By Cheryl Conway
For those who seek healthier eating, there is a local distribution and manufacturing center right in town that specializes in products that are natural, organic, wheat and gluten-free.
Eating fresh fruits and vegetables never ends with Kariba Farms in Denville, open year round, providing the freshest ingredients directly to consumers, national retailers, farmers markets and grocery chains. Established in 1991, Kariba Farms is known as a leader in the dried fruits, nuts and specialty food industry.
Customers can find a variety of choices at Kariba Farms, from its dried fruits, nuts, gourmet specialties, party trays, seasoning blends, spices and rubs.
As opposed to other products that may contain preservatives, sulfides and sulfurs, “We don’t use anything that could harm the body,” says Steven Testa of Denville, president of the company for the past year, since Oct. 20. “It’s definitely a healthier alternative,” with choices that provide “optimal taste and nutritional benefit.”
Testa joined the company just one year ago with his colleague Donny Apolito of Cliffside Park, who serves as the operations manager at Kariba Farms.
At the age of 86, original owner Martin Welt, turned over his business to Testa, who also works full time as a finance director for a bank’s mortgage division.
At Kariba Farms, “Donny runs day to day operations,” says Testa, while he handles the books.
“I’ve seen the benefits of the millennials today,” says Apolito, who attended the New York Restaurant School and worked as a food services director and chef in culinary arts. “People are more health conscious. This is where the market is now; healthier living and non-GMO.”
Testa explains his business decision.
“I looked at the company and what it was doing- dried nuts and fruits and health benefit,” he says, and its move “toward cleaner eating,” says Testa. “It was expanding.”
The products provided at Kariba Farms, “it sets us apart,” says Testa. “It’s definitely not bland. It’s eating healthier and cleaner and making sure you are not losing that taste when you are eating that way.”
As a single dad of two daughters, with one in college and one in middle school, Testa tries to encourage healthy eating in his household. His middle schooler plays for softball for a national club team so healthy eating is key.
“As an athlete, she has to eat properly, fuel properly if you are going to play properly,” says Testa, who has been involved with Denville Softball for 10 years, and as its president from 2011 to 2016.
The Kariba Farms Story
“Kariba Farms derives its name from the town of Kariba in South Africa,” as it states on its website. “The town was built during the construction of the Kariba Dam to house the engineers and workers.”
Today the dam supplies the irrigation that produces the resources needed to grow an abundant quality of tropical fruits that Kariba Farms sells today. The founder of the company helped build that dam and when he returned to the United States in 1991 he created Kariba Farms.
Products are sold directly to consumers and through national retailers like Amazon, Whole Foods, grocery chains such as Shoprite as well as mom and pop shops and farmers’ markets.
Located off Franklin Rd. and Stewart Court, the 8,000 sq. ft. facility manufactures and blends its products right on sight. With seven employees, the small distribution center provides dried fruit, gourmet specialty items, gift/party trays, seasoning blends, spices and rubs- with all items that are natural, organic and free of GMO.
It currently carries 209 different items, says Testa. Out of the dried fruit line, the more popular items include the tropical fruit and the mango which is “all natural” with nothing added and organic. Guava, strawberry rhubarb, blueberries, cherries and papaya are also tasty.
Also popular is Kariba Farms NutCrusters gourmet coating mix with a blend of nuts and gourmet spices, which offers an alternative to breading on fish, seafood, vegetables, pork, poultry and tofu; as well as its kiwi mixes and hot sauce.
While competitors will offer nuts and dry fruit, they do not offer this nut crusted alternative to breading.
“We infuse ground nuts into the rub which gives it a distinct flavor,” says Testa, adding that there are currently nine different flavors to choose from. Its newest version is the Wasabi NutCruster, he says.
“We do dried vegetables as well,” says Testa, like dried green beans, mixed veggies, and dried okra.
With a small store front to display its products, consumers can even stop in to buy their goods. Hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; on Saturdays they are at different farmers’ markets; and on Sundays at the Denville Farmers’ Market.
Testa says they currently visit six different farmers’ markets in northern N.J. with hopes to expand to more next year. The markets are in Denville, Hawthorne, Fairlawn, Westwood, Riverdale and Fort Lee.
“Kariba Farms shops the world to source the highest quality natural and organic products to bring to market,” as stated on the website. “Our dried fruits, nuts and gourmet specialties are Star-K Kosher certified as well as non-GMO, all natural, organic, wheat and gluten free and are simply a healthier alternative.”
Testa says “products come from resources across the country and around the world,” like Turkish figs and Figi apples.
Kariba Farms fruits, nuts and specialty lines fit a variety of diets and lifestyles including: Atkins, Keto, Paleo, vegan, vegetarian, Mediterranean and many more, according to the website.
“We strive to deliver fresh and tasty products by constantly monitoring and improving our processing methods and adhering to strict quality controls,” the website states. “This ensures that we are not only delivering the best product but also delivering world class service to our customers.”
New Owner Enjoys New Role
With the first year digested as owner of Kariba Farms, Testa has enjoyed his new role.
“I really enjoy meeting the people, the different folks at the farmers’ markets,” says Testa, adding that he still goes out on Sundays to sell his products at area farmers’ markets. “It’s kind of cool,” he says, hearing “how they are going to use a certain product. They’re making casseroles. It’s exciting to see what they are making; it really is.”
While many farmers markets close in the winter, the Denville Farmers’ Market stays open year round, notes Testa. The sale of dried fruit and nuts gets busier in the winter months, he explains, since it becomes more difficult to purchase fresh fruit in the colder climate.
“Right now, especially with the holidays, people are preordering trays with dried fruits and nuts,” he says. Pecans, figs, apricots, more holiday type fruits and nuts, are starting to sell more.
Kariba Farms ships orders anywhere in the U.S., as well as to Canada and even as far as Hawaii, he notes.
As a resident of Denville for the past 16 years, Testa has appreciated the town he has lived and worked in. As part of his involvements in town he served on the field committee that was involved in getting the turf field installed at Veterans Park.
“I love the sense of community and how neighbors help each other especially when times get tough,” says Testa, who took courses in Applied Science at Central Texas University while serving in the U.S. Marines Corp, from 1990-1995 during the War in Iraq, Desert Storm and Desert Shield.
“Hurricane Sandy showed just how much the people of this town stuck together,” he says. “I have always said that Denville has felt more like a big family more than just a town. There is something very special here.”
To benefit the community, Testa says his company will be starting fundraising programs in December for local sports programs and schools to provide a healthier alternative in items they purchase.
“Just trying to give back a little bit,” says Testa. Items will be sold at a wholesale price to fundraising groups; the groups will then sell the items at a higher retail price and keep the profit.
For more information visit www.karibafarms.com. Through Jan. 1, customers can enjoy 15 percent off their entire order.