From the Ground Up
Husk hopes to reinvigorate local food processing
Husk’s products, such as this sweet corn from last year, come in distinctive packaging that looks like brown paper bags.
Selling direct to the public is nothing new to Adam Moody and his family, which for more than a decade have been direct-retailing the beef, pork and chicken raised on their Montgomery County farm.
But their latest venture is something new. The Moodys and two partners are now doing a very rare thing, and that’s selling locally sourced frozen vegetables.
Called Husk, the company started in 2013. Last year it sold just sweet corn but it’s adding peas, green beans and butternut squash to its product line this year. The idea, said founders Adam Moody and Nick Carter, is to produce frozen vegetables that taste like they were put up at home instead of in a processing plant.
Husk’s central premise is that local food is not a fad and that even a commercially processed product can taste fresher and better if it’s locally grown and handled correctly.
“Our corn tastes like Grandma froze it,” Moody said.
Something else that’s important to Husk, Carter and Moody said, is taking local food to the next level of public acceptance.
“What is really going to be a game changer for local food?” Carter said. “What is (going to) actually propel local food to be a mainstay on the grocery shelf?”
The answer, he and Moody agreed, is local processing.
“We decided to start a processing plant,” Carter said. The founders of the new enterprise are Moody, who farms in southern Montgomery County with his wife and children; Carter, who left his family’s farm 10 years ago to work in business but eventually created a small company called Meat the Rabbit that produces farm-raised game meats; and Chris Baggott, founder of Tyner Pond Farm, which produces pasture-raised pork and chicken and grass-fed beef.
The three signed the operating agreement for the new venture on May 1, 2013; they found space for the plant by June 15; and by July 15, they were cutting corn.
The speed with which the new company was formed might make it appear much easier than it actually was. There are, it turns out, many problems associated with beginning a new food processing company, and these are in addition to finding a site on which to locate the plant.
Husk had to find growers. It had to find equipment of suitable scale and efficiency. It had to fine-tune its freezing process. And it had to find places to sell its product.
The farms that produce for Husk are all within 20 miles of the Mt. Comfort, Ind., processing plant, which can process more than 200,000 pounds of sweet corn during the two-month season. Using nearby farms ensures that the product is picked (or “yanked”) only a few hours before it’s frozen, Moody said.
“The standard (in the frozen food industry) is around 36 hours from yank to freeze, and we’re shooting for six to eight hours,” he said.
Finding equipment was a much bigger problem.
“We started so late, and to find small-scale processing equipment was” – and here Moody paused – “Well, some was OK but some was really impossible.” Processing equipment for small-scale operations such as Husk simply isn’t common.
Moody compared it to asking John Deere “for a brand-new, four-row corn planter. They’d look at you and go ‘What’s a four-row corn planter?’ There’s just no market for it so they quit making them.” This is why, Carter said, Husk ended up buying its corn-cutter from China.
“In this country for the last 30 years there’s been no small-scale, local, regional food processing,” Carter said. “There are no vendors here because there’s no customers for them.”
The shucker they got from China was, however, a destructive mess, taking the shucks off but also smashing the kernels. Husk ended up shucking corn by hand most of last year. Near the end of the sweet corn season, they found a company in Wisconsin that made a small shucker, and that’s what they’ll be using this year.
Finding places to sell the product hasn’t been easy. The supermarket chains were the biggest challenge. Chains located in a limited geographic area, such as Marsh or Cincinnati’s Remke chain, weren’t nearly as challenging as the nationwide Kroger chain.
“The whole system’s been refined and refined and refined for 30 years to the most efficient level,” and what’s most efficient is to have the same product selection in every store, Carter explained. Husk is now available in 200 stores in six states, and among the stores are Marsh, Indiana Krogers, supermarket chains in St. Louis, Chicago and Cincinnati, and virtually all the independent health-food stores.
“We’ve had to jump through all their hoops, but there haven’t been any noes,” Carter said.
Nick Carter (left) and Adam Moody pose by bins of Indiana-grown snow peas that are about to be washed, blanched, packaged and frozen for sale at one of 200 grocery stores in Indiana and nearby states. In the background is the machine that will portion the sweet corn, peas, green beans and squash that Husk, Carter’s and Moody’s company, will sell this year.
Frozen peas – Husk is trying three different kinds this year – await shipment in Husk’s freezer, located just a few feet from where it was packaged. The company expects to start packaging sweet corn by mid-July.
Two of Husk’s workers sort blanched snow peas in preparation for packaging.