Pocket Your Profits With Creative Marketing: 
Value-Added Business Strengthens Family Farm, Sprouts Returns

by Jane Sooby

For "the price of a used tractor," Ken and Karla Disney of Lodgepole, NE, built a food processing facility at their farm and purchased a refrigerated delivery truck.

Sprouts - alfalfa, sunflower, clover, and a "hot mix" of radish, cabbage, and mustard sprouts - are the Disneys' main products, but Ken plans to expand his product line to include milled flours.

More and more farmers are finding creative ways to process a commodity on the farm and then sell it as food. This is called "value-added" marketing, and gives farmers greater control over the end-use and marketing of their crops.

"It (the sprout business) has increased our overall sales substantially, with a fraction of that increase in expenses," said Ken.

Ken has a full-scale organic farming operation as well as the sprouting business. He grows amaranth, wheat, millet, oats, sweetclover, sunflower, barley, and other crops. By constructing the food processing facility, Ken and Karla took the next step in controlling the processing and sale of their crops.

"We're sprouting now, and we'll be milling in the future," said Ken, who has a small mill with which he can make many types of flour using fresh organic grain. He and Karla have also investigated numerous industrial-strength popping machines with which to pop amaranth grain. Popped amaranth can be eaten as a cereal or pressed into snack-sized cakes. Amaranth has a sweeter flavor and is higher in protein than corn. Popped amaranth cakes held together with honey are popular treats in India.

The sprout business, using the brand name Lodgepole Creek, has grown steadily over the 1 years Ken and Karla have run it. "Our primary customer is restaurants," said Ken. "90% of the business goes to salad bars and deli sandwiches."

He has had some success in marketing sprouts to conventional grocery stores, yet has built up a faithful clientele through the four health food stores in western Nebraska. Ken's white-bladed wheatgrass leaves, made from sprouting hard red winter wheat, are excellent for making wheatgrass juice, which is considered a cleansing and detoxifying beverage.

Merely soaking wheat seed in water for a few days creates a value-added product, sprouted wheat berries, that are a healthy snack food. "They're sweet and chewy - better than Bacon Bits," said Ken. Soaked lentils and peas make satisfying "munchies," too.

Ken has experimented with many types of sprouts, including buckwheat, pea, barley, and amaranth. This last was inspired when Ken described amaranth sprouts to Karla: "It has a pretty, pink sprout that would look good in salads." Despite their attractive appearance, amaranth sprouts have a bitter aftertaste.

Ken and Karla demonstrated how sprout production works. Small seeds are sprouted in a large, rotating drum. Alfalfa, clover, and hot mix seeds (mustard, cabbage, and radish) are first soaked for 8-12 hours. This cleans the seed, swells it, and initiates the germination process. The drum consists of four 5' x 2' quadrants, each served by a spray bar with four nozzles. The drum slowly turns, making a complete rotation about once every 5 hours. Seeds are sprayed at intervals while they are turned in the drum. Germination occurs within about 24 hours.

The sprouts are removed from the drum with a long-handled spatula that closely resembles a plastic oar. They are placed into tubs containing water and the hulls are rinsed off. This improves sprout shelf life and the appearance of the sprouts. After rinsing, the sprouts are placed into the spinner, which is a washing machine that has been inspected and approved for this use. Ken and Karla previously used a restaurant-sized salad spinner to get excess water off of the sprouts, but this process was labor-intensive and didn't dry the sprouts adequately. Since starting to use the "spin" cycle on their special-use washing machine, the Disneys regained some customers who had left because the sprouts were too wet when spun by hand.

After the sprouts are spun for a few minutes, they are fluffed, unclumped and packaged for sale.

Large-seeded sprouts, like sunflowers, peas, and wheat, are produced by first soaking the seeds, then placing 1 lb. of seed into a tray. The trays are placed on a rack, covered for 3 days, and watered twice daily. This helps even out germination. The trays are then uncovered, the sprouts allowed to grow, and after a few days are harvested by hand. In the case of sunflower sprouts, hulls must be picked off individually by hand.

It takes 5 days to produce sprouts from small seed and 11 days to produce sprouts from large seed. All of the seed used for sprouting is organic.

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