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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Creating Social Change, Together

The extraordinary political events taking place in our country are affecting us deeply here at Real Pickles Co-operative, as they are for so many others. They highlight how far we have to go to build the just, democratic, and sustainable society we wish to see.  We are reminded why all of us here take Real Pickles’ social mission so seriously, and why we must continue to work as hard as we can in pursuit of it.  It is also now as clear as ever that we cannot do this work alone.

One essential lesson of the 2016 presidential election - among many others - seems to be that our economic system is truly not working for many millions of Americans, and that this fact cannot be ignored. The Dow Jones may be up, the economy may be growing, corporate profits and the 1% may be doing great. But many are being left behind. Real change is needed, and the big question is what kind of change will we work toward?

At Real Pickles, we are committed to creating positive social change based on an inclusive vision that prioritizes equality, justice, health, democracy, and sustainability.  We are seeking to build a system that offers real opportunity to all people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.  This means moving away from corporate capitalism and toward an economy where small, community-oriented businesses are the norm.  It means making hatred and discrimination things of the past.  And – urgently – it means doing whatever we can to avoid disastrous climate change.

Thankfully, we are far from alone in these efforts.  A strong example is the New Economy Coalition (of which we are a proud member), whose vision is “a new economy…that meets human needs, enhances the quality of life, and allows us to live in balance with nature…a future where capital (wealth and the means of creating it) is a tool of the people, not the other way around.”  As a diverse array of 175 member organizations, each is pursuing these goals in its own ways, and also coming together wherever and however possible to build on each other’s efforts.  So much essential work is happening within this network, and we are grateful for the opportunities we’ve had to collaborate with such members as Equity Trust, Co-op Power, Cooperative Fund of New England, Cutting Edge Capital, Tellus Institute, Slow Money, and Project Equity.

Our work of creating a more sustainable food system is supported by many thriving organizations.  Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA), for example, has been paving the way for countless food and farm businesses here in western Massachusetts to reach success as a result of their highly effective marketing of the “buy local” concept.  The Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NESAWG), a 12-state network of over 500 organizations, is leading the way in building a vibrant regional food system.  The Northeast Organic Farming Association and Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association are each in their fifth decade as influential developers of the organic agriculture movement.

We are also encouraged to be seeing the rise of the co-operative movement which is building a valuable alternative to the traditional corporate model.  Worker co-operatives are sprouting up here in western Massachusetts (and elsewhere), with the Valley Alliance of Worker Cooperatives providing a forum for area worker co-ops to collaborate as well as offering assistance to start-ups.  Around the Northeast, we are seeing more and more consumer food co-ops both getting started and expanding, with support from the Neighboring Food Co-op Association – a regional network of food co-ops representing combined memberships of over 107,000 and annual revenue of $240 million.

Addie Rose at 2013 Climate Rally in DC
While the primary focus of Real Pickles’ work is the Northeast U.S., we recognize the importance of maintaining a national and global perspective, as well.  We admire and support the grassroots climate activism of 350.org, and have participated in climate marches in NYC and Washington DC.  The National Co-op Business Association, a national trade group of co-ops, is doing important work developing and advancing co-operative enterprise both in the U.S. and internationally.  The Cornucopia Institute is providing the public with essential reporting highlighting both the problems of industrial agriculture and beneficial practices of family-scale organic farmers.  Over the past year, thousands have been camped out on the front lines protesting plans to build the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation (we recently made an exception to our Northeast-only distribution commitment to send a donation of fermented vegetables to the protesters).

We’re deeply fortunate to be working with so many effective partners who share our commitment to a just, democratic, and sustainable society.  At the same time, we know that our approach to creating social change, as well as the scope of our own network, represents merely a narrow slice of what is happening and what must happen if we are to truly achieve our vision.  In the months and years ahead, we commit to redoubling our efforts to create real and positive change by building on the work we’re already doing and by seeking out new connections and partnerships across our region, nationally and globally.  We hope you will join us.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Scoop on our New Turmeric Kraut!

This guest post is written by our friend Brittany Wood Nickerson, a well-respected herbalist and health educator with a background in Western, Ayurvedic and Chinese herbal medicine. Her treatment and teaching approach emphasize personal empowerment, preventative home healthcare and whole body wellness. Brittany is the founder and primary instructor at Thyme Herbal in Western Massachusetts, where she teaches a three year Herbal Apprenticeship Program. She teaches women’s health at the University of Massachusetts and is the organizer of the Northampton/Amherst Herbal Meet-up group. Brittany is the author of The Everyday Living Series, The Herbal Homestead Journal and her newest work: Recipes From the Herbalist's Kitchen, to be published by Storey in Spring 2017!  

