There is a way that Southeastern growers could significantly increase their income from their fruits and vegetables but that is largely underused: That is, processing the excess production they can’t sell fresh and making it into high quality products.

That, at least, is how Ron Taylor, a farmer, vineyard owner, equipment manufacturer and food processor in Elizabethtown, N.C., looks at the situation.

“Farming today is not how much you handle, but rather how much is left at the end of the day,” says Taylor. “The way we manage fruits and vegetables leaves us with a lot of product left over. Strawberry growers are an example — what they don’t sell today, they have to eat themselves or give or throw away.”

Many growers look at processing — if they can find someone to do it — as a last resort.

Taylor believes growers should look at processing as a second line of marketing and says there are many advantages you can obtain.

“It adds value to the product,” he says. “It gives an alternate use to the product. And it can add years to the shelf life of the product. You gain the opportunity to bring in significant dollars on the portion of your product that is now largely going to waste.”

The goal should be a high quality product, preferably with some distinguishing characteristic like healthfulness, he emphasizes.

If you can, it’s best to find local marketing outlets for processed fruits and vegetables, says Kevin Hardison, agricultural marketing specialist with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture.

“Right now there is a great demand for ‘locally grown’ farm products,” he says. “Providers want to sell local, and consumers want to buy local. The market closest to home is usually considered the best one, and of course, when you sell there you help out your local economy.”

To get into processing, you have to have a processor, Taylor found out quickly. He liked the concept so well that he eventually decided to build his own.

"When we opened our vineyard, we looked for someone that operated under FDA guidelines to make jams, jellies and pasteurized juice from our grapes, " he remembers. "But there was no such local company. We wanted to sell quality products that we know are handled in a safe manner".

The vineyard, Lu Mil, began processing some of its own homegrown fruit on a small scale. Demand increased and other farmers began seeking the same service. It was clear there was a need for a processor who would take local grown fruits and vegetables and package them on contract under the farmer’s private label. Taylor started such a business and called it D'Vine Foods. It is making many items such as jams, jellies, ciders, juices, pickles, relishes and other products.

In the last year, D’Vine has come up with a product that has been quite a hit with consumers, a grape drink that Taylor calls the Muscadine Slushy. “It is our No. 1 seller, basically there is nothing out there like it,” he says. “We sell the slushy by the glass directly to the public, at our store and at festivals and events, including the state fair.”

D’Vine Foods is looking for additional processing work.

“The problem for farmers in the past has been that no one would take their product in small volumes,” says Taylor. “Farmers have not had a market for their excess production. But we will take five gallons or 5,000 gallons of their product.”

For more information, contact Taylor by email at tmi@intrstar.net or by phone at (800) 545-2293.

What do you need to do to sell your produce in processed form?

“Like anything else, the trick is to find the niche,” says Taylor. “A good evaluation of market potential is needed before you go into something like this. In particular, if you are selling it yourself, you need good traffic to support your operation.”

Packaging is very important in selling canned or bottled products. According to the International Jelly and Preserve Association, 90 percent of niche product purchases are based on presentation.

Hardison adds, “Your product should taste good, it should be family friendly and it should be eye-catching.”

The processed market certainly isn’t going to replace the fresh market, says Hardison.

“But you could definitely consider a processing approach for excess fruit that you can’t find a market for,” he says.

Processing could help fruit growers take more advantage of the increased interests in some fruits because of health benefits.

“The antioxidant value of the muscadine has led to more consumer interest,” says Taylor. “We have developed a pasteurized pure muscadine juice product that has the same health benefits as the wine, but without the alcohol. We call it a juice but it can be sold as an alcohol-free wine.”

e-mail: cebickers@aol.com