Facilitating Food Production

In the past five years, Liberty Grove’s economic development committee has discussed ways to boost the town’s economy by attracting new businesses and supporting the ones that already call the top of the peninsula home.

“There were several pieces of discussion about the fact that we’re a rural community, people grow things, foods,” said committee member David Studebaker. “There’s a desire for a business incubator. There are small businesspeople trying to sell their stuff at farm markets that are having a hard time.”

Studebaker talked to Mary Pat Carlson, owner of Wildwood Farm Market just south of Ellison Bay, who happens to be the regional resource for getting food businesses going. She’s helped create food-based business incubators, usually in the form of shared commercial kitchens, around the state.

It all started with Carlson’s desire to keep the family business on Wildwood Road going. Carlson’s husband’s family has owned the property since 1846, and planted a small cherry orchard in the early 1900s. She and her husband bought the property 23 years ago and started growing specialty vegetables and opening trees to the pick-your-own market.

“When we started, cherries were pennies a pound,” Carlson said. “How can you keep an orchard running? You just can’t – so you have to add value. We do bakery, we do fresh, we do pick-your-own and we’re one of the only ones that deliver fresh to the stores.”

Adding Value

That’s where the commercial kitchens come in. Carlson needed a place to make jam to sell at her market and saw a need for a shared space that small-scale producers could use to supplement their farming income by turning produce into canned, baked and dried goods.

“There has to be an incentive for farmers to stay in farming,” Carlson said. “They either have to get really large or they have to find a way to add value.”

Eleven years ago Carlson founded the Farm Market Kitchen in Algoma, a nonprofit commercial kitchen that’s helped get around 150 local food-based businesses off the ground, and she’s helped with similar projects around the state.

While some of those businesses have stayed cozy mom-and-pop operations, some have grown enough to build their own facilities, hire employees and export product. That, Carlson said, is thanks to the technical support they got through the Farm Market Kitchen.

When someone signs up to rent space from the kitchen, Carlson and other staff help the fledgling business set up a business plan, get licensed, make labels and get their products to the shelves.

JoAnne M. Penny, of Penny Lane Farm in Baileys Harbor, was one of those fledgling businesses. She learned how to make Thai food while living in Thailand, and started producing sauce for sale in 2005 at the Farm Market Kitchen in Algoma.

“To have your own kitchen is rather expensive, and you have to have it only for that use and there’s quite a few regulations that go along with it,” Penny said. “It really helps me that I can just go there and rent it for so many hours to make my product.”

Penny still uses the Algoma kitchen, but said she’d use a site in Liberty Grove if it were available. It would be closer, and being in a more popular tourist area could help her get the word out about her sauces.

“You have people doing these new products, and you could have them do demonstrations to show how to use a product,” Penny said. “I think that would draw people [in Door County] more than in Algoma.”

Finding Support

Although there hasn’t been a formal survey of Door County residents, Carlson said there’s probably enough support for a kitchen. She estimated 10 to 12 Door County businesses currently use the Algoma kitchen.

“The interest in Door County has always been pretty significant because we have a lot of entrepreneurs that are creative and have an interest in foods and local foods,” Carlson said. “We’re sitting in a county that has an amazing selection of specialty crops to choose from, between our fruits and specialty vegetables. We have a strong character and heritage with food up here.”

But finding people to use a kitchen isn’t all Liberty Grove needs to get the project started. The town would have to come up with funding to get equipment, staff and a facility in order to move forward.

“The idea of facilitating that for others is really exciting,” Studebaker said. “The key issue here is going to be the initial funding and how that would happen, I don’t know. We have to get enough people feeling that it’s a good thing that either they’d approve public funding or we could find people who would participate on a private basis.”

On Tuesday, Aug. 13, at the Liberty Grove Economic Development Committee meeting, Carlson is scheduled to present a proposal that will highlight how much it would cost to do an initial interest survey and write a preliminary plan for getting a kitchen up and running.

“This isn’t something that’s going to happen in 90 days, even if all the stars were in line,” Studebaker said. “I’m sure this is a multi-year kind of thing. But at the moment, my personal feeling is that it really is a good fit for Liberty Grove because it would be suitable for the environment we have here, it would attract new business and create new business opportunities for people.”