Growing small-scale produce processing capacity in Iowa

April 9, 2021

Iowans know fresh, local produce is tasty and good for them. But how can small businesses or non-profits keep supplying local vegetables to clients through long Midwest winters?

Group of people standing in storage area.
The team made a site visit to Prudent Produce, a food aggregator and distributor based in Elkhart.

One potential solution: a mobile produce processing cart allowing them to can or freeze the vegetables.

The Mobile Produce Processing Cart Project builds on five years of ISU research into processing needs for Iowa’s food businesses. “We’re working with food businesses and organizations statewide interested in adding to their capacity by processing fresh local produce,” said Lisa Bates, design specialist with Community and Economic Development. These businesses include aggregators and distributors, producers and non-profits.

“We hope that in the end, we will have a cart that entrepreneurs can roll into a licensed and inspected space to add value to their produce,” said Shannon Coleman, food safety specialist with Human Sciences Extension and Outreach. The trailer-style cart will contain modules for washing, processing, packaging and labeling produce.

Engaging with partners

Between August 2020 and June 2021, the ISU team will collaborate with up to 12 case-study partners. The partners will participate in on-site interviews, focus groups and mobile cart design discussions. They also will provide financial information to help the team estimate costs. A final report will detail conceptual designs for a modular processing cart. Next steps: development of a prototype cart and piloting its use with businesses.

Coolers at Iowa Food Coop in Des Moines.

The project includes four components:

  • Food safety licensing and regulations
  • Business development and feasibility
  • Design and development of equipment
  • Local food procurement availability

The goals to address these components include:

  • Enhance knowledge of procurement, processing design and regulations impacting fresh produce processing for Iowa businesses.
  • Identify the relevance and the need of growers and processors interested in mobile produce processing.
  • Educate food organizations on food safety requirements and required trainings.
  • Understand the cost analysis and feasibility of mobile produce processing carts.
  • Determine the capacity and use of the cart for food organizations.
  • Realize the needed scale for permanent structure for further processing needs and the goals of food organizations.

Addressing food safety concerns

The project team includes staff from FFED, CED and Human Sciences. “This allows us to take a multi-pronged approach to these projects and address processing concerns including business operations, food safety regulation and processing design,” said Bates.

Outdoor sink.
Hand-washing station at the packing shed for Lutheran Services in Iowa’s farm.

The team also partnered with students in two ISU College of Engineering capstone courses. The first group created a conceptual design of the mobile processing carts. A second group of students will now refine the designs based on internal and external partner feedback.

Coleman said, “During the development of this cart, we are making sure to address any food safety concern inspectors may have regarding the equipment. We have met with the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals on the food safety concerns they have with the cart design.” She added, “We hope to have supplemental training on the cart that will address both production and food safety.”

Related resource: Scaling Up Specialty Crop Processing Toolkit. Provides an overview of criteria for food businesses interested in processing specialty crops through value-added processing opportunities such as product development, commercial kitchens, increasing scales, and more. 62 pp., free PDF download.