Edible Monterey Bay

Friend in Cheeses Launching Social Enterprise Serving Farmers

February 5, 2019 – The creative and community-minded jam maker behind Electric Beetroot Confiture and the Drought Responsibility Project is getting ready to launch a new social enterprise to turn would-be waste into tasty jams, jellies, vinegars, shrubs and maybe even flavored salts for local breweries, wineries, nonprofits and small organic farms—products that can help them earn extra revenues.

“This will hopefully be a game-changer for all of us. It’s a win-win on so many levels,” says Tabitha Stroup, chef-proprietor of Friend In Cheeses Jam Co., of her new co-packing project, Terroir in a Jar. “I’m super excited about it.”

After noticing that particularly at peak of harvest, local farmers were being forced to either turn excess food into compost, offload it at next-to-nothing prices or try to preserve it themselves, Stroup late last summer quietly began taking delivery of the raw products and turning them into bottled, labeled, legally processed preserves in exciting flavors.

Tabitha’s smoked pumpkin jelly

About 20,000 pounds of produce later, the results have included products like smoked pumpkin and smoked citrus jellies for the Homeless Garden Project, apple whiskey jelly for Teen Kitchen Project and strawberry preserves for Rt. 1 Farms. She turned a batch of raspberry sour that went sideways at Shanty Shack brewing into a delicious jelly, and created wine and beer jellies for Condor Run and Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, which were just looking to diversify their product lines.

 “I ran the numbers and it was more economical for them to do it,” says Route 1 Farm’s Jasmine Roohani of the too-ripe strawberries that the farm was considering canning themselves or composting. “They just made it really, really easy.”

And moreover, Stroup aims to make it profitable for the region’s farmers, who work so hard to make ends meet.

“This is for the farmers,” Stroup says, “to help them make a better living and have a life. I want to see their families thrive.”

“We make our dime, but we don’t gouge anybody,” Stroup adds, noting that she sells the jars of preserves back to the clients at wholesale, allowing them to turn around and sell them to customers at a 100% markup.

And when compared to the pennies that the farmers typically get for product that is either blemished, too ripe, or is simply facing a flooded end-of-season market—think $1 per pound for beautiful heirloom tomatoes—she estimates that the profit margins for a farmer can reach as much as 600% for preserves and 700% for culinary vinegars.  

And what’s more, the products come with paperwork affirming that they are shelf-stable, allowing farmers to sell them in stores and ship them around the country, not to mention add them to local CSA boxes in the depths of winter.

And as important to Stroup as helping local farmers, she sees Terroir in a Jar as a valuable way to reduce food waste.

 “It drives me crazy that 40% of our greenhouse gases come from food ending up in landfills,” Stroup says. “I am completely engaged in food ethics and feeding people.”

Stroup is just in the beginning stages of organizing the new co-packing project as a social enterprise, which may take the form of a for-profit company, a nonprofit or a hybrid. But she’s hopeful that the model will attract funding that will help her expand the reach of the project. For instance, she’d like to finance chest freezers for farmers so they can freeze product on site while they wait for processing. And she’d also like to provide training in the preservation business to people who need it through partnerships with organizations like The Homeless Garden Project and Teen Kitchen Project.

In launching the program, Stroup is joining Happy Girl Kitchen Co., the Pacific Grove-based artisanal cannery and café that began life in 2002 out of an effort to help Happy Boy Farms in Santa Cruz find a market for its excess produce.

“The model was to start a cannery to absorb the surplus produce from farms in the area—produce that was at its best and also at its cheapest,” says Todd Champagne, co-proprietor of Happy Girl with his wife, Jordan Champagne.

Like Friend in Cheeses, Happy Girl is best known for the award-winning preserves it makes and sells under its own label. But for the last decade, it has been quietly helping local farms turn excess product into profits by co-packing pickles, jams and other preserves. The dozen or so farms it has packed for include Live Earth Farm, Dirty Girl and Pie Ranch.

Champagne says that co-packing programs like this not only provide farmers with a much-needed source of income—they also provide canneries with a needed source of cash at a time of year when farmers are at their most flush and cannery cash flows are tight.

“It’s cool that Tabitha is getting into the game,” says Todd Champagne, noting there is a big potential market and a lot of farmers don’t seem to know that the option exists.  “I see a very bright future for mico-canneries sprouting up to serve active regional food hubs.”

Terroir in a Jar • Friend In Cheeses Jam Co.