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Start Your Business Success Stories

Small Business R&D Can Serve the Public Good

image for Image courtesy of First Field
Image courtesy of First Field
  • Currently faced with an organic tomato supply problem, First Field resorted to researching their own agricultural methods.
  • The sauce and condiments company has received several USDA farm grants, all in an effort to improve the Garden State's beloved fruit.
  • The result has been an innovation in organic farming that's already being implemented in several New Jersey farms. 

First Field offers no argument to the Heinz customer as to why they should switch to their New Jersey tomato ketchup.

"Many of our customers grew up on Heinz, Ragu, or similar brands, and we don't want to take those types of taste memories away," said Theresa Viggiano, who co-founded the company. Her husband, Patrick Leger, is the other co-founder.

First Field began with a gardening hobby and family recipe but is now a "value-added" company, making tomato products – including pasta sauces and canned tomatoes, in addition to their flagship ketchup – from wholesale, organic tomatoes, rather than their own vegetable patch.

First Field co-founders Theresa Viggiano and Patrick Leger.

Still, First Field remains "farmer-focused," relying on a tight supply chain of New Jersey farms for the ingredients for their products. They've also grown rapidly in the past decade, expanding from a single farm stand to several major retailers including Whole Foods, Trader Joes and Wegmans.

Thus, First Field has no reason to denigrate other brands.

"We often have conversations about what we do – work directly with growers, maintain a clean ingredient statement and label, minimal processing, use premium ingredients – and we get solid customers that way," said Viggiano.

A high-quality product requires tinkering with. Innovation is especially tricky in agriculture-related SMBs, where an act of God can throw off the whole supply chain. Add to that First Field's additional constraint, that their tomatoes must be grown in New Jersey – both for their superior quality and the company's brand identity.

Rather than compromise on taste or location, however, the company has taken matters into their own hands and launched several research initiatives. The result is a useful case study in small business research and development.

At the moment, First Field uses conventional, non-organic tomatoes in their products, not necessarily out of choice, but out of necessity. "In fact, there aren't really any large-scale organic processing tomato farms that we could buy from if we wanted to," said Russell Cavallaro, operations manager. "Part of this is because of economic reasons – demand, etc., – but part of the reason is because it just hasn't been done yet in New Jersey."

For produce to become certified USDA organic, it must be grown in soil free from prohibited substances, including pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Processed foods like ketchup are subject to additional requirements; artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives are also prohibited.

Demand may still be catching up at the top of the supply chain, but on the consumer level, demand for organic products continues to grow in the double digits. And while organic fresh market tomatoes can be grown in New Jersey, when it comes to organic tomatoes suitable for processing, First Field would be forced to turn elsewhere.

Part of the problem is a lack of research.

"An organic tomato seed that grows in California or Mexico or Italy is not necessarily going to grow as well in New Jersey, and vice versa," Cavallaro said. In addition to the Mid-Atlantic climate and abundance of tomato varieties, weed and pest control play a role in crop yield, taste, and consumer safety, creating infinite combinations of variables.

Hence, with the eventual goal of converting their products to organic, First Field has been forced to take initiative, but there's a lot to learn before they can help suppliers make the switch. To that end, they employ the scientific method, conducting experiments in their farm lab –"not a lab in the literal sense, no benchtops, beakers, hood vents, etc.," Cavallaro explained, but "a small, nonworking farm that we use for experimentation and R&D."

Still, all experiments and data collection are on the books, under the guidance of Rutgers University and with the funding of several USDA grants. This means that findings are not only intended to help First Field's growers, but to further the public good. 

Their efforts have borne fruit. One of the grants, a Sustainable, Agriculture, Research and Education (SARE) grant, was given to test the use of a rye cover crop and Rodale Roller Crimper as an alternative to the pesticide Roundup. The solution worked and has already been implemented on several New Jersey farms.

And while First Field's research is intended to be publicly available – there is no USDA grant for the next secret Coca-Cola formula – they've also drawn upon the findings of others. "Rutgers University Extension Services have a wealth of knowledge about the tomato industry in New Jersey and are actively involved with the growers," said Viggiano.

Ag-related SMBs can also receive USDA grants for nonresearch purposes, such as the Value-Added Producers Grant First Field also received, for companies that use raw ingredients (rather than sauces from already processed tomatoes, for example) to create new products or try new marketing opportunities.

One thing to bear in mind is that small business research and development is not a get-rich-quick scheme. "Research is a long game," Cavallaro said. "We've been looking into organic Jersey processing tomato farming methods for a few years now, and we're not even close to a proof of concept for our actual working farmers to use."

For those still undeterred, however, Cavallaro suggested looking into their state's department of agriculture or any nearby research universities. "There are far more resources out there than what is readily apparent," he said.

SMBs are also advised not to reinvent the wheel. "Ask for help from those who have been there before," Viggiano said. "We always take some advice that Gary Hirshberg, the founder of Stonybrook Farms, once told us – 'You're going to make your own mistakes, just don't make mine.'"

Siri Hedreen

Siri Hedreen is a graduate of King’s College London, where she wrote for Roar News, London Student and Edinburgh Festivals Magazine. Find her on Twitter @sirihedreen.