Show.”
La Pasta already had several sofi Awards for products including its Marinara Sauce and Beet, Butternut Squash & Goat Cheese Ravioli. This year’s winner was selected from among 23 finalists in the Best New Product category by the sofi judging panel of culinary experts in a blind tasting. Overall, 28 products were named winners and 100 named finalists from among 3,200 entries this year.
This year’s judging diverged from the methodology used for the past couple of years, in that the judging was completed before the Summer Fancy Food Show and winners were named at the same time as finalists. This process was designed to make the judging more fair and transparent, according to the Specialty Food Association, which owns the sofi Awards program. The products were judged by criteria that awarded 70 percent of the product’s score for taste, which included flavor, appearance, texture and aroma and 30 percent for ingredient quality, which included a consideration of whether any of the product’s ingredients were artificial and whether they were combined in a creative or unexpected way. One winner was chosen in each of the 28 judging categories, and the top 4 percent of the entries in each category were named finalists. No awards were presented this year in classic, foodservice or product line categories, which were part of last year’s contest.
Finalists for the Best New Product award included Dalmatia Sour Cherry Spread from Atalanta Corporation, Jansal Valley Boneless Prosciutto Toscano D.O.P. from Sid Wainer and Son Specialty Produce and Specialty Food, Organic Stoneground Flakes Cereal — Purple Corn from Back to the Roots and Sliced Prosciutto (Domestic) from Creminelli Fine Meats. “Prosciutto is everywhere in the U.S., but we do it differently, using whole-muscle Duroc pork that’s 100 percent vegetarian-fed with no antibiotics ever. We layer it in the tray by hand instead of by machine,” said Kyle Svete, Creminelli Fine Meats’ Director of Sales for National Accounts. “We invest in people, not machines. It’s part of who we are – people, animal, craft…. We have machines to help us do our job, but it’s really about the people. The recyclable tray and the elegant look of it elevates the product and the category.”
“We’re proud of it. We put the ingredients right on the front of the label,” he added. “That’s all there is to it – time, love, pork and sea salt.”
Chocolate-covered Cocomels – 5 Salts from JJ’s Sweets, Gourmet Honey Spread: Salted Honey from Cloister Honey LLC, Wild Boar Salted Star Anise Single Origin Organic Dark Chocolate Bar from Hagensborg Chocolate Ltd., Original Tangerine Sriracha from Just Jan’s Inc., Mr. Hot Stuff Pepper Spread from Steppin’ Out LLC, Clementine Crush Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Enzo Olive Oil Company/P-R Farms, Inc. and Deschutes Brewery® Black Butte Porter Truffle from Moonstruck Chocolate, Co. were also among the finalists for the Best New Product Award.
Other finalists were Pineapple Habanero Caramel from JulieAnn Caramels, Frozen Passion Chia Lassi from Monsieur Singh LLC, Chicken Fat (Schmaltz) Premium Cooking Oil from Fatworks LLC, Avocado Oil Mayo and Licorice Mint Tea from Chosen Foods, Inc., Chili Crunch Bar from Vivra Chocolate, Vegan Stone Ground Hazelnut Butter from Karmalize LLC, Raspberry Amaretto Preserves from Robert Rothschild Farm, Orange Artisan Fruit Cracker from Simple & Crisp, Gluten-Free Coffee Brownie from Savvy Girl Baking Company and Dark Moon from Marin French Cheese Company.
In the remaining categories, Brussizzle Sprouts from Pacific Pickle Works, Inc. was named the best appetizer. The Spice Hunter, Inc.‘s Coriander Lime Global Fusion Rub was named best baking ingredient, baking mix or flavor enhancer, Ginger Hemp Granola from Michele’s Granola LLC was the best in the category for breads, muffins, granola or cereal, and Vermont Creamery‘s Bijou was judged the best cheese. Vermont Creamery’s Bonne Bouche was a finalist for the award both this year and last year.
