Food Processing in Tompkins County
by Persephone Doliner
What Is Processed Food?
To process food is to make parts of plants and animals more edible than they would be in their unprocessed state. Manufactured products containing lots of chemicals and sweeteners, a class of processed foods, have given all processed foods a bad name. Other, more basic foods are also processed: all food made of grain; milk, butter, cheese, and meats; plant-based meat substitutes (tofu, seitan, etc.); dried and canned fruit and vegetables; all fermented foods; oils, syrups, even honey. Although all cooking is food processing too, in this article, food processing refers to the many other ways of transforming plants and animals into human food: (1) techniques that get food ready to be cooked (e.g., cleaning and hulling grain, butchering animals), and (2) techniques that preserve food, retarding spoilage for periods ranging from a few weeks to many years (e.g., making cheese, canning).
Who Needs Processed Food?
Most of us. Your diet probably has a large processed component. Diet variety depends on eating some processed foods. Otherwise food choices would be limited to what could be raised, hunted, or foraged and eaten as is. In a sense, processed food is civilized food.
If you live in Tompkins County, eating locally raised foods year round requires eating stored or preserved foods, since the local growing season ends with the cold weather. And of course the universal need to eat processed foods such as grains and dairy products applies in Tompkins. Overall, processed foods are an important part of the local food supply.
Technique and Scale
A few words about two key dimensions of food processing are in order, before discussion of its role in Tompkins under energy descent conditions. The two key dimensions are technique and scale, both of which take many different forms when people process food.
Here is a list of 21 generic, common techniques used to process food: baking, brewing, butchering, cleaning, confit, culturing, curing, drying, fermenting, freezing, grinding, heating, hulling, milling, pressing, pickling, refining, salting, smoking, sterilizing, sugaring, vacuum packing. In general, each of these food processing techniques is used for more than one type of food. The equipment needed to carry out a technique is usually specific to a food type, however. For instance, fruit and seeds are both pressed to extract juice or oil, but the equipment needed is not interchangeable. Grain for beer and cucumbers for pickles are both fermented, but the procedures and set-ups used in the two cases are quite different.
Like technique, the scale at which food processing can be done also varies widely. The same technique can be applied in a home kitchen, a small commercial facility, or a huge factory. The procedures used at these three different levels may not be the same, and the equipment certainly won’t be the same at the different scales. The machines that process our current commercial food supply differ in design from those used in a small-scale operation, and those in turn differ from the tools you might use in your kitchen. For example, in large-scale commercial flour production, grain is crushed under rollers; in small-scale commercial production, it is ground in mills using large stones; at home you can use a machine about the size of an automatic coffee maker that grinds using metal or little stones.
A few modern techniques are strictly industrial processes (e.g., aseptic packaging, which relies on heating to very high temperatures and complex packaging). All types of food can, however, be processed and preserved in some way at all of the different scales. All foods can be processed in a home kitchen as effectively as they can be processed in a small or large factory.
Processed Food Supply under Energy Descent
Most of the processed food that Tompkins County currently consumes comes from elsewhere. There is little commercial food processing in the county. There are no large factories processing food, and only a few small operations. At the other end of the scale, home food processing appears to have recently gained in popularity, yet most households in the county don’t do any.
Large-scale commercial food processing is highly centralized. For instance, over 90 percent of the canned tomato products consumed in the U.S. come from California. Centralized food processing depends on agriculture conducted on a very large scale as the source of the food to be processed, on industrial production and storage, and on nationwide distribution, largely via trucking. If energy descent deprives this food processing system of the sources and practices it relies on, it may become less productive or even fail. Products will become scarcer and more expensive and may vanish. Tompkins County will have unmet processed food needs, and a need to supply itself with more of the processed food it consumes .
What would a working local food processing system look like? Under conditions of energy descent, could small-scale operations supply enough processed food to feed TC? Many unknowables (how much food can be grown, how many people need to be fed, how many people are available to work, what equipment can be maintained, how it can be powered, and what shape is society in) come into play; answers are not within grasp here. Even if the answer to the overarching question posed above (Could Tompkins adequately supply itself with processed foods?) is ultimately no, food processed locally will increase the county’s food supply under energy descent. More is better.
Given future uncertainty, the rest of this article mostly concerns the effects of conditions as they exist today on local food processing. What local conditions promote growth? What conditions retard it?
What Processed Foods Are Needed Most?
