Pete Gengler, a fourth-generation owner of Sno Pac Foods in Caledonia, stands by the facility’s old optical vegetable sorter. Thanks to a grant from the MDA, this machine that will be replaced with a new sorting machine that uses laser technology.
Pete Gengler, a fourth-generation owner of Sno Pac Foods in Caledonia, stands by the facility’s old optical vegetable sorter. Thanks to a grant from the MDA, this machine that will be replaced with a new sorting machine that uses laser technology.
In 1943, as World War II raged, and the United States struggled to feed and equip millions of troops, a Caledonia family business rose to the challenge, and Sno Pac Foods was born. Seventy years later that forward-looking company is still growing and innovating!

Company president Peter Gengler spoke quietly last week, "J.P. Gengler was my great-grandpa," he said. "He started out with the lumber yard, and he had farms back before 1900. He also had a spring-fed pond where they harvested ice. His son, Leonard, and J.P. later started a locker plant when mechanical refrigeration came in, and got into (processing) fruits and vegetables.

"They butchered, too. They were butchering around a thousand turkeys a day during World War II. That's where the Sno Pac name came from. They were cutting the turkeys up - They used shaved ice to pack chicken and turkey parts in.

"Since they already had the locker plant, that's why they had started playing around with freezing fruits and vegetables; they began doing that as far back as the late 1930s.

"Back in the day, people used to show up here with roasters, pots and pans and get their whole year's supply of peas. We sold them already blanched and ready to go. We've always sold already-frozen except for those folks."

Gengler was giving a tour to Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) assistant commissioner Charlie Poster and MDA Marketing Division director Mary Hanks, who were visiting recipients of MDA's Livestock Investment and Value Added Grants on June 24-25.

Sno Pac was awarded a $70,000 Value Added grant in March of 2013 towards the purchase of a brand new cutting-edge, $362,000 food-sorting machine.

When it arrives, the new unit will be installed at the head of the main blanching/freezing line; replacing a color sorter, which will be moved to a new inspection line.

That facility will be located in last year's brand-new building addition, where workers were running blending and packing lines while Gengler spoke.

Utilizing laser technology, the new machine is called an Optyx 3375-Fluo Sorter.

A variety of vegetables such as peas and special soybean varieties that are harvested green (edamame) will fly through the sorter on a conveyor belt at around 300 feet per minute.

The machine can reject specific bits at lightning speed with precisely directed jets of air.

Standing by the current sorter, Gengler explained the process, "There's cameras in here that look at the product as it goes by. They say it can identify 300,000 colors... but with the new sorter, we'll also have the ability to judge density."

"Back in the old days, everybody had 8 to 10 people at a conveyor belt, picking things out," Gengler recalled.

He was enthusiastic about the new technology, which will now allow sorting to take place before, rather than after product is blanched.

Seth Gengler (fifth generation) said that the monstrous freezer on the line is basically new as well, gearing up for a third season this summer.

"Our old freezer did 6,000 pounds per hour when you would begin, and then you had to slow down from there, since it basically could not keep up at that pace. With this freezer, we can do 8,000 to 9,000 pounds per hour, and it can maintain that speed."

When fresh produce is rolling in from the fields, Sno Pac processes around the clock.

Vegetables are blanched to an exact temperature and then cooled quickly in 34-degree water as they speed towards the freezer. Entering that unit at about room temperature, veggies exit 13 minutes later at 25 below zero.

New production lines, cavernous new cold-storage rooms, spotless equipment and bright new additions greeted MDA officials.

Peter said that the company grows its own produce on about 3,000 acres and contracts with local farmers for even more. A great deal of that produce is certified organic by MOSA (Midwest Organic Services Association), something Leonard became involved in long ago.

"We sent organic product out to people who are sensitive to chemicals, and it's not like this is a new thing. As soon as many chemicals started being used, some people were sensitive to them."

"Even when I was a kid, we were shipping stuff out on the train in hampers to people who were allergic to certain non-organic products. It went all over the place. Some people thought he (Leonard) was nuts at the time."

Organic products include whole kernel corn, cut green beans, green peas, mixed vegetables, sweet beans, and cut leaf spinach. There are organic southern-style hash browns, peas and carrots, broccoli cuts, edamame, organic blueberries, strawberries, whole cranberries and organic juice concentrates.

Sno Pac must be doing something right. With distributors throughout the U.S. and Canada, the business has more than doubled its size in the last decade.

"This (MDA grant program) is an investment in rural businesses around the state, including livestock and value added agriculture," Poster said. "It also includes farm-to-school (food programs) and research on next-generation energy projects."

Hanks said, "The value added program will provide some incentive for farm-to-school to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. We'd like them to buy as much from Minnesota as possible."

Area outlets for Sno Pac products include Red's IGA in Spring Grove, Quillins in Caledonia, People's Food Co-op in La Crosse, Wis., and Rochester, Oneota Food Coop in Decorah, Iowa, and Bluff Country Co-op in Winona.