GENESEE COUNTY, MI — A family-owned organic apple orchard has received funding to purchase and install a washing and sorting line that’ll enable it to expand into the baby/kid food market and work toward a partnership with a business run by actor Jennifer Garner.

The project at Almar Orchards in Clayton Township will result in increased domestic sourcing, and the business will serve as an aggregator for other growers in the region.

The increased capacity will also allow Almar to expand organic apple production onto 100 additional acres.

The funding is coming after the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service awarded approximately $40.5 million for 60 grant projects through the Organic Market Development Grant program.

These projects will support the development of new and existing organic markets, support the infrastructure to improve processing capacity, explore emerging technologies to promote organic products, and purchase equipment to help meet the increasing demand for organic commodities.

USDA anticipates the projects funded through this program will benefit more than 27,000 producers and over 31.8 million consumers by increasing organic market opportunities.

Almar received a $99,582 grant to replace its washer line.

Once Upon a Farm, a national baby food company co-founded by actor Jennifer Garner, approached Almar last year about using apples for its products.

The company sells its products in more than 13,000 stores nationwide with a growing product portfolio of organic, farm-fresh snacks and meals for babies and big kids.

“They are into organics, and making sure it’s dairy free, sugar free and it’s free of heavy metals,” said Monique Lapinski, Almar’s general manager and daughter of owner Jim Koan. “Because this is what you’re feeding your babies.”

Once Upon a Farm is looking for organic growers who’ll meet their strict qualifications to purchase produce from those growers.

The company has a processing plant in Milwaukee, Wis., and hauls truckloads of apples from across the country in Washington.

With Almar located closer to them, it’d be easier and cheaper to work with the Michigan farm.

Once Upon a Farm has strict Standard Sanitation Operating Procedures that Almar has to meet. The partnership is incumbent on installation of the line.

“They test every truckload of apples,” said Zach Koan, son of owner Jim Koan, who helps run Almar’s operations.

While Almar has a washing line, it hasn’t been replaced in 40 years.

That is where the funding comes in, with the farm planning to use the money to purchase a new washing line that would meet the strict sanitation requirements Once Upon a Farm is looking for.

“The washing line is perfectly fine, but there’s some other things they want as part of this sanitation procedure before they would even accept the fruits or vegetables into one of their processing plants,” Lapinski said.

The new washer line will have special sanitation pumps that’d regulate down to the parts per million, controlling the parasitic acid to very low levels, and it would have powerful brushes to clean the fruit along with a pallet stacker.

Not only would the new washer line open up an opportunity with a national brand, Almar is hoping to attract other organic growers, like pumpkins or peppers, in Michigan to use their washer line and ship those products to Once Upon a Farm.

The farm has 24 months to use the funds and install the washer line and, if things go as planned, it will be fully operational by fall of 2025, Lapinski said.

Almar uses diatomaceous earth, which is powder-like exoskeletons that are sprayed onto the apples. When insects try to bite into the skin of an apple, the exoskeletons cut up the insects’ esophagus when they try to swallow and kills them.

“It doesn’t sound very humane, but all you’re doing is basically spraying this fine powder and it’s safe for people,” Lapinski said.

Almar is known for its 100 acres of organic apples, but it also grow pears, which Once Upon a Farm would also be interested in, and pumpkins and squash in the fall season.

The farm also known for its hard cider business — JK’s Farmerhouse Ciders — which has also earned an organic certification.

“No baby food company has come close to doing what they’re doing,” said Jim Koan, owner of Almar Orchards. “This is what’s exciting. Our food industry is going to be changing really fast because they’re pioneering a new concept that is common sense.”

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