Editor’s note: We’re chronicling how tech is changing the way we eat and drink as we lead up to this fall’s Food Loves Tech. Our annual deep dive into appropriate food and ag technologies returns to Industry City on November 2–3, 2018 and you can get $20 off the regular admission price while our early bird special lasts.
As winter turns to spring in New York City, the sight of fresh mesclun greens at the market can feel like a miracle for those who buy local produce.
This year, a more surprising locally-grown crop went on sale at stores like D’Agostino and Union Market: New Jersey blueberries.
The berries—harvested last summer—were frozen by a North Carolina-based company called Seal the Seasons, which just arrived in New York and will soon sell its frozen local produce on a much larger scale throughout the city and region, at major grocers like Shoprite and Whole Foods.
Seal the Seasons is one of many innovators tapping into the idea that freezing is an underutilized strategy when it comes to building regional food economies that provide consumers with the produce they want year-round and support small and mid-size farms.
Programs that connect local farmers to large institutions like hospitals and schools have been increasingly freezing fruits and vegetables, from Massachussets to Minnesota. Common Market studied how freezing produce could work as a strategy for food hubs and began using the strategy in the process. And in New York, Farm Bridge helps farmers and other producers, like Hudson Valley Harvest, freeze their food to sell to institutions and retailers.
“We’re seeing it happen all across the country in all kinds of ways,” says local food expert James Barham, PhD, an agricultural economist and food systems specialist at the United States Department of Agriculture. “Seal the Seasons is doing something on a bigger scale, which is really exciting.”
What’s old is new again
It started in 2014 at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, where Patrick Mateer launched the company while participating in the school’s social entrepreneurship program. Mateer worked at a farmers market and then a food hub, where he says he witnessed the demand for and benefits of local food, but also “all the problems with fresh, seasonal production.”
“By creating local frozen products, we eliminate seasonality and mirror what the customer is already buying on a national scale,” he says. In other words, buying frozen fruits and vegetables is nothing new. But what if instead of buying Dole strawberries shipped from around the world, North Carolinans could open the freezer case and buy strawberries grown at nearby Lyon Family Farms? “We allow them to buy local but not change their habits,” Mateer says.
Good for the grower
On the farm side, Seal the Seasons is able to purchase “mid-grade” produce farmers might have trouble selling fresh (it might be slighly less uniform in color or size, for example), which is good for the grower and keeps costs down for consumers.
Three years in, the company’s berries and peaches are sold at about 300 stores across North Carolina. It launched in New York in March with just berries, but by the end of summer it will also be selling New York cherries, a New York cherry-berry-apple blend and New Jersey peaches.
Of course, there are challenges, and at least one company that came before couldn’t make a similar model profitable. Founders of that business attributed their failure to lack of scale, though, and Seal the Seasons is raising lots of capital and plans to launch in several new regions before the end of 2018.
No matter how national the brand, though, Mateer promises each region will operate distinctly. “If you buy the New Jersey product, it’s grown, frozen, packaged, stored and sold in New Jersey and New York. We do everything locally.”