Plus de terroir? Tabitha Stroup aims to scale up her homegrown, waste-reducing business

Food entrepreneur Tabitha Stroup holds a jar of strawberry jam bound for Common Roots Farm.
(Thomas Sawano / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Entrepreneur Tabitha Stroup works with 10 farms but has the space and ambition to triple the reach of Terroir in a Jar — a one-stop shop for small farmers to turn their excess produce into shelf-stable, highly merchandisable jams, vinegars, shrubs, preserves and just about every other kitchen cupboard ingredient imaginable. Terroir is the quiet force behind products you’ve seen at farmers market stands around Santa Cruz County, including Prevedelli Farms’ jams, Common Roots Farm’s shrubs and Terra Amico Farms’ sauces.

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Tabitha Stroup is, as usual, on her way out to one of her clients’ farms to drop off over a dozen boxes of jam, syrup and margarita mix.

“I’m doing this because I feel there’s a need for it,” Stroup said. “I need to be doing what I’m doing.”

Do she does. The tireless 54 year-old, who first garnered local (and national) renown for her jam brand Friend in Cheeses Jam Co., recently marked her third year running Terroir in a Jar — a one-stop shop for small farmers to turn their excess produce into shelf-stable, highly merchandisable jams, vinegars, shrubs, preserves and just about every other kitchen cupboard ingredient imaginable. Though undeniably small in size — only two women work in Stroup’s downtown Watsonville kitchen at the moment, and they serve 10 small farms throughout Santa Cruz County and surrounding areas — the project has cemented itself as one of the county’s more unique agricultural and culinary institutions.

You’ll find Stroup’s signature pith inside jars sold at many mainstays of the Santa Cruz community-ag scene. She’s the quiet force behind Prevedelli Farms’ Meyer lemon marmalade, Common Roots Farm’s strawberry margarita mix and recently a salted watermelon jam for Venus Spirits.

Now, Stroup wants to scale up. In the next two years, she aims to grow her staff of two to at least six. She envisions growing into the rest of the 4,200-square-foot Miramar restaurant building she leased last year in downtown Watsonville. Currently, she uses only the kitchen, storerooms and curtained-off areas for her office and a small storefront. She wants to apply for public grants to fund, among other things, solar-powered refrigerators for her clients to freeze their own produce at peak ripeness.

At the same time, she’s down from her peak of around 15 farms and 10 restaurants last summer.

“It is a finessed dance,” Stroup said. “And that’s why I’ve roped myself down to 10 farms this year. I can’t have people coming at me left and right.”

“Terroir,” Stroup explains, as she has done so many times before, is a French term typically used in the winemaking business to describe a vintage’s “sense of place” — the unique character it assumes from being grown and bottled in the specific place and time it was. Every jam, sauce, vinegar, rub and shrub Stroup cooks up for her clients is tailored to the terroir its ingredients came from — amounting to a dizzying array of more than 200 recipes.

“If you have a backyard and in the far-left corner where there’s a big tree there’s shade, you’re going to grow shade-tolerant plants that need more moisture. On the other side, where it’s west-facing and beating down sun, you’re gonna have drought-tolerant succulents and natives,” Stroup said. “That is the terroir. Every little spot has a sense of place.”

Tabitha Stroup poses on full palettes of peppers.
(Via Tabitha Stroup)

The goal, she said, is to reduce the waste generated by an agricultural industry that, in the U.S. alone, sends between 30 and 40% of the food it produces (corresponding to over 100 billion pounds) to dumpsters every year. Stroup estimates that Terroir in a Jar has diverted over 100,000 pounds of produce since its inception — three times the amount she proclaims in a 2019 documentary on her website, produced by a filmmaker friend. Her ultimate ambition is to pollinate her project to other parts of the U.S.

On the family-farm scale, it’s easy to understand where this waste comes from. Weather events — such as California’s all-too-familiar heat waves — can cause crops like tomatoes to wrinkle within the space of a day, making them unsellable to consumers who, in Stroup’s words, have been “trained to demand perfection.”

This is precisely the dilemma faced by Joe Raineri, who operates Terra Amico Farms in San Martin with his wife, Lisa. With Joe busy being a furniture maker by trade, the Raineris began selling heirloom tomatoes grown on their 5-acre property from an unmanned farmstand that operates on an honor system five years ago. On hot days, unpicked produce tends to dry up — making it unsellable as it is, but good for sauce bases, or drink bases, or diced in jars.

“It’s remarkable the number of recipes Tabitha has come up with for us,” Joe Raineri said. “We’re selling a bloody mary mix, a marinara, a hot sauce. She’s taken some of our ideas and combined them with even more of her own.”

Last Wednesday, for instance, an industrial-sized pot in Stroup’s downtown Watsonville kitchen could be found bubbling away with what she estimated to be 300 pounds of tomatoes from Terra Amico Farms, destined to become jars of marinara sauce sold at its stand and on Locale, a subscription-based food box that services the Bay Area.

That’s what Stroup does: make food that others consider waste. In any given week, she and her team can turn hundreds if not thousands of pounds of derelict produce into delicious, shelf-stable products.

But as lofty as Stroup’s waste-reduction aims might be, her approach is decidedly pragmatic. Food waste is not only bad for the environment — it’s bad for farmers’ bottom line. By selling her products at wholesale prices back to farmers, who in turn sell those products with their own labels (which Stroup often helps them make), her clients can turn profits upward of 50% on produce that otherwise would have made nothing.

“Farmers — such as our small organic farmers — their margins are so slim,” Stroup said. “They barely squeak by. And when you have all this tonnage in your red column, it is so difficult to feel like you’re moving forward.”

Terroir in a Jar began in 2019 as an offshoot of her other business, Friend in Cheeses Jam Co. Stroup was buying peppers from a farm in the Pajaro Valley at the end of the season, and the farm had dropped its prices to around 35 cents per pound — prices so low the farm was likely taking a loss on them.

“I was like, ‘This is kind of bulls---,’” Stroup said. “Even though it’s helping me, these poor farmers are selling me all of these pounds of produce that’s [otherwise] gonna be waste.”

One of her clients, Farm Discovery — a nonprofit teaching farm nestled in the larger Live Earth Farm in Watsonville — uses the proceeds from selling Stroup’s goods to fund a variety of educational programs, including youth summer camps and workshops for aspiring farm owners.

“Like a lot of these services, there are a lot of good reasons to be doing them,” said Jessica Ridgeway, the farm’s executive director. “Tabitha has a heart of gold — and it shows.”

Terroir in a Jar is currently making products for Terra Amico Farms, Prevedelli Farms, Common Roots Farm, Farm Discovery, Pie Ranch and other farms, along with the Dream Inn and Venus Spirits, available through the farms themselves and local retailers.

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