Until last year, as much as half of Bill Lee's jalapeno pepper crop was wasted. Peppers that didn't meet the peak-quality demands of the fresh-produce market were thrown away or never picked.
But not anymore.
With help from the University of Georgia and part of a $120,000 grant from the Governor's Development Office, Lee built a small food-processing facility on his farm.
The facility allowed him to turn his unmarketable fresh peppers into a brine jalapeno product. The brine peppers can later be used in other products, such as sauces.
Most important, Lee said, a part of the crop he would otherwise have to abandon can now make him some money. “It's a lot better than just throwing them away,” said Lee, who has farmed more than 35 years near Adel, Ga.
Because they can't be sold to fresh markets, many of the vegetables grown in Georgia are never harvested. Most Georgia-grown vegetables are targeted for fresh-produce markets. These markets demand the highest quality of produce.
However, as the harvest progresses, the quality of the crop often declines. Though the taste is good, it looks less appealing, and the fresh-produce market passes on buying it.”
Georgia is vying for third place in the nation in vegetable production,” said Estes Reynolds. He coordinates the Extension Outreach Programs of the University of Georgia Food Processing Research and Development Lab.
“We'll have to find alternatives,” Reynolds said, “for the portion of the crop that doesn't meet fresh-market standards.”
Lee's processing facility, built next to his packing shed, is about the size of a two-car garage.
Specifications, quality standards, processing requirements and established procedures for field handling, sanitation, harvesting, processing and packaging were developed for the facility. All aspects of the facility meet Georgia Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration requirements, Reynolds said.
Now, Lee picks the peppers he'd normally leave in the field after the fresh-produce market has passed. Last year, he also bought unmarketable peppers from four other local farmers.
The peppers are sorted by quality and bathed in a chlorine-water solution. They're taken into the facility then and chopped into slices. The sliced jalapenos are then combined with a brine made of salt, water and vinegar.
The peppers are packed into large barrels, each containing 200 pounds of peppers and 86 pounds of brine. At full capacity, the facility can produce 65 barrels a day.
After packing, the peppers are ready to become future ingredients in other products. The peppers on Lee's farm were sold to a processing company in Atlanta, Ga.
It sounds easy. But it took time to get the processing right. “Like anything else new, it was a learning process,” Reynolds said. “We had some headaches with it early, getting everything down right. But now we know what we're doing and are ready for the crop to come in this year.”
Reynolds said a facility like the one on Lee's farm could be extended to include other vegetable and fruit crops.
“I'm looking at the possibility of doing something with eggplants, bell peppers and fruit crops,” he said. For example, a product and market could be developed to handle over-ripe peaches.
Lee says he's looking at his farm in a new way. If fresh-produce market prices fall too low, he said, he can simply crank up his food processing facility. He may even grow crops for the direct purpose of processing on his farm.
“It gives us another choice now on what we can do,” he said.