How a local farm is freeze-drying strawberries for school snacks 

By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV

Generating year round revenue is a challenge for most small businesses. Especially for farms. 

“The public can’t afford to pay what small farms need to survive,” says Jennifer Gilkerson of Sunset Berry Farms. 

In response to this problem, policymakers wondered if government could incentivize the state to buy local food from local farmers? That’s how the “Fresh Food Act” was born. 

Fresh Food Act 

According to the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, “The Fresh Food Act requires all state-funded institutions to obtain a minimum of five percent of its food from in-state producers.” 

In harvest season, it’s doable for places like schools and prisons to obtain produce from West Virginia. But what about the rest of the year? 

Gilkerson had an idea. She applied for a Specialty Crop Block Grant with the US Department of Agriculture. The funds allowed her to invest in freeze-drying equipment. She then took all her leftover strawberry crop, freeze-dried it, and packaged it to sell throughout the year. 

Her first large customer is Pocahontas County Schools, who bought freeze-dried strawberries individually packed for student snacks. 

The freeze-drying process

How does freeze-drying work? Gilkerson explains the process. 

“To prepare food for the freeze-dryer just simply slice as thin as you would like,” she says. “Thinner food freeze-dries much faster than thicker food. “

She places the food on large trays and puts the trays inside the freeze drier.  

“The food will be reduced by at least half that weight during the freeze-drying process which removes over 90% of the water,” Gilkerson explains. “Freeze drying is preferred over dehydrating because the food retains 99% of the nutrients as opposed to a much lesser amount when dehydrating.”

She also says you can keep the product for much longer. Up to 30 years once it has been freeze-dried! 

Once it’s time to use the product, you have a few choices. “Freeze dried products can be enjoyed as they are, in recipes, or reconstituted with water to return them near their original state.”

Does it change the taste, I wondered? 

“The cucumbers and zucchini are actually delicious and I prefer those over strawberries in the freeze-dried form,” she says. “The freeze-dry process makes strawberries a little sour for some reason.”  

She’s also experimenting with adding flavor. “We did this with cucumbers and have gotten a great response from customers with a favorite being pickle flavored cucumbers.”

Wave of the future? 

Gilkerson thinks this could be a potential benefit to small farms looking to diversify and provide year-round income. Since the state now requires those serving food to use at least 5% of their product from in-state, she thinks it provides an opportunity. 

“If this project takes off, West Virginia will have a stronger food system and be ready to feed ourselves during the next pandemic! Farms all over the state can do this!”

In addition to Pocahontas County Schools buying berries for snacks and placing a second order for smoothie ingredients next month, GIlkerson plans to sell strawberries to a Union-area soccer team for making strawberry crunch bars as a fundraiser. 

If you want to learn more, contact Sunset Berry Farms at or (304) 646-3784‬. They are located in Alderson at 791 Sunset School Road.


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