A few years ago, food entrepreneur Will Gray was struggling to find a full-scale copacker interested in working with fresh produce.
Gray was looking for a way to scale-up his business, Back Pocket Provisions, and get it out of his kitchen.
He ended up connecting with Allie Hill, the director of the nonprofit Virginia Food Works. Virginia Food Works is supported by Prince Edward County and helps manage the commercial clients that rely on the county’s public cannery, located in Farmville, Virginia, to produce their products.
“This place was like the find of the century for us because being able to match the scale of the equipment to the scale of the business has been a huge game changer,” Gray said. “I don’t know where we would be if we didn’t have this facility.”
Hill said Gray came to her and expressed his desire to use Virginia-grown tomatoes in his product.
“The reason why tomatoes were a good option is that Virginia is the third largest grower of tomatoes in the country after California and Florida,” Hill said.
On top of that Hill said Gray has been able to use tomatoes that are too blemished or misshapen to sell to a grocery store, but still perfectly fine for consumption, in his product.
“Why we do that is because we think that through that process we can build a stronger, local, regional food system using awesome local growers that are using sustainable practices,” Gray explained.
Hill came up with the idea to launch Virginia Food Works with the help of Prince Edward County after trying to pursue a local diet for her family of five.
Finding plenty of fresh produce at her local farmers market was easy, but Hill came up empty handed when she started searching for basic, locally-made pantry items like peanut butter and pasta sauce.
After that experience, Hill started researching why it was so difficult for her to find the locally-made pantry items and came across research conducted by Ken Meter with the Crossroads Resource Center.
“He surmised that in Virginia, 90-95 percent of the foods we eat come from outside of the state,” Hill said.
So she decided to do something about it and launched Virginia Food Works in 2012.
Now Virginia Food Works helps food entrepreneurs like Gray scale-up their recipes and work through the logistics of making sure their product meets state and federal food regulations.
On top of that, food entrepreneurs and farmers, who are looking to make a product for their farm stand, can rent the Prince Edward County Cannery for anywhere from $16-25 an hour, according to Hill.
“So it’s a very affordable way for them to take their production up to that next level and make 1,000 jars of something in a day – when they couldn’t do that at home so efficiently and so affordably,” Hill said.
Gray said being able to access the facility helped him test and scale-up his recipes.
“Part of the fun for me in working with Virginia Food Works and Prince Edward County Cannery is that it has taught me how to reconnect with that sort of a classic, almost like home-centered culture of growing fresh fruit, processing it safely, packing it away and then having it all year long,” Gray said.
Read more stories from Alix Hines on Circa.