I first met my fianc√©, Casey Steinberg, when buying salad greens at his Old Friends Farm stand at the Amherst Farmer’s Market.  He was handsome, and his greens were really good!  In the fall they had bountiful baskets of fresh ginger and turmeric - I had never seen anything like it!  Casey and his business partner, Missy Bahret, pioneered growing ginger in northern climates in 2004.  A few years later they began growing turmeric and now, almost a decade later, this practice has caught on.  Today, Old Friends Farm gets regular inquiries about growing ginger from farmers in locations ranging from California to Vermont, and Costa Rica to Germany.

It is important to include medicinal herbs in our efforts to forge a vibrant local and regional food system.  Culinary traditions are based on ancient wisdom.  Cooking with herbs and spices makes food easier to digest and kills bacteria associated with food borne illnesses.  You might put basil on your pasta or cumin in your curry because it tastes good, but these practices have been passed on by generations of cooks who seasoned food with herbs because it was practical, necessary and healthful.   

The caraway seeds found in many traditional sauerkraut recipes are a perfect example.  Cabbage can cause gas and bloating, but caraway seeds make the cabbage easier to digest and help reduce gas.  Traditional spices, such as the black pepper and dill in pickles, help warm and balance the cold energy of cucumbers.  Once you understand these principles you start to see them everywhere and you can make up your own traditions.  Excellent examples from the Real Pickles’ collection include: Red Cabbage with thyme, winter savory and marjoram; Beets with rosemary and onion; Ginger Carrots; and their new, absolutely fabulous Turmeric Kraut!

Turmeric root freshly harvested
Turmeric is a powerful medicinal herb, traditionally used in cooking and medicinal preparations.  It is a mildly warming, aromatic, bitter digestive aid.  It stimulates liver function and the release of bile, which helps with the digestion of fats and oils.  It improves the breakdown and absorption of nutrients and relieves gas and bloating.  Turmeric supports digestive metabolism, liver metabolism, and cellular metabolism, which aids in detoxification and helps to relieve inflammation. 

Holistic health sees the health of each part of a system being integrally connected to the health of the whole.  In the body, holistic health starts with good digestion.  If digestion is compromised, all other systems become compromised.  A well functioning digestive system allows us to absorb the most nutrients from our food and to expel waste effectively.  Our digestive system is also closely tied to the nervous system.  The enteric nervous system, which governs digestion, has almost as many neurons as the brain!  It connects the digestive system to all other systems in the body.  Aromatic culinary herbs help relax the GI tract and calm the nervous system, while at the same time relieving many digestive upsets.   

Fermentation, like cooking with culinary herbs, makes food easier to digest. Fermented vegetables also contain beneficial bacteria, which have been shown to improve skin health, decrease allergies, and increase immunity (see Real Pickles’ health page for more info).  Lactic acid, produced during the fermentation process, makes fermented foods taste sour – hence the name sauerkraut.  As if everything we have learned so far isn’t enough, the sour flavor is also great for digestion!  Sour tasting foods stimulate the secretion of acids and enzymes, as well as bile from the liver and gall bladder.  The probiotics and sour flavor of kraut combined with the bitter, aromatic and mildly warming energy of turmeric are a perfect recipe for holistic wellness.  The benefits complement one another, improve digestion and help to support whole system balance.

Turmeric Kraut!
As organisms in a larger system, our holistic wellness is dependent on many interconnected systems: environmental, economic, social and cultural.  Efforts to restore local and regional food systems and economies understand this kind of holism, recognizing that our food is only as healthy as the system from which it comes.  Real Pickles’ commitment to producing healthy food and creating a sound regional food system is a role model for the planet.  We need more businesses willing to think outside the box and be structurally creative – committing to policies that support workers, distributors, retailers, consumers and the environment in ways that foster health on all levels.

