AURI Connects: Fields of Innovation Innovator Profiles is a Q&A series with Minnesota entrepreneurs who have partnered with AURI to build capacity and successfully commercialize new and emerging crops.
Q&A with Paul Schmigdall, General Manager of Fresha
AURI: What is your involvement with the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI)?
PS: Fresha has had a great partnership with AURI. The AURI team helped us with connections in our industry, as well as with writing and submitting grant applications, feasibility studies and even a sensory lab study to compare the flavor profile of our different carrot varieties. As a side note, carrots grown in a northern cool weather climate have a higher brix content (aka sugar level) and are therefore sweeter tasting. This has created a noticeable taste advantage for our MN grown carrots.
AURI: How did the business get its start?
PS: Our business idea came in 2018. At that time Dan Schaefer, Owner/CEO, had been growing carrots for processors. Things were going well and he felt that his farm had the capacity to add a fresh market carrot crop. The problem, however, was that there was nowhere in the area to market it. Hence the idea of starting up a facility to store, package and ship fresh market carrots. From there, the Fresha brand was launched. Our first carrots were on the store shelves in the fall of 2019.
AURI: What do you enjoy most about your business?
PS: It has been very rewarding to see our brand show up in more and more grocery stores in our region. On top of that, we have heard numerous comments from new customers that say they love the flavor and freshness of our carrots. You don’t usually think of a bag of carrots as something that people will go looking for, but we do have a growing base of loyal customers that tell us that they look for our product in the stores, and some will even stop buying carrots when we are out of season and wait for the next crop.
AURI: What is your biggest challenge?
PS: Our biggest challenge was starting a unique business in a market where there were no other similar businesses to learn from. We had to develop a business strategy that matches the end-carrot products with certain carrot varieties to be planted in the fields. We also learned that we must be intentional with our planting and harvest dates. With a commodity crop like corn or soybeans, which many of our growers were more familiar with, you typically plant and harvest as fast as weather and time allow when the conditions are right. With carrots, we have a five-month harvest season so we have to start planting early and then add plantings as the season progresses. That way the harvested crop matures with the right amount at the right time in the fall.
AURI: Do you or have you collaborated with other small businesses? If so, in what way?
PS: Our new company created supply chain relationships with other Minnesota businesses for a range of supply items like pallets, paper packaging materials and plant supplies. We are fortunate to have been blessed with other high quality, small businesses in our region that are looking for long-term relationships and have worked together to help us learn and grow.
AURI: Was there ever a time you wanted to quit? If so, how did you overcome?
PS: Starting a business from scratch is super challenging. It seems like there have been challenges at every turn and there have been days that it has taken a lot of grit to keep going. For example, our initial line design had been set up to prioritize carrots for the food service industry. We planted varieties that we expected to give us an abundance of that size of the product and created our labor plan around this packaging line. Then when our second year started, we found ourselves in the midst of the COVID-19 shutdowns and the corresponding impact on the food service industry. We quickly pivoted our planting and packaging plans toward consumer and retail products. While this was a good long-term direction for our company, it had to be executed with more of a survival mindset and approach. Through the good, the bad and the disappointing we are blessed to have a great group of people that are committed to the vision of getting our Fresha brand off the ground.
AURI: How can AURI’s readers and supporters purchase your products, connect with your business online and/or help your business thrive?
PS: We are in many grocery stores in Minnesota and the surrounding states from August through February. Look for us in the produce aisle and online at freshaproduce.com. You can also connect with us on Facebook.