generation wild blueberry grower Gail VanWart never planned on taking
over the family business. When she and her husband, Dan, inherited
Peaked Mountain Farm in 2002, they didn’t know much about farming. Gail
had a full-time marketing job and Dan was a paralegal. They used their
business acumen to apply for a Farms for the Future grant and soon
received help making a farm plan from mentors at the Maine Extension
program, Maine Department of Agriculture and Coastal Enterprises, Inc.
“It would have taken us years to gain the knowledge, [but these people]
were sitting right here with us and figuring out what we needed to do,”
says Gail. As it turned out, what they needed to do was far afield from
what they originally envisioned.
Gail’s great-grandfather purchased the 180-acre property in 1868 and
used it as sheep pasture. Of the 180 acres, only 25 are farmable; the
rest is mountain and granite. When Gail’s grandfather inherited the
property, he focused on gardening and woodcutting, while Gail’s
grandmother and eight daughters picked blueberries by hand. The women
took their berries into Bangor and sold them at Pickering Square. After
a childhood spent handpicking blueberries, Gail’s mother hated the
process, so when she inherited the farm, she and her husband leased the
fields to a commercial processor, eliminating the need for them to
Not only did this create a distance between Gail and the land; it also
wreaked havoc on the pasture. When Gail and Dan took over Peaked
Mountain Farm and walked the grounds, they noticed something amiss.
“The commercial processors had hundreds of fields to go to, so they
would rent an airplane and go around and spray them all,” she explains.
Gail believes some of the treatments applied to manage the crops more
easily and to increase yields may have killed beneficial insects and
plants as well as pests. This was partly why Gail and Dan decided to go
organic. Peaked Mountain Farm wild blueberries received organic
certification from Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
(MOFCA) in 2006.
Although it was important to the VanWarts to use sustainable growing
practices, they were under no delusion they could make their entire
living from selling fresh berries. The growing season in Maine is
limited, and their annual harvest was not enough to compete with the
large processors in the area. Their only equipment was a rake, and
technological upgrades seemed illogical for a farm with only 12
harvestable acres. (Wild blueberries produce a crop every two years, so
only half of the VanWarts’ acreage is harvestable each year).
grower/processor in Washington County offered to put their berries
through his fresh pack line. He sent the berries that did not meet the
quality standards for fresh pack to a freezer facility for IQF
(individually quick frozen) processing. Because they didn’t have any
freezer space, he stored their frozen berries. Ultimately, the 100-plus
mile trip to Jonesport every day was unsustainable. Gail was still
working 40 hours per week at her day job. “We knew at the end of the
season, we needed to process these on our land,” she says. Phase 2 of
their Farms for the Future grant provided them with funds for basic
equipment, a fresh pack line and a walk behind harvester. Once they
started processing their own berries, they discovered that it’s a lot
of work for two people to get crops off the land and into the
marketplace within four or five weeks.
From blueberries to
Value-added processing seemed the way to go, and since Gail’s homemade
blueberry-apple pickle was popular at their farm stand, they thought
they would market and promote that. “You can have a product off your
berries, and you can take more time to do it and to sell it. So, we
could put the berries away and turn four of five weeks of summertime
work into year-round work,” Gail explains. However, the farm plan that
their mentors helped them create was not what they expected. “We knew
we wanted to create a value-added product, but we did not anticipate
that wild blueberry dog treats would be it.”
The idea started out as a joke. The VanWart’s Border collie, Preshus,
used to go into the fields to check the berries. When they saw the dog
grazing, they knew the berries were ripe. Preshus lived to be 17 years
old, which they thought might be the result of her snacking habit.
Using human-grade, natural ingredients plus certified organic wild
blueberries, and a dog bone-shaped cookie cutter, Gail and Dan created
their first Bite O’ Blue dog treats. The treats were a hit with their
dog, but developing the recipe was just the first step in getting their
product to market. Labeling would prove a greater, multistep challenge.
Step 1: Licensing
While Maine officials charge only $20 for the license to make pickles
for people, they charge $100 per year for the license for dog treats.