Years after we met, I was teaching Casey how to make sauerkraut in our home kitchen, and he said, “let’s add turmeric!”  It was harvest season, and we had fresh turmeric coming out our ears!  We were very excited to share our first batch with Real Pickles.  Cabbage and turmeric have not traditionally been grown in the same climate, which is part of what makes this product so special and unique.  Real Pickles and Old Friends Farm have created a special partnership which builds on each other’s innovations and shared mission to work toward a thriving local and regional food system.  This is health as it should be – interconnected, responsible and delicious.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Calculating Food Miles at Real Pickles

In the course of preparing our latest annual report, we learned some interesting things about how far Real Pickles products travel from farm to fermentation to fork!
2015 Annual Report

Since Real Pickles’ beginnings in 2001, one of our key social commitments has been to source our vegetables only from Northeast farms and to sell our products only within the Northeast.  We do this because we want to promote the development of strong local and regional food systems.  There are so many good reasons to be getting our food from closer to home – freshness and nutritional value, food security, strong agricultural economies, climate change, and more.  And, as I’ve written about here, it’s not just local that’s important but regional, too.

We’ve always had some sense about how far Real Pickles products travel from farm to fermentation to fork, but we’d never before really tried to figure it out.  For our most recent annual report, we decided to go for it.  We posed the question, “What can a business do to build a strong local & regional food system?”  We offered up our answer: “source locally & regionally…sell locally & regionally!”.  And, then we got to work with the calculator and spreadsheets to ascertain just how far – on average – our vegetables traveled from farm to fermentation last year, and how far our products then traveled from fermentation to fork.

Upon delving into the project, it quickly became apparent that we weren’t going to come up with precise numbers.  The reality of food transport involves all kinds of complexities that we could never fully sort through.  But, we could arrive at some useful estimates that would illustrate the difference it makes when a business commits to sourcing and selling within a region.

Farm to Fermentation

Determining the average distance that our vegetables traveled last year from farm to Real Pickles was the more straightforward of the two calculations.  We received a total of 128 vegetable deliveries from ten farms – beginning with the first load of cucumbers from Atlas Farm in late June, ending with our last drop-off of storage beets from Red Fire Farm in February.  For the purposes of the calculation, we assumed that all vegetables traveled straight from the farm to Real Pickles, with no other deliveries along the way.

Organic. Local. Cabbage. Ready to ferment!
The result?  The 285,000 pounds of vegetables used to make Real Pickles products from the 2014 harvest traveled an average of 17 miles from farm to fermentation!!  We’re very excited by this number.  Of course, it’s also what we’d expect given our commitment to working with suppliers like Riverland Farm (13 miles away), Atlas Farm (7 miles away), and Old Friends Farm (22 miles away).

What if we made no commitment to sourcing from Northeast farms?  Real Pickles would likely be buying vegetables from much farther away.  Most of our cabbage, for example, would be coming from major cabbage-producing areas like California, Texas, and Mexico.  In that case, our cabbage would be traveling thousands of miles from farm to fermentation.

Fermentation to Fork

CJ loads the Real Pickles van for local deliveries!
Figuring out the average distance from fermentation to fork was a more challenging task.  Nearly 20,000 cases of Real Pickles products traveled to over 400 stores last year.  Retailers here in the Pioneer Valley – like River Valley Co-op and Foster’s Supermarket – receive their pickle orders via the Real Pickles delivery van.  While those further afield – such as the Park Slope Food Coop and Martindale’s Natural Market – get their Real Pickles products through our distributors or via UPS.  We couldn’t possibly know exactly what route each jar of kimchi or sauerkraut took to get to each store last year, nor can we know the route each jar traveled to get to our customers’ plates! 

We do, however, have good data on how many cases of Real Pickles product were sold to each store last year.  So, we mapped the driving mileage from Real Pickles direct to each of our top 50 retailers – which together sold about half of our product last year.  (We made the assumption that doing the calculation based on this group of stores would yield a reasonably accurate result, while saving quite a bit of time.)  Then, we used our sales data to calculate an overall weighted average for distance traveled.  Based on this approach, the final result was pushed higher by fast-selling stores in places like New York City (~175 miles away), while kept lower by nearby stores selling lots of our pickles in such towns as Northampton, MA, and Brattleboro, VT (~20 miles away).

When all the math was done, we learned that Real Pickles products traveled an average of 131 miles last year from fermentation to fork! 

We’re pretty excited by this number, too.  As a growing business producing an ever more popular food (fermented vegetables), we know we could easily be shipping our Real Pickles products thousands of miles all around the country.  But, we also know there are so many important reasons to be sourcing and selling regionally.  When we consider that our 20,000 cases last year traveled an average of 131 miles – rather than 1,000 or 2,000 miles – we know we’re making a difference.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Behind the Scenes at Real Pickles: An Interview with Heather Wernimont, Fermentation Manager

At Real Pickles, we’ve been fermenting Northeast-grown vegetables for well over a decade.  When Real Pickles got started in 2001, there were only a small handful of commercial vegetable fermenters anywhere in the country.  We’ve learned a lot over the years!

