Minnesota's Sno-Pac Foods becoming a well-loved brand
Ever done a frozen-pea tasting? Yeah, me neither, until the other day when I fired up every burner on the old Caloric and set four pots of water to boil. I steamed four bags of peas and started sampling, sipping water between bites as if conducting a wine tasting. (No spitting, though—we could all use a few more vegetables in our diets, no?) At one point I became so engrossed in the tasting process that I didn't immediately notice that a flame had started singeing the elbow of my sweater.
That sounds even more ridiculous when I consider what you're thinking: Aren't all frozen vegetables the same? Better tasting than canned, inferior to fresh, and otherwise what is there, really, to say about them?
That's what I thought, too, until I tasted four brands of frozen peas side by side and found a few subtle but distinct differences. One batch was muddy tasting, with thick skins; another was mealy, the flavors flat; a third was okay, but far less vibrant than the fourth, whose juicy pop released a sweet, grassy—practically fresh—pea taste. After tasting subsequent batches of green beans, broccoli, and sweet corn, a winner emerged: Minnesota's very own Sno-Pac Foods bested the standard supermarket stuff: Green Giant, Birdseye, and Roundy's house brand.
Sno-Pac is a family-owned farm and processing plant in southeastern Minnesota, near Caledonia, that has been selling frozen organic produce since long before hippies launched the movement's 1970s boom. More precisely, the fourth-generation family business predates the popularization of farm chemicals and never made the switch. Last summer, Pete Gengler showed me around his family's plant and explained that his forebears had self-certified the farm as organic back in the mid-'50s by adhering to the principles of sustainable agriculture outlined in J.I. Rodale's Organic Gardening magazine. That was several decades before the third-party inspection system, by which they are now certified, came into existence.
But let's back up a little further, to when the Gengler family got its start in the freezing business. In the early 1900s, Pete Gengler's great-grandfather decided to supplement his lumber business income by harvesting pond ice and storing it to ship to hotter Southern climes. As the ice business grew, the Genglers started shipping locally grown turkeys by packing them in shaved pond ice—the "snow" that launched Sno-Pac's frozen-food business. When mechanical refrigeration became available in the 1930s, the family started processing fruits, and later vegetables, grown on its farmland.
Today, Pete Gengler works with his brother, sister, and two nephews to farm about 2,000 acres and run the processing business. Sno-Pac contracts with farmers who till about 1,000 more acres, mostly around the Midwest, to grow organic produce, and distributes its products nationally as well as to Canada and Japan. In addition to its Sno-Pac brand, the company produces product for supermarket private labels and other producers of organic food, including Amy's and Gerber. "We make a lot of baby food," Gengler remarks.
Gengler, who looks very much a working farmer with a face as weathered as his jeans, has been in the fields since he was sent out to pick strawberries as a five-year-old. Gengler keeps close tabs on every aspect of the business; he's constantly walking the floor of the processing facility or out checking his crops. Picking at peak maturity is crucial, especially for vegetables like peas, he says, which can become overripe within a day.
Gengler says the area's rich, mineral-packed soil gives the vegetables their excellent flavor—there's such a thing as terroir for peas, essentially. And research suggests that natural growing conditions may also be a factor, as crops grown using nitrogen fertilizers tend to draw considerably more water compared to organics, thereby diluting the crop's nutrients and sugars, making them less healthful and flavorful.
Sno-Pac's harvest season kicks off with peas in June and finishes with heartier carrots, potatoes, cranberries, and squash in the fall. They process about 15 types of fruits and vegetables, but peas, green beans, and corn are the staples.
The Genglers have been growing edamame long before it rose to popularity alongside the sushi craze of the past two decades. "No one knew what it was," Gengler says. "They didn't want to eat soybeans—they'd say 'that's animal food.'" Over the years, he says, supply and demand for vegetables has stayed more constant than fruit. When blueberries' antioxidant properties were touted a few years ago, increased demand caused their price to double. But Gengler says the biggest spike in Sno-Pac's business occurred in the '80s during the Alar scare, when panicked Americans suddenly turned to organic foods.
Sno-Pac employs about 35 full-time workers plus about 20 part-timers during peak harvest, who, when I stopped by in August, were hard at work processing green beans. One major challenge with growing organic crops is combating weeds, which was evident at Sno-Pac's facility. I watched as the beans were washed outdoors by a large machine and then screened by employees stationed along a conveyer belt who removed weeds by hand, along with inferior beans.
Inside, the beans are cut, blanched, and flash frozen by spending just a few minutes at temperatures around 15 to 20 degrees below zero. My favorite part of the process was watching a video game-like machine perform quality control. As the beans raced along a conveyor belt, the machine scanned their shape and color to distinguish properly cut, unblemished beans from undesirable ones or weeds. When it identified a foreign object, the machine deployed a puff of air to shoot it out of the batch—like playing Space Invaders with button weeds subbing for alien ships. Next, the beans were scanned by a metal detector and then hauled to a nearby packaging facility, where they are sealed in plastic bags. Gengler estimates that Sno-Pac packs more than 10 million pounds of produce a year.
Sno-Pac controls just a few percent of the frozen organics market, overshadowed by the dominant player, Cascadian Farms, which has been a subsidiary of General Mills since 1999. Still, Sno-Pac has a strong presence on local co-op shelves and a loyal following. "It's the most famous and well-loved of the frozen brands I have," says Paul Barnum, who buys Sno-Pac for the Seward Co-Op. "Sno-Pac is the king."
Barnum says local, sustainable foods have increasingly become more important to shoppers than organic certification, and he points out that several of the other frozen organic brands his co-op carries import vegetables grown all over the world. The shipping requirements of that business model start to look a lot like that of large, conventional agricultural operations that co-ops eschew. Both in terms of food miles and bolstering local economies, Barnum says, it doesn't make any sense to buy Chinese-grown edamame when Sno-Pac offers a local product. Plus, "I think [Sno-Pac's] is the best tasting," he says. Nate Oerter, frozen-food buyer for the Wedge, agrees: "Their quality is superior to Cascadian Farms, and their price is better," he says.
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