FoodWorks: Canning Company Preserves Marin’s Produce

by Sarah Henry on March 11, 2012 · 32 comments

in bay area bites,canning & preserving,food businesses,food security,fruit,growing greens,vegetables

Merrilee Olson, on right, and her crew in the FoodWorks kitchen.
Merrilee Olson, right, kitchen supervisor Mayte Lopez on her left, 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.”

This post originally appeared on KQED’s Bay Area Bites. You might also like:

Good Food Awards Showcases Sustainable Food Artisans
Canning for a Cause: Let’s Preserve

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Brette Sember March 12, 2012 at 7:52 am

What a great operation!


Sarah Henry March 12, 2012 at 8:04 am

It’s a creative way to help many different sectors of one community.


Living Large March 12, 2012 at 7:56 am

What a wonderful idea. I wish we had something like this in Arkansas!


Sarah Henry March 12, 2012 at 8:04 am

It’s the kind of concept, LL, that could be replicated around the country.


Jane Boursaw March 12, 2012 at 8:12 am

Oh this is great. Awesome way to extend the shelf life of healthy produce. And the labels are lovely, too.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..Dragon Age Redemption: A Worthy Addition for Geeks and Gamers


Sarah Henry March 12, 2012 at 8:20 am

And who doesn’t like a jar of dry-farmed tomato sauce pulled from the pantry in the dead of winter? It’s good news for eaters too.


Donna Hull March 12, 2012 at 12:40 pm

What a wonderful way to put healthy, leftover produce to good use. I cringe when I think of it going on the compost pile.
Donna Hull´s last [type] ..Saturday‚Äôs scene: Monument Valley sunrise


Sarah Henry March 12, 2012 at 1:34 pm

I know what you mean, Donna. Just back from a conference where Jonathan Bloom, the author of American Wasteland, spoke about how much food we throw out in this country — at a time when so many go hungry. Shocking and shameful, really.

So this is a great way to keep perfectly enjoyable edibles out of the compost pile.


Sheryl March 12, 2012 at 1:06 pm

So great this precious produce is not going to waste. I love the thought of fresh-from-the-farm canning.


Sarah Henry March 12, 2012 at 1:35 pm

So do I, Sheryl. You know it’s been preserved at peak ripeness, so maximum flavor.


Karen@Cook4Seasons March 12, 2012 at 1:55 pm

I’ve been trying to connect with Merrilee, as we hope to replicate this model in Napa. It will be a stop gap between the farmers market and the Food Bank. Thanks for sharing!


Sarah Henry March 12, 2012 at 2:29 pm

Hi Karen: Thanks for chiming in here. I want to learn more about the work you’re doing locally too. So I’ll touch base via email — and let me know if you need contact details for FoodWorks.


Casey@Good. Food. Stories. March 12, 2012 at 4:56 pm

Those persimmon pickles look incredible. Why don’t I live in California, again?
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..Hot on the Trail of Red Chile Sauce


Sarah Henry March 14, 2012 at 8:55 am

So you have a place you like to come visit?


Alexandra March 13, 2012 at 4:38 am

Would love to see this happening on the east coast.
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Support Organic Management of Town Property


Sarah Henry March 14, 2012 at 8:56 am

Stay tuned, Sandy. I’m sure more of these edible enterprises will start popping up all over.


Kerry Dexter March 13, 2012 at 6:36 am

all sorts of good ideas and good cooperation going on among creative people — great to see that happening, and to see that it is the sort of thing that might be done elsewhere, too. thanks for shining the spotlight on this, Sarah.
Kerry Dexter´s last [type] ..Concerts, Conversations, and Travel: Ireland


Sarah Henry March 14, 2012 at 8:57 am

It is good to see what can come out of something that’s a truly collaborative effort designed to help a variety of people in the community.


ruth pennebaker March 13, 2012 at 6:44 am

What a brilliant idea. Would love to see it spread everywhere.
ruth pennebaker´s last [type] ..I Was Wrong, but Mostly, I Was Right


Sarah Henry March 14, 2012 at 8:59 am

Let me know, Ruth, when you hear of something similar starting up in Texas.


Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart March 13, 2012 at 7:48 am

Such a great idea. I’ve done a little canning (mostly jelly), but I’d love to do more.
Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart´s last [type] ..Update: Lilly Neurology Check from March 12, 2012


Sarah Henry March 14, 2012 at 8:58 am

Me too, since I’m such a fan of jams and pickles, I really should learn to make my own. But then I’m spoiled for choice among Bay Area artisan preservers.


MyKidsEatSquid March 13, 2012 at 7:54 am

I would love to try the apple and lavender jelly. This is such a fabulous idea. Amazing how so many people came together to make this happen–I wonder if at some point kids, whether involved in the headstart program or not could come and tour the canning facility


Sarah Henry March 14, 2012 at 8:58 am

I think, MKES, that a child-focused component is likely down the track.


Heather March 13, 2012 at 6:18 pm

What a great collaboration. I hope more places follow suit.


Sarah Henry March 14, 2012 at 9:02 am

Hearing from so many folks around the country, Heather, about what a great idea this is to replicate regionally. So I’m sure other edible entrepreneurs will follow suit.


Melanie Haiken March 14, 2012 at 3:09 pm

This is such a great story, and I can’t believe that, living here in Marin, I knew nothing about this. CAM is a great organization and the food programs for here are excellent, but I’d never heard of the canning project before. I wish our local media here in Marin were covering this, too! It would be really great if CAM could see some income back from this project down the line, as they are truly stretched to the max. And in further synergy, if the farmers could donate some of these fresh fruits to supplement the kids’ lunches with fresh produce, that would be a great gift!


Sarah Henry March 26, 2012 at 8:29 am

Always fun to introduce a friend to something new in her neck of the woods. To be fair, the program has gotten some local press, and will likely generate more as word spreads. Stay tuned.


Alisa Bowman March 14, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Wow– that all looks delish!
Alisa Bowman´s last [type] ..5 Ways Not to Solve Your Marital Problems


Sarah Henry March 26, 2012 at 8:30 am

Well, I didn’t do any sampling the day I was at FoodWorks, Alisa, but I can confirm that everything did look — and smell — really good.


Jeanine Barone March 15, 2012 at 10:27 pm

I love jams, jellies and pickles of all sorts. This sounds like a wonderful operation producing some tasty products, that look good, too.


Sarah Henry March 16, 2012 at 1:29 pm

Am a fan of sweet and savory preserves too, Jeanine. What’s not to like?


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