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Baby carrot business grows up - Hutterites, development group to team up on plant

December 10, 2003View for printing

When a water shortage stunted his carrot crop in 1995, Paul Wipf got creative.

By KAREN OGDEN Tribune Regional Editor

As head gardener for the Riverview Hutterite Colony south of Chester, Wipf was stuck with almost six tons of carrots that were too small for grocery store buyers' tastes.

"We'd take 'em to Great Falls and they'd send 'em right back," he said.

In desperation, he rigged up a machine to cut them into two-inch plugs and sold the tiny carrots to 2J's market in Great Falls. He had read about baby carrots in a trade magazine.

Eight years later, baby carrots are a booming business for Riverview, where the colony women process roughly 60 tons a year for Albertsons, Smith's and other major grocery stores in the Golden Triangle, Seattle and Portland, Ore.

The only problem, said Wipf, is that the business has outgrown the colony's labor force.

He's teamed up with economic developers to propose a large-scale carrot-processing cooperative in northcentral Montana.

The plant would create more than 40 jobs and return processing profits to farmers instead of shipping the raw crop out of state.

Bear Paw Development , a Havre-based economic development corporation, will hold a series of public meetings Thursday in Conrad, Fort Benton, Chinook and Chester to gauge interest in building a regional carrot plant and to help farmers learn more about the vegetable industry.

A feasibility study already is under way through a $32,500 grant from the Montana Department of Agriculture's Growth Through Ag program and a $7,000 Community Development Block Grant from the state Department of Commerce.

Global Development Services http://www/ of Stevensville recently was hired to conduct the study, which kicks off with Thursday's tour.

"This is an exciting project and we continue to have a lot of hope that at the end of the day this is going to be feasible," said Paul Tuss, executive director at Bear Paw.

The feasibility study will gauge market potential, survey farmers' interest in growing carrots and measure the overall economic feasibility of a carrot plant.

"We need to really take a look at what this very qualified firm tells us is the market out there," Tuss said. "How far do we need to go from Chester to plant these carrots? How many growers do we need to get on board with this project and actually grow carrots."

The Hi-Line town of Chester is the proposed site because of its central location, good soils and proximity to irrigation water from Tiber Reservoir. Carrots don't grow in Montana without irrigation.

But it will be up to the feasibility study to recommend the best location, Wipf said.

The study will survey Glacier, Toole, Liberty, Hill, Blaine, Teton, Pondera, Choteau and Cascade counties.

A cooperative of area farmers would grow the carrots and own and operate the plant. Profits would either be invested in the plant or returned to farmers.

The venture could eventually expand to other vegetables.

In addition to Wipf and Tuss, Thursday's meetings will have question and answer sessions with Fraser McLeay of Global Development Services and Wayne Wardell, vice president of the Bear Paw Development board.

Wardell also is the mayor of Chester.

Jobs precious

Wardell's watched at least 25 jobs evaporate in his town during the past five years as implement dealerships, grain elevators and manufacturers go out of business in a changing farm economy.

There are a lot of unknowns about what type of work the plant would create and how well the jobs would pay, Wardell said.

"Just at first blush it looks to me like it would work, but it's going to depend on the people in this area, whether they want to get involved in it or not."

The Riverview Colony grows roughly three acres of carrots a year, marketed under the Montana Fresh Cut label from Riverview Produce.

The colony's 125 residents share earnings from the colony's agriculture ventures.

Colony members live communally, maintaining family homes, but eat meals together in a large kitchen.

Like the Amish, Hutterites are Anabaptists, meaning they choose baptism as adults.

Although they live a spare lifestyle, they embrace modern farm technology.

Riverview's three acres of carrots may sounds like a garden patch in comparison to Montana's vast wheat farms of 2,500 acres or more.

But it amounts to 60 tons of carrots.

Pound per pound raw carrots sell at about the same price as wheat -- about six cents, Wipf said.

But after processing, the colony earns roughly 13 cents per pound from its carrots.

Like any crop, carrots are vulnerable to Mother Nature.

Last summer's drought forced Wipf to water the carrot crop more than usual.

The heat and extra water grew the roots too large to make baby carrots. As a result, the colony grossed roughly $5,500 per acre, compared to $9,000 per acre the previous year, when it processed the crop into baby carrots.

But overall, Wipf said the venture has been a moneymaker.

"We know it can be done. In the Riverview Colony ... they've been growing carrots very successfully and processing these things into baby carrots for a decade," Tuss said. "To some degree we're already over the hurdle of 'Can you grow baby carrots in northcentral Montana'?"

Frost adds flavor

Carrots are cut out for Montana's hot summer days and cool nights, Wipf said.

Planting starts in mid-April and can continue through mid-July.

The growing cycle is roughly four months, meaning carrots can be harvested into October.

Early season frosts don't hurt the crop, Wipf said.

"We swear that just puts flavor to them."

Wipf said Riverview's customers prefer the carrots over California varieties for their sweet flavor and strong color -- a product of rich soils and cool nights.

"We have people who buy them for juicing and say there's just no comparison," Wipf said.

Processing doesn't stop with the final fall harvest.

In good years, Riverview has processed stored carrots well into March.

Input costs are low, Wipf said. Riverview doesn't use fertilizer or preservatives.

His biggest crop pests are deer, which are kept out by a tall fence. In a larger-scale operation, the deer wouldn't make a significant dent in production, he said.

Demand for baby carrots continues to grow, Wipf said.

Riverview caters to a market a world away from its communal kitchen, where vegetables are prepared from seed to plate by the colony women.

Baby carrots are popular for party platters and with harried families who want their vegetables fast.

"People want something to eat now without having to sit down and cook it and peel it," Wipf said.

Despite the hot market, baby carrots aren't an option for the typical family farm, Wipf said.

Riverview overcame a huge learning curve to launch its baby carrot business.

Its first sales were to 2Js in Great Falls and Price Right in Fort Benton in 1995.

"They were very patient with us throughout the process, Wipf said.

The first batches succumbed to "white blush," a harmless, but unsightly white coating on the outside of the carrot, after one week.

Wipf learned that 75 percent of the carrots' shelf life depends on the packaging, which he now special orders.

The colony started marketing to Albertsons and Smith's in Great Falls in 1998 and 1999.

Early in the venture, Wipf found that large producers wouldn't respond to his requests for advice.

But smaller growers catering to niche markets were willing to help.

Wipf haunted the organic produce sections of grocery stores, gleaning addresses and phone numbers from the backs of vegetable packages.

"I've talked to people all over the U.S. trying to learn from them," he said.

As the venture grew, Riverview considered buying a carrot processing facility for sale in Portland, Ore.

But the operation employs more than 50 people, including truckers, packers and farm help -- far beyond the colony's labor force.

He contacted Tuss at Bear Paw and the project was rolling within weeks.

"The project in the big picture has implications not just for northcentral Montana, but all of Montana," Tuss said. "These guys have proven in my opinion to be incredibly progressive in extending their hand to the non-Hutterite community and it's worked out so far beautifully."


Bear Paw Development

48 Second Avenue

PO Box 170

Havre, Montana 59501

(406) 265-9226 - voice

(406) 265-5602 - fax

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