The county would need to grow more food and different food than it does now if it were trying to supply itself with processed foods. Most of the human food produced here is fruit and vegetables that are eaten fresh and unprocessed. Some grain, beans, and meat are raised in the county, and contiguous counties produce substantially more. Yet flour, cleaned grains, pasta, packaged baked goods, milk, cheese, meats, plant-based meat substitutes, and fats and oils all mostly come from outside the county and the wider local area. These processed foods are the staples of most diets; without them, people are hungry. If county residents seek to supply themselves with processed food, they need to produce these kinds of food. Processed fruits and vegetables are important but not vital, as they can be replaced by stored raw fruits and vegetables. If local food processing is to fill gaps left by the withdrawal of out-of-area food, its focus must be on processing grain, beans, nuts, seeds, meat, and dairy to produce staples.
Can Tompkins sustainably grow enough food to supply itself with foods to process? Another big question, again beyond the scope of this article. One aspect of the issue that can be discussed a little here is the relationship between production and processing.
The Chicken/Egg Conundrum for Growing and Processing
Growth in local food production and growth in food processing should go hand in hand, each promoting the other. A home jam maker wants to make strawberry jam for himself and his friends; he spends $30 on berries at a local U-pick, supporting their business. An artisanal (i.e., small-scale commercial) jam maker needs fruit; she buys the output of a half-acre each of blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries, supporting local agriculture on a larger scale. The big glitch in this picture of simple mutual reinforcement between production and processing is the chicken/egg problem: Which comes first? Dedicating farm resources to a particular crop for a processor is a major decision for a farmer. And, like a farm, starting and maintaining a commercial food processing operation takes heaps of money, knowledge, time, skill, siting, and equipment. Who is going to invest in, say, a commercial oil press to make sunflower seed oil if the supply of sunflowers is not at hand? But who is going to grow sunflowers in the amounts needed to supply an oil producer if the press isn’t up and running and begging for seeds?
Processing food at home does not suffer much from the chicken/egg problem. It’s not too hard to get started; techniques for preserving fruit and some vegetables at home are easy to learn and do not require specialized tools. Other vegetable and fruit methods a household can use, and techniques for processing grain, nuts and seeds, dairy products, and meats call for special equipment and more advanced skills — but nothing on the level of a professional investment in learning, plant, and equipment. In parallel, the potential contribution of home food processing to boosting the demand for locally farmed foods is also far smaller than the contribution that a commercial enterprise might make. But widespread home food processing in the county would still increase demand for locally raised food, perhaps significantly.
The producer-processor relationship is more complex for the staple foods than for fruits and vegetables. Generally speaking, this is because the staple foods need to undergo multiple types of processing before they can be eaten. Stalks of grain-bearing plants like wheat, oats, and barley do not go directly from field to oven, for instance. They need to be threshed, cleaned, hulled, and milled. Without facilities in place to handle these steps, grain isn’t usable. So neither consumers nor small-scale commercial processors can buy directly from farmers.
The Cost of Doing Business
As noted above, setting up commercial food processing operations takes money, knowledge, skill, and equipment. The last three elements are technique-specific; a miller doesn’t need the same knowledge as a butcher, or the same tools. Deciding what methods and machines to use in commercial processing is not straightforward even once a potential processor is well-informed and funded. Say you want to clean and hull grain commercially. You have about a dozen different grain cleaners to choose from. You have a range of choices in hullers too; a small impact huller will cost you about $15,000; the next step up in size and efficiency, about $23,000.
Food processing needs specialized, well-equipped facilities, too, and these need to be licensed. (Licensing is discussed more below.)
Storage of foods to be processed and of finished products also takes substantial resources: clean, dedicated, appropriately designed space; temperature control; and insect and rodent control are some needs. Other elements of a commercial food business are distribution and marketing; even at a small scale of commercial food processing, some staff needs to work exclusively on these.
Fossil Fuel Dependence
As with industrial scale food processing, everything that goes into small-scale commercial food processing as it is practiced today — agriculture, tools, equipment, facilities, and production, storage, and distribution — uses fossil fuels. Scarcer energy may make the methods and machines that are best to use now unusable in the future. At the very least, planning for such a transition is yet another consideration for a new food processing enterprise.
Legal Considerations for Commercial Food Processing
Laws governing food processing are numerous; they are (appropriately) different for different foods; and they exist at various levels of government (e.g., county, federal). No processed food product can be legally sold to the public without government licensing of (at least) the place and methods of production. The facility license and the product license are separate, and each is managed by different authorities. Generally speaking, in Tompkins the county regulates facilities, and the state regulates products. If you wanted to produce tomato sauce to sell, for example, you would need to go to the county health department for a license for your facility, and you would need to go to the state for your license to produce tomato sauce. For the latter, you would obtain a “20C” processing license by submitting and testing your recipe. For some foods, wholesaling to stores requires a higher level of licensing — a federal license rather than a state one, for instance — than direct selling to the public.