I recently talked with Heather Wernimont, our Fermentation Manager and newest worker-owner of the Real Pickles co-op, to get the latest on fermentation at Real Pickles.  Among other things, we chatted about the 2014 production season, what it’s like to get paid to taste pickles, and the similarities between cucumbers and baby goats.

Heather organizes jars for new product tasting!
KH: What do you do as Fermentation Manager?

HW: I work in a team of three production managers. My role is to oversee the making of Real Pickles products from start to finish. This includes planning for all of the vegetables that we buy from area farms, figuring out when we want them delivered, and processing the vegetables. I monitor the barrels during fermentation, tasting them to determine when the product is done fermenting and making sure we are consistent in the way we pack them into jars. I’m also responsible for maintaining our organic certification and working on new product development.

KH: Real Pickles fermented 300,000 pounds of vegetables in the 2014 production season. How do you go about doing that?

HW: Our season usually starts in late June when the local cucumber harvest starts and ends in January or February with our last batches of beets and carrots. So we have seven or eight months to do all of our processing of fresh vegetables. We have a production staff of eight or nine people each day who do the work of prepping vegetables, from washing and peeling to coring and shredding. We have a processing machine that we use to shred cabbage, slice onions, grate carrots and that sort of thing. We wash a lot of vegetables and cut all of our cucumbers by hand! We mix the vegetables with salt and spices and pack them into barrels to ferment. All of this work is very labor-intensive. Our kitchen crew is pretty amazing!

Delivery! Bins of fresh cabbage waiting to be sliced and spiced.
KH: Was there anything unusual about this past growing season that impacted Real Pickles?

HW: Every growing season looks a little different so we know ahead of time that we’ll need to be flexible and not get stressed out when the days don’t go as planned. This past summer started off nice and warm with lots of cucumbers coming in at the end of June. Somewhere around the last part of July, temperatures at night became very cool and caused the cucumbers to slow down significantly. Once we start getting into August, downy mildew is a threat so we really need to make as many cucumber pickles as we can as early in the season as possible. We were pretty nervous going into August but ended up being able to source the cucumbers we needed from a grower in the middle of the month.

We try to stay a step ahead and have some backup work for staff in case there are gaps in our vegetable deliveries. We sometimes fill days peeling and prepping garlic, or we’ll get some summer cabbage for an early batch of sauerkraut. We can also pack finished pickles into jars, which is the work we typically save for winter and spring when we don’t have fresh vegetables coming in.

Sometimes, we have the opposite problem. At the start of the season this past summer we were expecting a delivery of around 800 pounds of cucumbers from Atlas Farm. Instead, Gideon called in the beginning of the week and said, “I have 3,000 pounds. Can I bring them over?” We said yes — and it was intense!

KH: Do you ever have to change production plans in the middle of the season?

HW: Around the beginning of September, we realized we were going to need to make much, much more kimchi than we had originally planned to keep from running out in the spring. We had made all of our contracts with vegetable farmers in March. Then all of a sudden customers couldn’t seem to get enough kimchi, and we needed to make more.

Sauerkraut would be easy — you find some cabbage, salt and spices and figure out the staff schedule and you’re done. Kimchi is complicated - it takes two days to make one batch and there are lots of ingredients to source from multiple farms. We have to look for napa cabbage, carrots, leeks, garlic, ginger, habaneros. Luckily, this year the leek and carrots harvests were good so those were easy. Finding enough napa and garlic was harder but we found what we needed and made an extra 20 barrels — that’s about 800 gallons of extra kimchi!

KH: What are the biggest challenges in your job?

HW: At our peak production, we may have about 425 barrels fermenting at once. I need to stay on top of all of them, tasting them when I think they might be done fermenting. Right now, we have two fermentation rooms and we can control the temperatures in both of them. So if we have a lot of barrels that might be ready all at once, we can move some of them into a cooler room to slow down the fermentation a bit. That way we spread out when the different batches are ready. We don’t have a lot of extra space at our facility and have to manage space carefully. We have to make sure we get batches out of barrels and into jars to sell so we can use that barrel again. My job requires a lot of planning, flexibility and creative problem solving all at once.  I love the challenge.

