FoodWorks: Canning Company Preserves Marin's Produce

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Merrilee Olson, on right, and her crew in the FoodWorks kitchen.
Merrilee Olson, on right, kitchen supervisor Mayte Lopez on her left, and crew in the FoodWorks kitchen. Photo: Duncan Garrett

It's no secret that Marin County farms produce an abundance of local, seasonal, and organic produce enjoyed by residents around the Bay Area.

But finding homes for all that fresh food, whether lemons, tomatoes, or apples, can be a challenge for farmers during harvest time -- and what to do to generate income during the months when specialty crops are out of season?

Enter canning queen Merrilee Olson to the rescue. Olson heads up the new food manufacturing company Community Action Marin's (CAM) FoodWorks, a small-batch, co-packing company that helps Marin farmers turn their excess fruits and vegetables into jams and jellies, conserves and chutneys, and salsas and sauces, giving them a shelf life beyond the growing season, adding another source of revenue to farmers, and providing an artisan product to consumers.

And -- the CAM community hopes down the track -- turning a profit that would supplement this San Rafael-based, non-profit, county organization, which funds, among other services, food programs for local residents in need.


From Olson's perspective, it's a win-win all round.

"We're trying to create a model here that's replicable and plays a role in creating a resilient, thriving, and healthy community," she says. "Though my new motto is: We're sailing the ship while we're building it. Since we're creating something that hasn't been done it's both exciting and challenging," she adds. "We're a local food company for the people and we want to make stars out of our local farmers and their produce through these value-added products."

Launched last June as a project with long-term fundraising objectives for Community Action Marin, a social services agency that provides child care, energy assistance, emergency family needs, mental health care, employment training, and senior programs for the county's low-income residents, FoodWorks began producing jars of jams back in August from the agency's central kitchen and production has been steadily building ever since.

The CAM kitchen -- which feeds more than 600 children in the county's Head Start program every day -- used to shut down at 2 p.m. CAM staffers realized that the state-of-the-art space was an underutilized resource that could be put to good use and hired canning guru and recipe tester Olson, the founder of PRESERVESonoma, a nonprofit canning organization previously profiled on BAB, to come on board as FoodWorks' director.

Given her canning and culinary background, Olson was able to attract many big name small producers to her nascent project, including McEvoy Ranch in northern Marin, as well as Middleton Farms, Preston Vineyard, and Medlock Ames Winery, all in Healdsburg.

A trio of value-added products produced by FoodWorks.
A trio of value-added products produced by FoodWorks. Photo: Shae Irving

Others who have sought out FoodWorks include small local food entrepreneurs, who want to sell their own BBQ sauce, and restaurant clients who want to produce their own line of condiments. Kenny Rochford of School Garden called on Olson's service for an apple chutney product using gleaned produce from an unused farm in Healdsburg as part of a fund-raising effort for a local school garden. "As charitable endeavors go, I'd rather write a check for apple chutney than gift wrap," jokes Rochford. The project has proven popular; up next: Meyer lemon marmalade. "Gleaned fruit is tricky, there are variations in color, flavor, and texture," notes Rochford. "Olson is good at tweaking recipes to accommodate that."

FoodWorks recently landed a commitment from Bi-Rite Market to make tomato sauce using produce from the independent retailer's farm, and FoodWorks' biggest client, whose product will hit a major grocery store chain at a $5.99 price point, will be announced shortly. Both are big gets for the budding business.

While Olson, a former culinary director for Bon Appetit Management Corporation, enjoys coming up with unique specialty products for farmers, she's especially glad to be crafting quality artisan products out of pristine produce that was otherwise destined for the compost pile. (Speaking of compost: Olson sends all of hers to Tara Firma Farms in Petaluma, where it's enjoyed by the resident pigs.)

Persimmon-ginger-chile preserves ready for canning.
Persimmon pickles with ginger and chile ready for canning. Photo: Shae Irving

Olson, who supervises a kitchen crew of three, works with clients on product concept, recipe development, production, and packaging and labeling, often with farmers own private label attached for instant branding purposes. Higher-value, less-perishable products can also help subsidize small farmers whose profit margins are slim in the sustainable, organic produce world.

CAM FoodWorks plays an invaluable role as an incubator for small food businesses, says Sarah Darcey-Martin, outreach director for Agricultural Institute of Marin, which operates eight Bay Area farmers' markets. And the group can assume many of the costs of regulation and certification, a commercial kitchen space, and labor that could prove prohibitive for small farmers, adds Ellen Roggemann, the specialty food developer and an assistant gardener at McEvoy Ranch, who works with Olson on recipes for the ranch's line of products, including apple and lavender jelly.

Each jar that comes out of the FoodWorks kitchen costs between $2 and $3.50 to produce, with a minimum order of 25 cases (by comparison, the industry average is around 500). Farmers pass on this cost to consumers, with products retailing around $8-$12 for the gourmet goodies, typically sold on site, at farmers' markets around the Bay Area, or in small specialty stores. (Though the notion of landing bigger takers like Whole Foods remains a goal, as is farmers pooling produce to come up with a product -- say, five-farm soup -- for the wholesale or retail market.)

The range of products produced by FoodWorks for Medlock Ames Winery.
The range of products produced by FoodWorks for Medlock Ames Winery. Photo: Shae Irving

"Foodworks is one of the few kitchen partners able to work with boutique volumes and Merrilee Olson has the skill and zeal to help us craft delicious products, says Dawn Pacheco of Medlock Ames Winery, for whom FoodWorks has produced strawberry jam, quince apple butter, apple pear butter, mandarin marmalade, and rustic marinara sauce. "The scale, flexibility and passion of Foodworks is perfect for us."

Olson, a Good Foods Award winner for her raspberry preserves using Middleton Farm fruit, would also like to see the kitchen made available for community canning projects, such as jarring excess tomatoes, for instance, that can be used as sauce in school lunch programs.


Olson also hopes to see other small-scale food processing places popping up emulating FoodWorks efforts. And she's already talking about expansion plans for her own nascent enterprise.

"We need other local food-processing facilities to get where we need to go in terms of advancing a local, sustainable food system," she says. "We need to build momentum here -- for us that means a bigger facility and more investment. We've already demonstrated the business is there."