Money on Honey by Droga Chocolates won the sofi in the chocolate category, and Bittermilk LLC‘s No. 3 Smoked Honey Whiskey Sour won the award in the cold beverage category. Bittermilk was a sofi finalist last year with the same product. Non-GMO Salted Caramelized Fig Spread from King’s Cupboard was named the best condiment, and Sea Salt & Vanilla Farmstead Goat Milk Caramels from Big Picture Farm LLC received the award for the best confection. Big Picture Farm won sofi Awards last year for best new product with its Raspberry Rhubarb Goat Milk Caramels and for best confection with its Goat Milk Chai Caramels. Moon Dance Baking‘s Holly Baking Cookie Brittle Cinnamon & Spice was named in the category for cookies, brownies, cakes or pie.
Barnier Pimento Sauce with Preserved Lemon from FoodMatch Inc. was named best cooking, dipping or finishing sauce. Cranberry Pistachio “The Original” from Jan’s Farmhouse Crisps was named the best cracker. Epicurean Butter‘s Organic Cocoa Coconut Butter was named in the category for best dairy or dairy alternative product. “The reason this is something really new and innovative is that this is organic pasteurized cream, organic coconut oil, organic honey, organic canola oil, organic cocoa powder and Himalayan pink salt. It’s good on crepes, pancakes French toast. We actually just love it on a baguette,” said Janey Hubschman, who co-founded Epicurean Butter with her husband John, who’s the chef and still does all the formulations for the company’s products. “It’s got a lovely mouth feel with the butter and the coconut oil and then the finish of the salt.” The Organic Cocoa Coconut Butter is part of a product line that includes 13 finishing butters, of which two are organic. The company has just installed new equipment in its plant that allows Epicurean Butter to produce single-serve squeeze packs. Each of those has 190 calories for a 1-ounce serving, and Hubschman expects that the single-serve packaging will draw a lot of interest from the producers of home-delivered meal kits.
Bourbon Matured Maple Syrup from BLiS LLC was named the best dessert sauce, topping or syrup. Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate‘s Single Origin Drinking Chocolate 72% Belize, Toledo received the sofi Award for the best hot beverage. Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate was a finalist in the chocolate category last year with its 72% Madagascar, Sambirano bar. The Gelato Fiasco‘s Ripe Mango Sorbetto was named the best ice cream, gelato or frozen treat.
Cioccomiel, a spread made from hazelnuts, cocoa and honey, won the sofi Award for the best jam, preserve, honey or nut butter. It is imported by Marcelli Formaggi LLC.
Fermín Chorizo Ibérico Picante / Fermín Ibérico Pork Dry-Cured Chorizo Sausage Spicy from Fermin USA was named the best meat, pate or seafood.
Stöger Organic Austrian Pumpkin Seed Oil was named the best oil. It is imported by Los Chileros, which won a finalist award last year for the same product.
Gustiamo, Inc.‘s Pianogrillo Sicilian Cherry Tomato Sauce took home the sofi Award for the best pasta sauce, while the best pasta was Pastifico Artigianale Leonardo Carassai, made in Campofilone, Italy, and imported by Bravo International Inc.
Wozz! Kitchen Creations, which won the 2015 sofi Award for best salsa or dip with its Kiwi Lime Salsa Verde takes home the gold in the salad dressing category this year with North African Chermoula Dressing. This year’s award in the salsa or dip category went to American Spoon Foods’ Pumpkin Seed Salsa.
Hickory Smoked Spicy Candied Bacon from Little Red Dot Kitchen LLC won the sofi Award this year in the category for savory snacks. The best sweet snack came from Creative Snacks Co. with its Organic Coconut Bites.
Dinner Tonight Black Bean Tortilla Chili Mix from Backyard Safari Company won the award for best soup, stew, bean or chili. ParmCrisps Mini Aged Parmesan Crisps from Kitchen Table Bakers won the award for the best vegan or gluten-free product. Kitchen Table Bakers was a finalist last year for its Jalapeno Parmesan Crisps. Finally, this year’s best vinegar was Balsamic Nectar from Boulder Flavours.