by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Value-added items can boost the bottom line of your farm’s store or your booth at the farmers market. It’s never been a better time to make value-added items. Many more Americans have become discerning consumers about their food choices. They want to know their food’s source. They also may prefer to buy food made nearby to support the local economy and to reduce waste. There’s also the “artisan” factor. Foods made with freshly-harvested ingredients, unique recipes and packaged in unusual containers provide great appeal.

Here’s how you can put value-added foods into your line-up.

Consider what your farm produces. That’s how many operators begin making value-added items, especially for surplus items that don’t keep well.

“I always counsel folks to work from their strengths,” said Barb Neal, agriculture and horticulture educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Tioga County, NY. “Go with what you grow, but add to it – like blueberry syrup if you grow blueberries.”

For some producers like Mary Louise Carpenter at Violet Hill Farm in West Winfield, NY, ideas for value-added items sprang from both what they raise and necessity.

“I have a ton of allergies and incredibly sensitive skin,” Carpenter said. Her middle daughter also struggled with skin conditions, such as eczema. Carpenter researched what would help and created a soap and tincture that used items foraged from the farm to help her address the problem naturally.

“Products are created and developed to use as much product as I can grow unsprayed or foraged wild, ethically,” Carpenter said.

Producers need to make sure they’ll have enough of the raw materials to make sufficient supplies of the value-added items. It may surprise a producer how fast they’ll use them up.

“Think about what your capacity is,” said Julianne LaClair, grant specialist senior with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. “You need to make sure you’ll have enough to meet the market demand.”

Speaking of market demand, make sure that the proposed value-added product has one.

“You may have a lot of maple syrup, but if you can’t sell the maple candy, that may be a problem,” LaClair said. “Work with a small business association or economic development person in the area to determine what the need is.”

For many operators, listening to customer demand or soliciting customer input can help determine salable produce as well. Don’t assume that a “standard” value-added product is the only way to go. Carpenter grew her line beyond the expected soap and lotion to include tinctures and other products.

In addition to grabbing consumers’ attention, slightly offbeat products are more difficult to compare on price to tried-and-true mass-produced items. While some buyers disregard price when shopping locally made goods, some are more price-conscious. Tap into trends, such as natural foods/products, low carbohydrate goods and renewables. These are strong selling points for your goods.

Develop your recipe. For many producers, it’s a matter of finding a basic recipe and tweaking it; however, safety is first.

“If you’re making canned goods and you tinker too much with an established recipe, you could have problems with safety,” Neal said.

Some producers say that no one in their family ever became sick from Great-Grandma’s recipe; however, “maybe you were all just lucky,” Neal said. “Even though it’s a family recipe, have someone knowledgeable about food safety test it.”

She advises checking with a local college’s extension office to ensure all the regulations for a recipe are being followed.

Tapping into trends applies to packaging as well. More consumers want glass and paper instead of plastic. Some farms must offer some plastic packaging to stay within their price point, especially for high-end items like maple syrup.

“Know what your market is,” Neal reiterated. “If you sell at a market where it’s all local people, be cost-conscious. If there are a lot of tourists coming through who want a fancy package, go for glass.”

Adornments such as a twine or ribbon, a craft paper tag or a tiny bunch of dried lavender make it a little more special.

Carpenter uses her beauty industry experience to develop packaging ideas that will appeal to potential customers. She tries to balance form and function, since her market in New York City is more discriminating than locals might be – plus, since the Big Apple is several hours’ drive away, she needs a durable package.

“I use a lot of glass for the strength and visual effect,” she said. “It needs to work for me to feel good selling it, but the reality is that pretty and eye-catching sell first. The quality of the product inside is what sells it every time after.”

Add a good-looking label or tag with your logo on it. Make sure varieties of a product are easily distinguishable. For example, stay with the same logo, but make the mild salsa label white, the medium salsa green and the hot salsa red. That way, regulars can more easily grab the jar they want instead of reading the labels. That’s especially important if there are many varieties in similar containers.

Liven up your labels. Beyond the product name, ingredients, farm contact information and any required information, add some jokes, funny photos or quirky trivia on the farm or its products if your farm’s culture is offbeat and fun. If your farm image orients towards heritage, tradition and other more serious themes, elaborate on your farm more and share biographical information about its founders or managers. Include a recipe or QR code to link customers to recipes or coupons for other items.

Starting a value-added line of products incurs some start-up expenses. Start small and expand as consumer interest drives, or consider getting a small loan or grant.

“Many think they won’t be eligible,” LaClair said. “They think they’re competing against big businesses and it’s not worth it. Reach out for these opportunities.”