Just as processing grains, dairy, fats, and meats is more complicated than processing fruits and vegetables, regulations surrounding production of these staple products is more complicated, and licensing generally involves federal agencies in addition to local and state ones.
In general, the regulations governing processed foods tend to favor production on a large scale and to discourage small-scale enterprises. Conforming with regulations may simply require investments in plant and equipment too large for new entrepreneurs. Inattention and confusion at regulatory agencies can also pose problems. A fully equipped and ready-to-go small meat packer, for instance, may be unable to get a license to operate because it cannot get an appointment to be inspected.
Two more legal considerations food processors must address are zoning and product liability. Zoning limits where food processing facilities can be sited. Product liability limits where and whether products can be sold. Commercial food processors need insurance to sell legally.
Local Commercial Food Processing in the Big Picture
The existing international food supply and processing system discourages new local food processing enterprises. Processed food (even the “good” kind) is cheap and abundant under current conditions of fossil fuel-supported agriculture, food manufacturing, distribution, and marketing. Food produced and processed locally on a small commercial scale usually costs more than food produced on an industrial scale. Local food processing enterprises won’t succeed if people don’t buy the products, so they won’t start up if a viable business looks unlikely. It’s another chicken/egg conundrum: Which comes first, the need for locally processed food, or the production of that food?
Some aspects of energy descent may favor local food processing. If products from far away become scarcer and more expensive, the cost advantage may shift to local products. Surpluses of produce that cannot be sold fresh because of transportation and storage problems may be more saleable in processed form. An overall poor economy and job loss may leave many people to work in local food processing. Local knowledge and enthusiasm about alternative energy may help keep food processing equipment up and running.
Energy descent is of course overall a limit to future local food production and processing. To reiterate, the way farmers — including small-scale organic farmers — grow food now depends heavily on fossil fuels and on inputs from outside the county. The equipment and methods used to process food now are similarly dependent, and scarce energy may make them unusable. In the past, people processed food using power from animals, wind, and water. Using these again implies enormous relearning and refitting, and scaling down output. On the plus side, Tompkins has land well suited to grazing animals and pockets of wind and water well suited to energy generation.
Home Food Processing
Processing food at home bypasses many of the difficulties involved with commercial enterprises. Without major investment or legal encounters, a household can supply itself with some or all of its own processed foods. The work is satisfying, and in most cases not too difficult. If you can follow a recipe, you can learn and safely apply most techniques. Yet home food processing does take time and effort. People learn by doing and by following instructions precisely; they are not proficient the first time around with a particular technique or food; care must be taken to have the set-up and tools needed on hand; and, perhaps most important for those with busy, heavily scheduled lives, several sequential hours of time are needed to accomplish most food processing activities.
Providing a household with all or most of the processed foods it eats means committing a lot of time. Putting by enough fruit, vegetables, and cheese, say, to last from one autumn until the next summer will likely require daily work during the growing season. Fortunately, home food processing/preserving is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Assuming you are buying most of your processed foods, and not trying to make everything yourself, you can start small and stay small, and you can confine your efforts to one technique or one product.
While knowledge about how to process food at home is not as common as it once was, it’s out there. People put up food all the time only a generation ago in most families. Opportunities to learn are at hand. The National Center for Home Food Preservation (http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/index.html) offers comprehensive information. Some useful books are the Ball Blue Book (ISBN 0-9727537-0-2), the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving (ISBN-13 978-0-7788-0131-3), the University of Georgia’s So Easy to Preserve, and Rodale’s Stocking Up. If you consult books or pamphlets, be sure to use the most recent (late 2000s) editions, as expert recommendations for safe methods of food processing have changed over time. A full list of sources of information on food processing is available from Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), which also conducts classes on many techniques.
Instruction may be as close as your next-door neighbor. Home food preservers often like to share what they know. Joining IthaCan, a local on-line network, is one way to connect with mentors and people to learn and practice food processing with. You can read about IthaCan and sign up as a member on the Prepared Tompkins website (http://www.preparedtompkins.org). Working in a group on food processing is fun and practical; it smoothes the often repetitive work, saves on energy costs, allows equipment sharing, and builds relationships with like-minded others.
