News Column

USDA Grant Winners Want in on Leafy Greens Market

May 13, 2013

Any business owner will tell you, introducing a new product is expensive, risky and an upward challenge.

But the owners of San Miguel Produce Inc. and Nishimori Family Farms, two partnering agriculture businesses in Oxnard, Calif., are getting monetary help to introduce their new Asian and conventional leafy greens salads and stir fry kits.

The United States Department of Agriculture recently awarded the family farm and food processor/marketer $300,000 each in matching grants, the top amount the agency can award, to cover the high marketing and consumer education costs that it takes to introduce new products to retailers and restaurants.

"The marketing grants really help us to be more proactive in our reach to retailers and some consumers who will help us get these onto shelves," said Jan Berk, vice president of San Miguel Produce. "It's hard to get new products in, especially ones that are not real common."

Such as yu choy (a type of cabbage), baby bok choy, snow pea shoots and Chinese sausage, the ingredients in one of the new Asian stir fry kits by Nishimori Farms. The kits target Asian consumers, particularly the second-generation that value convenience over price, and the American consumer less-familiar with how to cook Asian greens but curious to learn, Berk said. The kits come with Chinese spices and simple, short stir-fry directions.

The USDA's Rural Development agency awards the grants and requires the two businesses to match the funds and demonstrate a growing customer base and a revenue increase. They aim to encourage growers toward vertical integration -- to process and package their produce, said Glenda Humiston, state director for the program.

The hope is that the successful recipients will hire more people, create higher value products that earn more profit and ultimately connect Californians closer to their food supply, Humiston said.

"They get their hands on that value-added profit margin that might (otherwise) be going to a middle man," Humiston said.

Out of $16.8 million awarded in 110 grants across the country, seven grants worth $1.5 million were awarded to California growers, according to the USDA.

San Miguel Produce is owned by Berk and her husband Roy Nishimori, and Channel Islands Farms is owned by Roy's cousin Steve Nishimori. The cousins are third-generation California family farmers and niche growers, and the two businesses own Nishimori Family Farms, which specializes in the Asian leafy greens.

"That was the purpose of getting together," Roy said, "to take these ethnic vegetables and introduce them to the Asian market and mainstream market in the United States, and especially the second-generation Asians."

Nishimori Farms will use the grant money to market under the Jade line the Asian stir fry kit and a ready-to-eat Asian salad called EnerChi of bok choy, snow pea shoots, mustard greens, carrots and other greens.

San Miguel Produce is marketing several new salad kits under the Cut'N Clean Greens brand with the "super greens," such as organic kale, spinach and beet greens. The businesses have been trying to reposition the historical cooking greens as salad greens to the health-conscious market because of their high nutrient value when raw or lightly cooked, Berk said.

"You don't have to cook the health out of them," Berk said. "The focus for us is to focus more on educating consumers you can eat kale raw, and the beet varsities."

Although the farms currently sell conventional leafy greens to buyers of cooking vegetable at supermarkets such as Safeway and Kroger, they have to to start from scratch to convince salad buyers to take on their products, Berk said.

The grant money will be spent on retail production promotions, such as buying ad space in retail flyers, paying system setup fees, paying for rebates and buying shelving and racking systems, displays and signage, Berk said.

"Each retailer is very different so we have to work our way through those nuances," Berk said. "Bringing in some oddball greens like this -- it's an expense and a risk. It (the grant money) helps us to help get that barrier down."

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(c)2013 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.)

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Source: Copyright Ventura County Star (CA) 2013


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