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JLAR Valley offers locally produced freeze dried food

JLAR Valley offers locally produced freeze dried food
JLAR Valley Bulk Foods recently became the first retailer in the state to get regulatory permission to sell freeze dried chicken, ham and eggs that are prepared and packaged on site. BRIAN WILSON/THE STAR NEWS
JLAR Valley offers locally produced freeze dried food
JLAR Valley Bulk Foods recently became the first retailer in the state to get regulatory permission to sell freeze dried chicken, ham and eggs that are prepared and packaged on site. BRIAN WILSON/THE STAR NEWS

At first glance, the small pale cube appeared about as palatable as a packing peanut, with about the same weight.

At the urging of Jeff and Leta Wrightsman of JLAR Valley Bulk Foods, in whose store I was standing, I took a bite of it and it was as if I had plucked and bit into an apple right from the tree.

Within seconds of putting the piece of freeze-dried apple in my mouth, it rehydrated bringing along with it all the flavor and nutrition of a ripe apple. The apple was followed by a strawberry that tasted as fresh as when it was picked locally from R& M Strawberries patch. Each sample from the pea pods to a seasoned tomato tasted garden fresh.

As I was working my way through the fruit and vegetable samples, Leta had poured a small bit of hot water into two cups, one containing freeze dried chicken and the other ham. In the short time it took for them to rehydrate, Jeff explained how they got into freeze drying and how what they do is unique.

JLAR Valley Bulk Foods is the first retailer in the state to get approval to sell freeze dried, chicken, ham and raw eggs that they freeze-dried on-site.

The store has sold freeze-dried products for a while from commercial vendors. The challenge with many of these, and a barrier for people unfamiliar with freeze dried foods, is that they are typically in larger quantities and a comparatively high price.

By bringing the processing and packaging in-house, JLAR Valley is able to offer smaller package sizes at a more affordable price point for a lot of people. The challenge, is that while selling freeze dried produce and candies does not require special licensing, when it comes to things like meat and eggs the state codes and licensing become more complex. The rules are set up for large manufacturing companies and the process for getting permits and licenses, especially for small scale production, is daunting.

Jeff estimates the process took about six months to work with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection in order to get permission to sell the goods that they freeze dried on premises. In working through the process, they became the first retailer to get that permission.

Jeff praised the various state officials who were more than willing to work with them as they went through the process, potentially opening the door for other bulk and natural food retailers in the sate to follow their lead.

“The state is very methodical,” Jeff explained. He said they had to develop plans and demonstrate to the state they were able to process and package the food safely.

“They were very encouraging when we did the process,” he said, noting that prior to going through it, the state did not have specific standards for small scale operations such as theirs and in going through it they were able to work through it with the state.

“The state was very helpful,” he said. It helped that the couple was already familiar fahot with and following food codes for commercial kitchens.

Freeze drying is a process that has been around for a while as a food preservation technique. It uses low temperature and near vacuum conditions to have the water in the food go from ice form to gas form, a process called sublimation. The difference between this and other kinds of food preservation such as canning or heated based dehydration is that it does not break down the food items or remove flavor and that when the food rehydrates it has the same structure and texture as it did before it was freeze dried.

Jeff explained that in freeze drying the goal is to get the water level to the point where bacteria can no longer grow. Depending on the type of food, this process can take anywhere from 20 to 40 hours with some food types naturally containing less water and therefore drying faster.

A major benefit of freeze drying, and something that attracts many people to it, is the longevity the items have without requiring refrigeration or freezing. If stored properly, freeze dried food can measure its shelf life in decades and still be good to eat.

Jeff gave the example of older people being able to keep things like fruit on hand to be rehydrated as needed and only in the amount they are going to use. This allows them to need smaller space and have less risk of food waste or spoiling.

For example, with their freeze dried chicken, it is a matter of opening a bag and adding a scoop full into a recipe. Since the chicken is fully cooked prior to being freeze dried, it makes meal preparation fast and easy.

The couple also noted the benefits of freeze dried items when it comes to people traveling. They noted that with access to hot water, people on the road can enjoy healthy meals. Freeze dried meals have been popular for backpackers and other outdoors enthusiasts for many years due to its light weight and ability to be quickly rehydrated.

This is something they experienced first hand while traveling recently and described it as being a game changer for being able to bring healthy and tasty food with them while traveling and only needing to have access to hot water.

JLAR Valley sells and uses Harvest Right brand freeze driers. Jeff explained that what has made a huge difference is in technology upgrades helping to automate the process. They are able to load the machines and program what they are freeze drying and the freeze drier takes it from there running through the cycle.

Beyond selling their own freeze dried foods, Jeff and Leta also sell the machines to people for home use, assisting them with getting set up and going through the learning process.

The machines come in a variety of sizes based on the amount of trays of food they can accommodate at one time. A tube leading from the machine leads into a drain or bucket to collect the water removed during the freeze drying process.

As I munched on the flavorful pieces of rehydrated chicken and ham, as fresh and juicy as if it just was served up at a dining room table, it is easy to imagine all the times from camping trips to unexpected power outages where having access to freeze dried foods come in handy to serve delicious and nutritious meals. JLAR Valley Bulk Foods is located about seven miles north of Medford on Hwy 13.