Processing center produces new Piedmont businesses

Economic development was in the air, as Piedmont Food and Agriculture Processing Center was dedicated in October. After years of planning, the Orange County facility opened its doors, giving small food producers access to space and equipment they need to develop their small businesses.

The facility just outside of Hillsborough provides food producers with a place to begin and to grow. It will be shared by four counties – Orange, Durham, Chatham and Alamance. Throughout the planning process, N.C. Cooperative Extension centers from the four counties provided representatives on the steering committee. They are Carl Matyac, Orange County Extension director; Delphine Sellars, Durham County Extension director; Debbie Roos, Chatham County agriculture agent; and Roger Cobb, Alamance County Extension director.

The $1.4 million facility offers 10,400 square feet of food production equipment, refrigerated and frozen storage, as well as office work space for farmers and food entrepreneurs from across the Piedmont. Support for the project was provided by the N.C. Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund, the Tobacco Trust Fund Commission, the Golden LEAF Foundation, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Economic Initiative Program, the Rural Advancement Fund International-USA Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Program, the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Specialty Crop Program, and the N.C. Energy Office.

At the dedication, a number of small food producers were on hand to show off their products and tell their stories of how the facility known as PFAP has given their businesses a boost. Planners hope that connecting these food producers with local growers will increase markets for local farm products.

Fourth District Congressman David Price, on hand for the opening, pointed out that in his district, there are more farms today than there were 10 years ago. Direct-to-consumer foods sales have grown by 70 percent, Price said.

“Over the past decade, awareness of the food we eat has grown,” he said. He pointed to the district’s growth in farmers’ markets, community gardens and restaurants that buy food from local sources.

PFAP Manager Matthew Roybal said he gets two questions about the facility: What is PFAP? And what can you do? Roybal says PFAP offers equipment for developing a variety of food products. In addition, the facility supports businesses through consultation and training, product development services, kitchen training, storage and networking with other food entrepreneurs. And PFAP is looking for more clients to use its space.

For small food producers like Beth May – Tempeh Girl — having access to a kitchen and equipment for creating a product can mean the difference between succeeding and failing. At PFAP, May said she has access to everything she needs produce tempeh, a versatile fermented soy product used in many vegetarian dishes. She uses the wet kitchen, with a large boiler, freezer, refrigerator and storage space.

“This facility really has provided everything I need,” she said.

Before PFAP, May produced her tempeh in the kitchen of Chapel Hill restaurant The Pig, which still buys her tempeh. She sells to several local restaurants and is hoping to expand.

luna pops
Guests at the PFAP dedication line up to sample a variety of Luna Pops produced at PFAP by the Wilmington company.

Expansion was the theme of several businesses represented at the dedication. Luna Pops of Wilmington turned to PFAP after years of producing flavored popsicles in the 400-square-foot kitchen at one of its stores. The popsicles were a local success, and were even chosen “Best New Food for 2011” at the recent Expo East Product Show.

Luna Pops owner Dina Mills said her family’s business had wholesalers who wanted to buy four-packs of Luna Pops, but the estimated cost of $500,000 to develop a larger kitchen was too a high for a small business.

The Mills heard about “incubator kitchens” like PFAP from other food businesses, and approached PFAP about space. “Without this facility, we would have had to delay our expansion again,” Mills said.

Jack Tapp of Chapel Hill told another story of success – expanding one business into two. Tapp began beekeeping in 1986 as a hobby and got so good at it, that he started providing hives to pollinate North Carolina crops through the business, Busy Bee. His challenge was finding a market for all the honey that his bees produced.

Tapp’s son and daughter-in-law found a market for creamed, flavored honey and developed a spinoff business, Vintage Bee. The flavored honey is popular, but the business had outgrown its processing facility. By using PFAP, the company will save approximately $200,000 over the next six to eight months, Tapp said.

Vintage Bee plans to outgrow PFAP and develop its own kitchen, so their space at PFAP can be turned over to another entrepreneurial business. And the two businesses have already made a difference in their community.

“From a hobby, developed a business that will earn seven figures this year and provide jobs in Orange County,” Jack Tapp said.

Several other producers at the facility were just starting out, but had found PFAP to be a great partner for a new business. Fran Ferrell of the Village Baker had tried sharing a kitchen with another business, but the arrangement didn’t work. Now, she is baking specialty crackers and pastries at PFAP, which she sells to coffee shops. With some packaging, she hopes to move to retail outlets.

Another entrepreneur is using her grandmother’s recipe for pralines to create confectionary treats she calls, “Lorelines” after her grandmother, Lorelei. The dedication was her very first unveiling of her product.

Even established businesses were making connections with PFAP. Farmer John Vollmer, whose popular Vollmer Farm in Bunn includes agritourism attractions and a pick-your-own strawberry operation, is exploring the idea of using PFAP to make strawberry juice. When pasteurized, the product loses its fresh strawberry flavor, so Vollmer is considering PFAP’s ultraviolet treatment system as an alternative.

Many local officials and producers were on hand for the dedication, marked by a sweet potato cutting rather than a ribbon cutting by Congressman Price. Afterward, the food entrepreneurs dashed off to set out their product samples while elected officials, supporters and producers strolled through the new facility.

(Becky Kirkland photos)
-Natalie Hampton

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