Fields Forward Society, Creston BC, Kootenay Mobile Press Project

Jun 10, 2021 | Story

Blemished Fruit Receives a Second Life

Creston Valley farmers create value add product from waste

It’s a slightly cloudy day and the leaves on the trees are turning orange. Crates of apples sit in a field. Nearby, a mobile fruit press churns, its walls propped up to reveal its inner workings. In this machinery, the apples journey from whole fruit into liquid. The beverage then gets bagged and boxed and labelled with the words “KOOTENAY 100% Pure Juice.”

The result is a tasty drink—and a whole lot more.  For not only does the consumer benefit, but so do local farmers, the workforce, the local economy, the community in general and even the environment…all thanks to the Fields Forward Society, based in Creston, and its Kootenay Mobile Press.

With a $25,000 grant from the Economic Trust of the Southern Interior (ETSI-BC), and additional funders including the Regional District of Central Kootenay, the provincial government, and the Kootenay Employments Services Society, a mobile press was purchased and began to turn agricultural waste into profit.

Tanya Wall is Vice-Chair of Fields Forward. She says that the fruit press “has definitely been an added advantage to the agricultural community.” She thanks ETSI-BC for helping them set out on this path. “It’s through grant funding that projects like this get off the ground, and we’re very thankful for that,” she says. “It has now leveraged other dollars.  ETSI-BC’s money is a kind of “seed grant” – a very appropriate term for an organization that supports economic development, entrepreneurship, and community aspirations.

From field to market

When it comes to food, “We throw so much away,” Wall says. In a store, a consumer may select only the most beautiful fruit, leaving blemished ones behind. Many less-than-perfect items never make it to a shelf at all.  Instead, this “culled” fruit is left unpicked on the trees or thrown away.

“The Creston Valley is a huge, diverse agricultural area,” Wall says, and is particularly known for its cherries. Unfortunately, due to culling practices, “We were seeing thousands and thousands of pounds of cherries going into the landfill because there was no market for them.”

Some producers were already reducing this waste—and benefiting financially—by making juice, but the juicer had to be brought in from the Okanagan. Travel time bumped up costs, plus the juicer could only be used by farmers whose fruit happened to be ready at just the right time.

The solution was to buy a press for ongoing, collective use in the valley. Then, in addition to selling their whole products at fruit stands, in their driveways, at farmers’ markets and in grocery stores, farmers could make juice, and other items, with fruit that might otherwise be left in the field or composted.

“Now, Wall says, you could take culled fruit—that was still fine—and make a secondary product.” In 2020, the press processed 109,000 litres of apple and cherry juice, preventing over 450,000 pounds of culled fruit from becoming waste.

The press also creates employment. First, more farm labour is needed to pick all that previously abandoned fruit. Second, the press itself requires about eight employees each harvest season. Fields Forward also has one employee. In addition, Fields Forward earns income by renting the press to producers and selling the bags, boxes and bottles used to package the juice. The society then reinvests this money into other initiatives that help the local agricultural sector. “It’s a cycle,” Wall says.

Community benefits from new product development

The press has proven its versatility. “We’ve done peach, we’ve done beets, we’ve done watermelon,” Wall says. “It can pretty much do anything.” Juice is the principal product and in one hour, the press can process, pasteurize and package 750 litres of juice—or up to 15,000 pounds of fruit every day. The juice is shelf-stable for a year.

Currently, consumers can buy juice made by Just-A-Mere Organic Farm in Creston’s Pealow’s grocery store or in Nelson at Kootenay Co-op. Faraman Farm in Erickson sells its own products, as does Creston’s Wloka Farms Fruit Stand. These are just a few examples.

Farmers have also used the press to make fruit leather or have dehydrated cherry juice to make cherry powder. One has taken apple pulp, dehydrated it, compressed it and ground it into a sweet flour that can be used instead of sugar.

The press also has broader impact. Through its Harvest Share initiative, Fields Forward has given apple juice to all elementary schools in the valley for their breakfast programs. Food banks have received juice. Christmas hampers have included juice. Schools and community groups can make their own juice and sell it as fundraisers. Families and friends can come with fruit and make juice to take home. The press has travelled throughout the Kootenays for various “press fests.”

In addition, the pandemic has highlighted the desire—and need—to purchase food grown and processed nearby. “We’ve found that people are really looking at what they can get locally,” Wall says. So, while the purchase of the press was driven by the needs of farmers and producers, “It became a real addition to food sustainability in our valley and the Kootenays.” Despite pandemic-driven challenges like a shortage of packaging, Wall says, 2020 was “a really good season.”

An idea that has blossomed

Now, the press has become a “signature for the Creston Valley,” Wall says. However, its effects have extended beyond those boundaries. Its success has shown farmers near and far about the value of “thinking outside the box and coming up with that innovative solution for a secondary product.” It has inspired them to ponder new ideas when it comes to using fruits or vegetables that are “maybe not consumer-perfect.” This one purchase has also sparked a bigger initiative.  Fields Forward is now spearheading the development of the Kootenay Farms Food Hub. This facility, to be located in Creston, will provide space and equipment to producers from across the region so they can create a wide variety of foods and beverages.