Two Brothers Organics, the Hotchkiss-based company that operates Big B's Juices and Hard Ciders, was recently awarded a Colorado Department of Agriculture marketing and sales grant through the Enrich Colorado Ag Grant program.
"Grant funds will help Colorado companies conduct research and develop new uses and markets for food and agricultural products that are grown, raised or processed in Colorado," according to a CDA press release.
Two Brothers will use the funds to seek sources of organic and all-natural apples to fulfill current production needs, according to co-owner Jeff Schwartz.
Two Brothers was one of nine grant recipients, and the only one to receive the maximum of $15,000. They were required to match the grant dollar for dollar. Schwartz believes they were selected from 30 applicants for the success of the business, their trusted name brand, and their 40 years of operation. Because they are a well-established name in the industry, the CDA likely saw it as a safe investment, said Schwartz. "With respect to all the other small producers who applied, they want to see the money they invest reinvested as many times as possible and pay off big."
Big B's currently employs the equivalent of 20-25 employees, earning good wages, "which is a pretty good impact," said Schwartz. Many of the production workers have been on the job 10-12 years and run an efficient operation. "We just couldn't do it without them."
Big B's distributes its lines of fruit juices throughout Colorado, from Chicago and the Midwest, to southern California, Texas, New Mexico and densely-populated areas in Utah. The company was started in 1973 by Bernie Heideman. When Schwartz purchased the operation in 2002, they were processing a half-million pounds of fruit a year; today they process 5 million pounds. Two to three years ago, local supply of organic fruit outpaced demand.
They are now reaching out to Washington state to fulfill the demand for both organic and conventionally grown, or all-natural, apples.
While Big B's is known for its organics, they have always sold all-natural juices, said Schwartz. The grant will be used to increase purchase of all-natural apples, "because we haven't even tapped that market yet."
While demand for organics continues to increase, growing organic fruits is more labor- and cost-intensive, and there is still a strong all-natural market, said Schwartz. "Not everyone is willing to pay the higher cost of organic juices."
Schwartz said he still wants to increase supply of organic products. While waiting for supply to catch up with demand, they are working on developing the all-natural juice lines to keep up with that demand.
The timing is good, said Schwartz, since most of the local apple crops were lost to an April freeze.
"Growing fruit in this area is not easy," said Schwartz. His Delicious Orchards trees along Highway 133 in Paonia lost their crop of black bing cherries for the fifth consecutive year. Without those outside sources, "This year would be really tough."
Schwartz and his brother, Seth, who operates off-site, are including marketing research and branding experiments in the grant investment to determine if it's best to add another brand, or stick exclusively to the Big B's name.
In 2014 Big B's was one of four Delta County-based businesses to receive a grant from the Rural Economic Development Initiative. The $30,000 grant targeted facility expansion. "We're very appreciative," said Schwartz. The money paid for building upgrades and a restructure of the juicing facility in order to increase efficiency. The upgrades are also allowing for expansion and addition of products.
Three years ago Big B's introduced a line of hard ciders. July was their best month in terms of distribution, and they are in the process of expanding to statewide distribution. "It's starting to take off," said Schwartz.
Big B's is also looking to expand its newest product, apple cider vinegar, and to grow its 16-ounce single serve market, which it is pushing to market nationally.
It's all about giving people what they want, said Schwartz. "We want to give all people a chance to drink Colorado juice." Without the grant, would we invest $15,000 into this effort, Schwartz mused. "Probably not right away. This just helps us do this sooner."
Thanks to the efforts of state Rep. Millie Hamner, House District 61, Colorado State University plans to re-open the Rogers Mesa research site.
The facility was taken out of operation in 2011, due to budget cuts throughout the CSU system.