Iowa Public Television

 

Midwest Harvest Tofu

posted on June 16, 2000


The potential of soybeans is undeniable. But to fully exploit it, entrepreneurs must identify market niches and accommodate the sometimes fickle tastes of consumers.

That can be a daunting task even for giant corporations. But "agri-preneurs", farmers seeking to add value to what they produce, do enjoy the advantage of adaptability.

From field to store aisle, they are close to every aspect of production and can alter output to satisfy taste and demand at a moment's notice. Indeed, most of the time these folks are ahead of the curve. A case in point can be found in this examination last winter of the thriving venture of two iowa farm families. Nancy Crowfoot reports.

IT MAY NOT LOOK IT, BUT THIS IS A FAMILY FARM OPERATION.

A FEW MORNINGS A WEEK OF PROCESSING AND PACKAGING AND A FEW AFTERNOONS SPENT IN THE TEST KITCHEN.

SINCE JANUARY 1999 THIS HAS BEEN THE ROUTINE FOR ALESIA LACINA. HER SISTER, FRANCENE AND THEIR HUSBANDS, TOM LACINA AND DAVE COONS. THEY BUY ORGANIC SOYBEANS FARMED BY A NEIGHBOR AND THEY OPERATE LACINA'S 320-ACRE FARM IN CENTRAL IOWA WHERE, AMONG OTHER THINGS, THEY GROW FOOD-GRADE SOYBEANS FOR THE TOFU FACTORY IN THEIR BACKYARD.

TOM LACINA: "Our process is a traditional, it's called a momain tofu, or regular tofu.

We take the soymilk, add the coagulant, that's calcium rich and it pulls the proteins together. We then let the curds form in the whey, in the open air. And then we break the curds up and press them in a box. And during the pressing, we press out the whey, and so you end up with pressed curds, or basically protein, the soy protein.

LACINA, WHO TOOK OVER THE FAMILY FARM IN 1989 BUT ALSO MAINTAINS A LAW PRACTICE IN TOWN, BECAME INTERESTED IN TOFU AFTER GROWING SPECIALTY SOYBEANS ON CONTRACT FOR THE JAPANESE TOFU MARKET.

HE THOUGHT HE COULD KEEP MORE OF THE PROFITS AT HOME IF HE MADE THE BEAN CURD PRODUCT HIMSELF. CERTAINLY THE NUMBERS ENCOURAGE THE EFFORT.

FOR EXAMPLE, IT TAKES A BUSHEL OF SOYBEANS TO MAKE 120 POUNDS OF FIRM TOFU. WITH A RETAIL PRICE OF ROUGHLY $2.00 A POUND. THAT TRANSLATES INTO $240 A BUSHEL.

WHILE HIS WIFE, A GRAPHIC DESIGNER, COULD, AND DID, CREATE THE MIDWEST~HARVEST COMPANY LOGO. NONE OF THE FAMILY KNEW THE FIRST THING ABOUT CREATING SUCH A FOOD STAPLE STILL FOREIGN TO MUCH OF THE MIDWEST.

Lacina: "We looked at about, well, 12 different soybeans in the process of deciding what soybean we were going to use in our, in our, in our tofu. And we actually did some taste tests."

AFTER TWO MONTHS OF EXPERIMENTING, THE FAMILIES FORMULATED THEIR OWN RECIPE.

A $100,000 STATE DEVELOPMENT FORGIVABLE LOAN HELPED THEM FINANCE A NEARLY ONE-HALF MILLION DOLLAR TOFU OPERATION.

THEIR FIRST CUSTOMER WAS A CHEF AT A NEARBY COLLEGE WHO WAS LOOKING FOR A QUALITY PROTEIN SOURCE FOR A LARGE STUDENT POPULATION OF VEGETARIANS.

