Sustainable Valley Technology Group helps food producers

Three local food producers have graduated from the Sustainable Valley Technology Group's Fall Accelerator program — Courtlandt Jennings of Pickled Planet, Michael Antonopoulos of TonTon's Artisan Affections and Jonny Steiger and Tyson Fehrman of By George Farm.

The three graduates are in various stages of development, said Sustainable Valley executive director Heather Stafford.

Antonopoulos borrowed $2,500 from a friend, bought space at a Talent commercial kitchen and started making hummus and hummus-related recipes for gluten-free, grainless cookies in mid-2012. He found the accelerator program as he researched ways to enhance his business model.

"The first year of business, I was completely by myself," Antonopoulos said. "I had no one to bounce ideas off. The greatest benefit I received from the accelerator was having a team of mentors who were knowledgeable professionals at my back. If I had a question for an attorney or accountant, there was someone there that I could ask that type of question."

Private backers working with Sustainable Valley invested $10,000 in TonTon's, allowing Antonopoulos to rebrand with a new logo, restyle his packaging and develop his Internet presence to reach beyond the Rogue Valley.

The next steps, he said, include gift boxes with other locally produced goods, and finding a space with his own commercial kitchen — possibly in Ashland.

Pickled Planet's methodical, decade-long growth has positioned the fermented-foods maker as a regional player. The next step is taking the firm to national stature.

"The building they're in has the capacity for them to produce $2 million in annual revenue," Stafford said. "But they are only generating $250,000 in revenue."

The breakthrough could come soon.

Both Whole Foods and Kroger, the parent company of Fred Meyer, are doing a product review.

"We're talking over 200 stores if the product review is successful," Stafford said. "So they are looking for a bigger round of investment so they can invest in inventory, allowing them to ramp up fast."

She said Pickled Planet plans to exhibit at the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim in March and is working with the Commerce Department's Portland office on possible international deals.

By George Farm plans to make cheese with milk from grass-fed cows kept on 87 acres on Yale Creek Road in the Applegate Valley.

Owners Steiger and Fehrman formerly were part of artisan food activity in Wisconsin, where they learned to make cheese wheels.

Stafford said they need to get certification with the Food & Drug Administration and Agriculture Department before creating a mobile creamery. The goal is to produce cheese wheels for sale beyond Southern Oregon. They have been offered $15,000 from private investors.

— Greg Stiles

Read more in Tuesday's Daily Tidings.

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