Sno Pac Foods

10 08 2009

By Meredith Hart

Cleaning Peas - by Meredith HartAs we drove into the parking lot of Sno Pac Foods, it was clear from the rumbling, shiny machines sitting outside that this would be a unique experience. In the small town of Caledonia, Minnesota, tucked far behind a number of large factory buildings, Sno Pac works for many hours every day of the week, freezing organic produce and making a name for itself in the world of sustainability.

“People want to know where their food comes from,” said Peter Gengler, the third generation owner of Sno Pac.

In this case it comes from a farm and business that started over 100 years ago when J.P. Gengler, Pete’s great-grandfather, began shipping ice off a man-made pond to the warmer southern states. Later Pete’s grandfather, Leonard Gengler, began using his own ammonia freezer plant to store vegetables from his organic farm. As his business grew and transportation technology improved, he began distributing his frozen produce to greater Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin. The family business continued to succeed over the years, and is now run by Peter, the fourth generation Sno Pac owner, who has been dedicated to producing food ever since he started picking strawberries at five years of age. He has never looked back.

Throughout the past century, Sno Pac has always remained organic and has used sustainable land practices such as crop rotation and compost.

“When chemicals came along, grandpa didn’t go along with it,” said Pete smiling, leaning back against his chair. The following generations must have felt the same.

Peas - by Meredith HartImpressively, Sno Pac has continued to farm its own organic produce, churning out several million pounds a year of produce including peas, edamame, blueberries, and cranberries from their 2,000 acres of farmland. One thousand more acres are contracted out and farmed by other farmers. In peas alone, they freeze nearly 1.75 million pounds per year, much of which makes its way to distributors in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, California, and Colorado, while the rest is sent to other manufacturers such as Gerber to be made into baby food.

The fact that Sno Pac is organic has connected it to the organic and sustainability conscious community made up of co-ops, restaurants, and individuals interested in healthy, local food. St. Martin’s Table in the Cedar-Riverside area of Minneapolis, for example, purchases Sno Pac frozen food for its earth-friendly practices and its relatively close location.

Curious about how such a huge amount of food gets frozen in just one facility, we asked Peter for a tour. At that time, they were in the midst of freezing several tons of green peas. Surprisingly, a large part of freezing peas occurs outside in an area that is no more glamorous than a parking lot. Trucks dump peas that have been harvested mere hours before arrival onto the first in a series of conveyor belts. We watched as the blurred stream of bright green peas were hustled through an endless number of large glimmering machines all with the general purpose of cleaning the already shelled peas. Confused by the fact that this major part of the process was done outdoors, we asked Pete what they do when it rains: “We put on raincoats,” he replied casually.

In the summer, their 65 employees work seven days a week, much more than a typical full-time job, and the work isn’t easy. We observed people bustling around the roaring machines, cleaning, maintaining, and testing the peas as they moved through the process. It is not a glamorous job, but Pete told us many of the employees have been there for years and have become an extended family.

Pete Gengler - by Meredith HartFinally, like peas in our own freezing process, we moved indoors where the real magic happens. After being blanched in scalding water and rolled through a shape calculator, the peas are sent to the freezer and eventually a metal detector. A quick glance through the freezer door revealed a frozen world reminiscent of an Arctic cave with icy stalactites. Once the peas were frozen as hard as marbles, they were shot out of the freezer into large boxes and eventually packaged. We finished the tour with a greater understanding of how the things seen in the grocery store and on our plates have their own story, their own roller coaster of assembly lines and conveyor belts.

When sitting down at St. Martin’s Table in the dead of winter to get cozy with a bowl of split pea soup or cranberry dessert, you may wonder how those vegetables made it so far into the year without turning into a pile of compost. No, they didn’t fly in from a tropical land thousands of miles away. Rather, they were preserved long ago in a town just a few hours away for the very purpose of winter enjoyment. Sno Pac’s techniques and principles of being organic have made it a great choice for restaurants like St. Martin’s, but those ideas are not a product of the recent organic food craze. Sno Pac has been around as long as agricultural chemicals but it chose to go its own way; sustainable from the start.

To view more photos of Sno Pac, please see our Flickr slideshow.

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