Value-Added agricultural products are not new to the farm. Farmers have made corn liquor from corn, cheese from milk and cured hams from pigs for many years. In the last several years value-added has come to the forefront as farmers have tried to increase the value of the commodities they produce. Today's consumer is very demanding and willing to pay for services and convenience in the market place. Value-added offers farmers a way to increase the value of the products they grow and sell by providing products and services that satisfy the consumers' needs.

Value-added produce meshes well with both an aging population and a young generation attuned to the health benefits of fruits and vegetables. As people age, they use more produce in their diets. Pre-packaged “Fresh-cut” fruits and vegetables are easy to use, they're easy to carry and they are popular for time-strapped consumer's in this age group. “Fresh-cut produce” is defined as any fresh fruit or vegetable or their combinations that has been trimmed, peeled, washed and cut into 100 percent usable product that is bagged or packaged. Sales of fresh-cuts in the United States total $10-12 billion dollars per year, which is presently about 10 percent of total produce sales. Rigid microbiological protocols are practiced in the production of these fresh-cut products.

Fresh market snap bean output began to rise in the early 1990s after remaining fairly stable for the previous two decades. Spurred by strong demand, fresh-market snap bean production in 1998-2000 was 90 percent higher than 1988-1990. Consumption of snap beans hit record low in 1990 of 1.1 pounds per person. It has enjoyed resurgence in recent years climbing to 2.1 pounds per person in 2000, but far below the 5.4 pound per person record in the early 1940's.

The North Carolina Specialty Crops Program decided to look at value — added snap beans in 2003 and its possibilities.

Is there a value-added item that can be developed for snap beans? Snipped beans (ends removed) packaged in a microwavable bag were the product we chose to examine. A label and prototype package was developed, along with cooking instructions.

We used our lab as a packing facility. Beans were picked in a Hyde County field and cooled prior to processing and packaging in our Kinston lab. At the lab, the beans were graded by size, rinsed in chlorinated water, snipped by hand, dried and bagged in a microwavable bag.

Test marketing was performed by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The microwavable bag we used was an “active” bag. With this bag you no longer are trying to keep gases out, but you can modify the gas that's inside the package, creating a controlled atmosphere environment. The controlled atmosphere storage, resulting from the removal of oxygen and the elevation of carbon dioxide in the package, extends the shelf life of the produce inside.

This was observed with the snap beans stored in these microwavable “active” bags. The average storage life of beans in these bags was two and a half to three weeks. Packages of green beans maintained their freshness and edibility for three weeks from personal experience. The yellow Romano beans tended to have shorter life due to spotting.

The marketing effort consisted of test marketing at several road-side stands and sending samples out to several specialty produce companies.

The sales at roadside stands were poor. Roadside stands are sourced by consumers for local fresh produce so it is logical that packaged “fresh-cut” beans seemed “out of place.”

Sample feed back from specialty produce companies was good. One high-end Midwestern retail chain was so impressed with the product that they ordered many cases of the product.

In 2004 we planned to move forward, partnering with the growers to construct a prototype facility to scale-up volume. For various reasons this has not occurred. We are still optimistic about the future.

EDITOR'S NOTE — Bill Jester is Extension associate horticulturist with North Carolina State University.)