Tucked amid the compact valleys and gentle ridges of southeastern Minnesota lie the acres of Sno Pac, one of the Upper Midwest’s few organic producers of frozen fruits and vegetables. Sno Pac is one of our customers’ favorite brands, so we set out to learn more about this family-owned grower and packer.
The Sno Pac story precedes the name. In the late nineteenth century, J. P. Gengler set up a lumber and sawmill business in Caledonia. He and his twenty carpenter employees supplied local farmers with planed lumber from the surrounding hardwood forests. As a winter sideline, they cut ice from the five-acre pond that Gengler created by damming a spring. Packed in straw and loaded onto a spur that led to the pond, that ice made its way to the South by rail in summer. When mechanical refrigeration and freezing became practical in the 1930s, J. P. built a slaughterhouse and locker plant, Caledonia Cold Storage, to store the ice and to rent out community freezer lockers to Caledonians.
“You saw everyone in town there,” Pete Gengler, J. P.’s great-grandson and president of Sno Pac, remembers. “People would bring in their side of beef, their lamb, and they’d meet up when they came to cut a piece to cook.”
In the 1930s, the Genglers began truck farming, growing strawberries, gooseberries, currants, apples, and vegetables. Their farmland was rich in greensand, a sandstone rich in potassium silicate, and their quarry yielded a plentiful supply of lime. These resources were poured into the small farm’s soil—“they all fit together to make a rich place,” says Pete. Initially the Genglers sold their produce only locally, but it made its way into wider circulation when J. P.’s son began a butter delivery route that took him as far away as La Crosse. Along with dairy products, he sold the farm’s frozen fruits and vegetables, which he stored in the locker plant.
Becoming Sno Pac
It was during World War II that Sno Pac acquired its name, Pete explains: “During the war, we were butchering up to 1,000 turkeys a day. We shaved the ice from the pond to cool the turkeys down after slaughter, so they were snow packed. That’s how the name came about.”
During the war, Pete’s grandfather came upon J. I. Rodale’s Organic Farming and Gardening, which began publishing in 1942. “Grandpa was a big fan of Rodale,” Pete says. Rodale’s fervent advocacy of organic farming confirmed what Gengler himself believed. In the 1950s, Sno Pac advertised its produce in Organic Farming. Thanks to foresight and the natural fertilizers available on their farm, the Genglers did not follow their neighbors into the use of artificial fertilizers after World War II. Instead, as their dairying, butter route, and sawmill businesses slowed down—“people weren’t building barns out of oak anymore,” says Pete—they expanded Sno Pac’s produce organically.
If you grew up in farm country, you know what happened next: community resistance. Caledonia’s other farmers were riding the postwar wave of highly mechanized conventional farming. “They didn’t respect my grandparents’ decision,” Pete says. “Other farmers ridiculed him for staying with the old way of farming. They complained about weeds.”
That stopped when the Genglers found new markets for Sno Pac produce and began expanding the acreage they farmed. “Once we brought on a lot of leased acres and other farmers to grow for Sno Pac and helped our growers with their certification papers, a lot of the resistance melted away.” Today, Sno Pac leases more than 2,500 acres and has another 4,000 acres under contract with growers.
Expanding the Market
Sno Pac received a huge boost in 1989, when CBS’s Sixty Minutes brought the pesticide Alar, a which was used on apples, to viewers’ attention as a possible carcinogen. Suddenly organic produce was looking very good to people who hadn’t considered its merits before. “That was when the whole organic market started for us,” Pete recalls. Sno Pac became a go-to grower for emerging organic markets. Manufacturers began approaching Pete about Sno Pac’s organic produce.
“One of our most distinctive products is edamame (fresh soybeans),” Pete says. “We get a lot of interest in it, because almost no one grows it domestically. We had grown a little edamame in the past, and then in 1992 we went to help Sun-Rich with its harvest. Then we brought the operation back to Sno Pac. We called them sweet beans initially to describe them to people. Now they’re a very popular product.”
Today Sno Pac still grows most of its produce in the Upper Midwest—Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan for blueberries—but some crops are grown under contract in California. “The thing that non-farmers don’t realize,” Pete explains, “is that you have to decide what the optimal crop is for the climate, the soil, and the time available to bring a crop to harvest. Strawberries, for example, have a very demanding, very tight period. We used to have twenty acres of strawberries here on the farm. I started picking them when I was five. But it was impossible to get them picked down here—labor was impossible to find. We have other things that can only be grown at that time of year here, on limited land, so our strawberries are grown for us out in California.”
This early summer, Sno Pac’s locally grown crops are already two weeks behind. “Our first peas had eight inches of snow on them for over a week. Things are getting farther and farther behind. It’s been very wet down here, so we’re having to plant more acres.”
Despite the challenges, Pete keeps planting and planning new products. “My brother’s boys work at Sno Pac. My sister does too. I knew I’d do it after I graduated from high school. I’ve never wanted to do anything else.”