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Ohio Farm Diversifies with On-Farm Cannery
When Amber Kuemerle places a label on a jar of her Starfire Farms Hot Pepper Butter, she knows it meets her quality standards because she has done it all – from cleaning and grinding the peppers, to adding a few real food ingredients, cooking it to the right temperature, and filling jars. Unlike many private-label products often made in mass production by others, the Starfire Farm label means that whatever is in the jar was made in the certified kitchen/shop on the Kuemerles’ Sugarcreek, Ohio, property. When it’s time, Kuemerle loads cases of product in her Suburban to personally deliver them to wholesale buyers, area stores, or the post office to fulfill online orders.
“I love to cook. That is my pastime, my chill time,” Kuemerle says. Canning her own recipes is her preferred vocation, following the goal to be her own boss.
At the same time, she makes customers happy with her versions of salsas and salad dressings, and she introduces them to a new condiment: hot pepper butter.
Friends and family who said they would be interested in buying the hot pepper butter instigated the idea to market it. The Kuemerle family’s recipe is made with Hungarian wax peppers, vinegar, sugar, salt, and mustard. The creamy condiment adds punch to everything from hot dogs and hamburgers to dips and egg, macaroni and potato salads. Yet, Kuemerle and her husband, Jason, knew the challenges of selling a new product. When they learned Zifer’s, a local family-owned business, wanted to sell the rights to their spaghetti, marinara, and other sauces, the Kuemerles recognized it as an opportunity.
“It was already something that was marketed, so this was our foot in the door,” Kuemerle says.
She worked with the elderly couple in 2004 and purchased the business in 2005. The Kuemerles added on to their garage to create a 30×45-foot certified kitchen. While keeping the basic recipes, Kuemerle increased the quality of the ingredients and eliminated unnecessary thickeners and shelf stabilizers. After a couple of years, she introduced the hot pepper butter and started adding other recipes such as a sweet vinaigrette and sweet, textured salsas (spicy, pineapple, and peach).
Except for a graphic arts student who created the hot pepper butter label, Kuemerle also designed labels for her products. The only part of the business she hired out was a company to provide the nutritional values for the labels.
She makes a dozen products sold through distributors, at local stores including her own – Starfire Farms Country Store in Berlin, Ohio – and through the website, starfirefarms.com.
From Farm To Cannery
When they set up their home cannery, both Jason and Amber brought some important skills. They grew up working for dairy farms and canning/freezing produce from gardens they helped plant and harvest. Kuemerle’s experience working at a meat shop and lunch deli made her familiar with quality standards and sanitation inspections. It also provides valuable connections with distributors and suppliers of ingredients she needs for her products.
Initially, the couple grew the peppers on their rural acreage a few miles from their home, where they grow hay and raise pigs for 4-Hers and friends, a few beef cows, and some chickens.
With Jason working full time, growing and canning became too time-consuming for the parents of three children (ages 7 to 11). At one point, they planted 2,000 pepper plants. They purchased peppers from a distributor for a while, but with peppers coming from all regions of the country, Kuemerle wasn’t happy with the inconsistency of the heat of the peppers. When selling their products at a farmers market, they met the owner of Yoder Acres Produce, a local grower, and contracted with him to grow Hungarian wax peppers as well as sweet banana peppers.
All of Kuemerle’s recipes start as small-batch recipes that she perfects before multiplying them to make batches large enough to fill the 40-gallon, water-jacketed, gas-powered kettles she cans in. The couple purchased two used kettles with spigots at the bottom to transfer piping hot product to the filler. Because of the high pH of her ingredients and the high temperatures (200°F. and higher), she doesn’t need any additional processing.
Kuemerle plans for year-round canning by cleaning, grinding, and freezing 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of Hungarian wax peppers each summer as well as sweet banana peppers for butters and salsas. She typically cans products three or four days a week, as needed, to meet demand.
“The cannery gives me the freedom and flexibility to raise our kids and bring in some income,” she says.
Because she makes all the products and delivers them to some stores, she has developed ties with small store owners, which is helpful when introducing new products. Geographically, Starfire Farms is fortunate to be located in the heart of an Amish tourism region.
In 2016, the Kuemerles opened Starfire Farms Country Store in Berlin, where they sell Kuemerle’s canned products, soaps, and candles; Jason’s horseshoe artwork; and items from a couple of other vendors.
“We traveled and did shows for a while,” she explains. “Then we thought, ‘Why are we traveling when people travel to us?’ ”
When a building became available for rent, they opened the store.
Building a Business
Thirteen years after starting their cannery, the Kuemerles have met their goal to market their hot pepper butter. It’s not a must-have condiment yet, but interest continues to grow.
“I’m not out pushing and marketing right now,” says Kuemerle. Early on, she and Jason offered samples at grocery stores, sold product at farmers markets, and attended area events as vendors.
For now, with three children busy in 4-H and other activities, her focus is balancing family time with canning and doing farm chores.
Her passion for developing recipes has not subsided, however. She plans to introduce a new barbecue sauce soon.
The ultimate goal is to grow the business so that Jason can also work full time in the business, instead of just assisting Kuemerle.
For her, the Starfire Farm label represents more than just another product.
“We need to look at our roots and core values: gardening and fresh produce. It’s important to know where your food comes from,” she says. “Many companies have their recipe and pay others to have it processed. I refuse to do that because I have no control over quality. We built the cannery and do everything.”
The commitment is paying off. Perhaps, the Kuemerles hope, their hot pepper butter will one day become a common condiment.