Episode No 3 / Brandon Seng & Mark Coe

How this Eastern Market firm is freezing produce to offer year-round fresh fruits and veggies

January 23 / 2020 Article by Serena Maria Daniels, Photography by Ali Lapetina

Brandon Seng & Mark Coe

Michigan Farm to Freezer

It’s a brisk, windy September afternoon in Northern Michigan and a fleet of farmworkers are laboring over a field harvesting broccoli.

With each pass of their tractor, the crew is on foot collecting the large flowering heads into crates, then driving them to a packing shed a short distance away where they’ll eventually be poured into a machine that dices the large chunks into compact nibbles.

There’s not much time to waste. The bite-sized trees are loaded into a box truck that day and driven downstate. They need to make this journey as quickly as possible so as not to lose the integrity and nutritional benefits that come from freshly-picked produce.

They’ll eventually make their way to the produce section of an upscale supermarket in suburban Detroit, in a mom’s stir-fry for dinner, on the menu for a farm-to-table restaurant, or inside the cafeteria of a Detroit Public School campus.

Perhaps the most important stop along the broccoli’s voyage is a 14,000-square-foot freezer facility at Farm to Freezer, a company in Detroit’s Eastern Market that flash freezes and seals Michigan-grown veggies and fruits so that they can be enjoyed any time of year.

Yes, frozen is becoming the way to go for a taste of farm-fresh, locally-harvested veggies and fruit. With Michigan’s short growing season compared to states like California, one of the more logistically efficient opportunities to experience the juiciness of a Michigan blueberry or cherry or the fresh snap of a tiny broccoli tree all year round is to pick it at its peak of freshness and then simply freeze it with minimal processing.

That’s the idea behind Michigan Farm to Freezer, an enterprise founded in 2013 in Traverse City, initially as a workforce development training program, that would eventually find a home in Detroit’s historic Eastern Market district.

“We deserve to eat that food more than two weeks a year,” says Brandon Seng, who co-founded Michigan Farm to Freezer with grow manager, Mark Coe.

Seng handles much of the operations in Detroit. Most of the facility’s employees were formerly incarcerated or otherwise new to the workforce. They process all of the food that comes in, which is then distributed to grocers like Plum Market, Nino Salvaggios, Holiday Market, and Papa Joe’s.

Coe handles relationships with the 30-40 farmers that the company contracts with across the state. Coe says most of the farms he works with also supply to the produce sections of national supermarket chains and the major frozen food brands like Birds Eye.

Major retailers, however, have specific requirements for the condition of the produce they sell. So no misshapen carrots, only plump, round tomatoes—nothing deemed “ugly” is allowed in the produce section. Whatever these farms can’t sell to the big outlets can go to Michigan Farm to Freezer. They don’t care if the produce is pretty; it’s all going to be chopped up and bagged anyway.

“I had a 14-year come into my lunch line who told me, ‘I’ve never tasted a blueberry in my life.’”

For the consumer, Michigan Farm to Freezer fills a gap in access that many Michiganders face.

Seng says it was a conversation about a blueberry with a 14-year-old student back in 2012 that inspired him to develop the concept while he and his wife were running a farm-to-school food services program at a Catholic school in Manistee. “I had a 14-year come into my lunch line who told me, ‘I’ve never tasted a blueberry in my life.’”

In 2010, the couple founded the nonprofit Manistee Community Kitchen, which focuses on combating food insecurity in Manistee County. Even though the region is a national leader in the diversity of crops it produces, some 80 percent of residents in Manistee County report not having adequate access to fresh produce.

The school lunch program involved partnering with local farms to supply the campus with fresh produce, while also baking bread and serving meals in the cafeteria.

“Immediately I was just pissed because Michigan grows more blueberries than anywhere in the country. It should be his right to eat blueberries, not a privilege,” says Seng. “It’s just a reflection of poverty in our communities.”

If kids’ only opportunity to enjoy locally grown blueberries, cherries, peaches, or other crops was at the school cafeteria, Seng and his wife reasoned that the best way to expose them would be to freeze small batches of produce during the growing season that youth would have missed out on during summer break.

Toward the end of 2013, Seng took that small-scale concept and pitched a larger idea to Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan. The venture started off as a workforce training program in a small production site. The concept caught on quickly. In the inaugural year, the venture sold 12,000 pounds of produce for a total of $8,912. By 2015, they’d moved more than 100,000 pounds of produce, with sales reaching $139,000— all concentrated in Northwest Michigan.

But with that success came the realization that if Michigan Farm to Freezer was going to continue growing, it needed to leave the region to reach new markets. Being a subsidiary of Goodwill Industries limited its ability to expand, as each Goodwill territory in the state would require separate operating agreements. Farm to Freezer’s facility was the only one of its kind in the region. Seng and Coe felt isolated from peers operating similar enterprises.

In 2015, an opportunity to expand and connect with other value-added food businesses presented itself when representatives from Eastern Market Corporation began visiting the Northern Michigan business’s site. The following year, Seng and Coe separated the business from the local Goodwill territory. Simultaneously, Eastern Market published its 2025 Strategic Plan, which in addition to maintaining the district’s historic authenticity, outlined a vision for expanding its food processing infrastructure.

That included adding a frozen food production site to the area.

“Immediately I was just pissed because Michigan grows more blueberries than anywhere in the country. It should be his right to eat blueberries, not a privilege,” says Seng. “It’s just a reflection of poverty in our communities.”

Eastern Market Corporation had been awarded a grant from the Department of Health and Human Services under the Community Economic Development Healthy Food Financing Initiatives for strategies that would better connect the local food system. About $400,000 from that fund went toward the rehab of the long-vacant Cattleman’s Meat building at 1820 Mack Ave. The site was renovated to include a 14,000-square foot freezer facility.

The new site emphasizes hiring formerly incarcerated workers. With its close proximity to numerous other food distributors and producers, Seng and Coe were no longer isolated in their industry.

In 2019, Seng says, the company brought in about $1 million and 500,000 pounds of produce in sales. And as for its clients, in addition to selling in swanky gourmet supermarkets in the suburbs, a booth at Eastern Market, and a number of restaurants, about half of its sales come from school districts across the state, helping to provide more kids with access to fresh food all year round.

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