In addition, the state Department of Agriculture requires a “guaranteed
analysis” for each product prior to submitting a license application.
Step 2: Guaranteed Analysis
To get the guaranteed analysis, they make the dog treat and send it to
the lab. The lab measures the crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber,
moisture content and ash for each product. Moisture content is
important because it affects shelf life. If the VanWarts change the dog
treat recipe, they have to go through the process again.
Step 3: Labeling, State by State
Surprised to learn that labeling guidelines are more stringent for dog
treats than for foods intended for human consumption, Gail describes
labeling as “a nightmare.” Each state has different requirements, so
the VanWarts found themselves revisiting the process several times to
make necessary changes. “Something else keeps getting added because
we’ve gone into another state and have to have one more thing,” says
Association of American Feed Control Officials, Inc. (AAFCO) publishes
guidelines for pet food products. However, each state seems to
interpret or enforce the guidelines differently. All states require
that processors list ingredients by quantity, but each state has
different requirements for listing other things, like net weight. “It
really surprised me that there isn’t one federal license,” she says.
“It’s overwhelming to me that we have this big booklet for all the
different licenses due at different times. Being a farmer is not just
sitting home growing blueberries.”
After jumping the labeling hurdles, they enjoyed the excitement of
marketing their product. In 2005, they introduced Bite O’ Blue at the
New England Product Trade Show, with a fold-up table, a few signs, some
business cards and the dog treats. They were surprised at the reaction.
Inspired by the positive feedback, the couple applied for the USDA
Value-Added Producer grant. They received Phase 1 in 2006 to do a
feasibility study. Market Ventures of Portland, Maine, and Karp
Resources of New York conducted the study in New England and the
greater New York City area. The response was 80 percent positive with
few suggested changes.
In 2007, they applied for Phase 2 of the USDA Value Added Product grant
but didn’t receive it. In 2008, they reapplied, being more careful
about how they presented themselves, and were awarded the grant. Using
creative marketing, they brought the treats to trade shows in
Baltimore, Chicago and again to the NE Product Trade Show.
Growing and growing
Since 2007, the business has grown steadily. “It went from a joke to
where it is today,” reports Gail happily, who, along with her husband,
has quit her day job. For the first few years, the VanWarts sold both
fresh berries and dog treats, but in 2008, they decided to put all of
their faith in Bite O’ Blue.
The Bite O’ Blue operation has outgrown the VanWart’s kitchen where it
started, so they have reconfigured their work and office space and
converted the old kitchen into a small production area, with more
dehydrators and other equipment. Currently, it’s a two-person
operation, but they are exploring the possibility of hiring help.
For this dynamic couple, the fun is in promoting the product. “It is
the marketing where we really do shine,” she says. Gail has used her
background in marketing and graphic design to create eye-catching
materials, and Dan has drawn on his paralegal training to trademark the
name “Bite O’ Blue” and to copyright the product’s Web site. Yet, when
they spend time spreading the word (and product samples) at trade
shows, they must take time away from the necessary functions of
creating the dog treats. Their goal is to set up their space so that
it’s easy for employees to work routine hours making the treats while
they run the show.
The VanWarts entered the dog treat business not as pet industry people,
but as farmers making a product; now they straddle both worlds. As they
learn about dogs’ dietary needs and issues, they garner the information
they need to improve their product and create new lines. Most recently,
when they learned that some dogs have wheat allergies, they developed a
grain-free dog treat. The make the grain-free treats with wild
blueberries and chicken broth powder and dehydrate them at 135 degrees
to create a chewy texture. (They bake the original recipe treats, which
contain eggs and wheat, to kill bacteria and create a crunchy biscuit.)
The VanWarts shy away from growing too quickly for fear the overhead
may be too much to handle. As it is, the economy has taken a toll on
their business, but they don’t intend to let that slow their stride.
“We say the worst that can happen is, we go back to working for someone
else,” says Gail. “This year is the total test, because we’re all on
The author is a
freelance writer based in Massachusetts and a frequent contributor to
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