SCOTT TURLEY, executive chef, Grinnell College: "Tthere's about 1300 students at Grinnell, and out of that population, about 20% are vegetarians." ESTABLISHED JUST LAST FALL, A VEGETARIAN BUFFET OFFERS STUDENTS A VARIETY OF TOFU MENU ITEMS.

TURLEY: "The entrée that's out there today, is linguini with vegetables and tofu. We also are featuring today, a chive dressing made with tofu. And we have a tofu mayonnaise that we have out there all the time for a condiment for sandwiches."

TURLEY BUYS SEVENTY-FIVE TO -ONE HUNDRED POUNDS OF ORGANIC TOFU A WEEK FROM MIDWEST HARVEST.

WHILE THE HEALTH FOOD MARKET IS A CONSTANT, MIDWEST~HARVEST WANTED TO EXPAND ITS MARKET… AND INCREASE THE POPULARITY OF TOFU.

FRANCENE: "You'd like for tofu to become one of those items that you tick off. You know, that you want to have your refrigerator as just a staple, like you have flour or butter on hand."

TO LURE MAINSTREAM CARNIVORES TO THE WORLD OF COOKING WITH TOFU, THE TWO WOMEN, WHO CALL THEMSELVES THE "SOY SISTERS" VISIT GROCERY STORES AND TEACH ADULT EDUCATION CLASSES TO PROMOTE THEIR COOKBOOK OF MIDWESTERN RECIPES.

ALESIA: "We've taken our recipes that we've used traditionally and every day, and we've been able to use tofu in them. "

FRANCENE: "this can be a very mashed potatoes and gravy food.

ALESIA:"Yeah. We put it in mashed potatoes. We put it in scalloped potatoes. We put it in all of our casseroles and our soups."

TO THOSE UNFAMILIAR WITH SOY FOODS, IT MAY SEEM UNUSUAL TO ADD TOFU, OR ANY SOY PRODUCT, TO PERFECTLY GOOD RECIPES OF LASAGNA, STROGANOFF, MUFFINS OR COOKIES. BUT MANY IN THE SOY FOODS INDUSTRY HOPE SOY-CONSCIOUSNESS HAS RISEN SINCE THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT IN OCTOBER 1999, APPROVED PRODUCT LABELING WHICH SAYS:

"25 GRAMS OF SOY PROTEIN A DAY, AS PART OF A DIET LOW IN SATURATED FAT AND CHOLESTEROL, MAY REDUCE THE RISK OF HEART DISEASE."

ANY FOOD CONTAINING 6.25 GRAMS OF SOY PROTEIN PER SERVING IS ELIGIBLE FOR THE LABELING. MIDWEST~HARVEST BOASTS 13 GRAMS PER SERVING.

BUT THE FOLKS AT MIDWEST~HARVEST DIDN'T ENTER THE TOFU MARKET TO JUST CASH-IN ON HEALTH CLAIMS. TOFU JUST HAPPENS TO FIT INTO THEIR DREAM TO SURVIVE AS A SMALL FAMILY FARM OPERATION.

TOM LACINA: "Tofu seemed to be the right size of a, of a business that can be done on a family level, without a huge investment in packaging machinery and the like. Also I knew we could source our soybeans, which is unique about our company. We know who's growing them. We know the variety and we select them.

We know where they're going to be planted. And we can really control the quality of the soybean going in, into the final product."

LACINA SAYS PRODUCTION OF THE "FINAL PRODUCT" HAS ALREADY DOUBLED THIS YEAR OVER LAST YEAR – TO 100,000 POUNDS.BY YEAR'S END, PRODUCTION COULD REACH 300,000 POUNDS.

IF SUCH GROWTH CONTINUES, MIDWEST~ HARVEST JUST MAY KEEP THIS THIRD GENERATION LACINA FARMSTEAD GOING FOR GENERATIONS TO COME.

FOR MARKET TO MARKET, I'M NANCY CROWFOOT.


Tags: agriculture business entrepreneurs food markets news soybeans