Eaters, Processors, and Farmers
Some local factors favor the development of local food processing on both the home and small-scale commercial scales. First, local small-scale agriculture, though limited in its range of products, is strong. Organic farm start-ups are frequent, and some small-scale organic farms now have generation-long histories. Many other local farms have much longer histories-some farms have even survived from pre-fossil fuel days.
The county’s geography could also favor local processing. With the City of Ithaca and the county’s several towns positioned very close to farmland, food doesn’t have to travel far to be processed off-farm or to be sold.
County employment and incomes are relatively high, encouraging many (though far from most) county residents to buy local fresh food. The preference for local might extend to processed food, given the “right” quality and price. Local processed commercial products have had mixed success; some are established, while others have failed.
Systems for marketing local food are also fairly well-developed; the Ithaca Farmers’ Market is one of the largest in the state, and local food is increasingly sold by local retailers and by on-farm markets.
Formal relationships among growers, eaters, and processors other than the basic retail relationship could foster local food processing. One useful type of relationship is “bespeaking” foods to be grown in quantity. A group that wants to freeze peas in July might, for instance, talk to a farmer in January about growing and selling them the food. Home food processors could readily organize themselves to bespeak foods. Food salvage, or gleaning, is another, more complicated farm-processor-consumer relationship; under government regulation, farm donations are processed and distributed, usually by a charitable agency. Tompkins does not have such a system in place, though elements of it exist.
Training and Support for Commercial Local Food Processing Enterprises
Institutional support exists for beginning a local food processing business. The Food Venture Center (http://www.nysaes.cornell.edu/necfe), located in Geneva, NY, offers excellent information on getting started and ongoing help with product development, business planning, licensing, and marketing. The Tompkins County Health Department, which regulates facilities, has a good reputation for helpfulness with some local food entrepreneurs. The New York Small-Scale Food Processors Association (http://www.nyssfpa.com) provides information and support (e.g., newsletter, joint purchasing and distribution, nutrition labeling) with membership, which costs about $40 yearly.
Tompkins does not have a food processing facility designed specifically for rental to small-scale food processors — a common model for starting and running artisanal food businesses. The types of processed foods that can be made in an ordinary kitchen can be produced for sale in any licensed commercial kitchen, and these are abundant in the county, in restaurants, at caterers, and in bakeries. The Women’s Community Building in Ithaca rents a licensed kitchen equipped with a jacket kettle for making large batches of jams and sauces. The Varna Community Center also has a rental kitchen. (A caveat: as described above, to be sold, each food needs to have its own license, in addition to being made in a licensed facility.)
Restaurant kitchens mostly have equipment that will be useful only for processing fruits and vegetables, not grains, oils, dairy, and meats. Small-scale equipment for processing the staple foods may or may not be portable.
“Copacking” is another model for producing commercial food products on a small scale. In this model, a producer hires a processor and facility to make a product.
Finally, existing commercial food processors in Tompkins County offer models for new businesses and may even offer advice. These businesses include Eve’s Cidery (soft cider), Bellwether Cider (hard cider), Ithaca Soy (bean curd), MacDonald Farms (fermented vegetables), Fingerlakes Farmstead Cheese, the Piggery, Purity Ice Cream, Seven Mile Creek Winery, and more. Upstate New York beyond county lines offers additional exemplars of small-scale enterprise for Tompkins entrepreneurs. These include the Hawthorne Valley Association (fermented vegetables), Hunger Action Network (jams), Hudson Valley Foodworks (rental/copacking facility), Lakeview Organics (grain cleaning), Martin’s Kitchen (condiments; copacking), Morrisville/Nelson Farms, the Schoharie Co-op Cannery (in planning), and Wild Hive Farm (a mill and bakery).
Yearning to “Eat Local”
A big booster to small-scale local commercial food processing may be that people in this county want local food, and they want to see local food processing grow along with local agriculture. Tompkins has people who like to buy local products; these include members of the “green” community and gourmets, or “foodies” (not mutually exclusive categories). The yearning for a personal connection with what we eat is strong here.
The county also has many people who want to be in the food processing business. Working with food appeals to many as a socially useful and satisfying way to make a living. The combined enthusiasm and energy of buyers and would-be producers of local processed foods could go a long way toward making more local small-scale commercial food processing businesses a reality.
To individually encourage the growth of food processing in Tompkins, commit yourself to “eating local” to whatever extent you can. Inform yourself by reading product labels and learning where your food is coming from. Try and buy locally processed products. Learn and practice personal food processing. Talk to others about products you would like to see made locally. Work toward local production of staples: grains, beans, nuts and seeds, meat and dairy. Encourage young people to become food producers and processors and promote needed education in schools. Consider becoming a producer or processor yourself.