KH: How do you figure out whether a batch has finished fermenting and is ready to pack into jars?

HW: I’m looking for taste and texture. We want the flavors to have melded properly so they don’t taste like raw vegetables, I make sure whatever spices we’ve used have blended in with the vegetables. The level of sourness needs to be right. The sugar levels in the vegetable vary over the season and this contributes to how quickly the vegetables ferment so each batch is different. I can’t just assume that it will be ready in a certain number of months.

Taste and texture is most important, but lately we’ve done some testing of acid levels and remaining vegetable sugars to deepen our understanding. We also pH test every batch as an extra step to make sure the finished product is safe.

Superchiles awaiting placement in Spicy Dill Pickle jars...
KH: Do you ever experiment with different vegetables?

HW: Yes! We canceled production a couple of days because of snow storms this past winter. I used the time to make 28 different experiments! I focused on some different kimchi recipes and tried some vegetables fermented with hakurei turnips and radishes. We have some great orchards here in western Massachusetts so I also made some recipes with apples and pears, which can add some sweetness to fermented vegetables. I wanted to try some new flavors while also staying in line with the simplicity of our current product line.

KH: You did all of the vegetable purchasing for Real Pickles this past year. How did that go?

HW: I really enjoy working with the growers. We have some amazing long term relationships that Dan and Addie Rose started over a decade ago. All of the farms we buy from are small to mid-size family farms, but the growers’ operations are quite different. For example, I do most of my planning directly with Casey at Old Friends Farm over email. Dave Chamutka, on the other hand, is hard to catch by phone but I know he’ll be making the delivery himself so we always talk in person. With Red Fire Farm, I make arrangements early in the season with Ryan, one of the owners, and then later work with the wholesale manager. We are lucky to have such great people to work with.

KH: Before you started at Real Pickles you worked as the Education Program Manager at Sprout Creek Farm, an agricultural educational center and maker of award-winning cheese, in the Hudson Valley. Do you see any similarities between these two jobs?

HW: Kidding season and cucumber season are remarkably similar! You can know that fifteen goats are going to give birth but you can’t control when the kids are going to come; it’s the same with cucumbers. You may know cucumber season will be starting soon but everything changes when the first truck pulls up with bins of cucumbers!

KH: What’s been your favorite aspect of the job?

HW: Here in the Pioneer Valley, we have access to so many high quality organic vegetables that ferment in such amazing ways. I’ve loved learning about the subtleties of fermentation and working with a live product. There may be differences in how the vegetables ferment as a result of the amount of rain a farm received, the time of year the carrots were harvested, the variety of the cabbage, or the soil profile of a particular farm. We aim for consistency, but due to the nature of a wild fermentation, some variations between batches occur. I like to think that these differences are what make our products so interesting and delicious!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

One Year as a Co-op

We just wrapped up our fiscal year at Real Pickles. In many ways, it was a typical year for the business. Interest in fermented foods has continued to rise, and the year was another strong one for us. As is often the case, the uncertainties of the growing season necessitated some creative problem solving (a wet spring in the Pioneer Valley resulted in much less early cabbage than we were expecting) but in the end we got all of the fresh ingredients we were hoping for and processed over 300,000 pounds of Northeast-grown vegetables during our production season, an increase of about 40% over last year!

What was different about this past year, however, was our structure as a business. May 9th marks the day that Real Pickles made the transition from a sole proprietorship to co-operative ownership. It took a lot of work to become a co-op, and now the process of running the business involves both shared effort and reward for our new group of member-owners. Some of what we encountered during our first year was expected and other things took us a little more by surprise. As an increasing number of businesses consider transitioning to the co-operative model, we want to share some of our experiences so far.

Learning to be Business Owners

The founding worker-owners on May 9th, 2013 getting ready to
sign the legal documents to convert Real Pickles to a co-operative.
(Photo credit: David J. Singer, Esq.)
As Real Pickles made the structural shift to becoming a co-op owned by its employees, those of us who hadn’t previously been owners knew we would have to make the mental shift to thinking like owners. Looking back a couple years, as the founding co-op group worked together to figure out if Real Pickles' transition to a worker co-op made sense for the business and for each of us as individual potential owners, we spent quite a bit of time on activities that served the joint purpose of strategic planning and practicing the art of ownership. Inspired by our friends at South Mountain Company, we prepared an exercise that encouraged us to articulate what kind of growth we want for Real Pickles, and the possible outcomes of different approaches for our future. Since completing the transition, we’ve continued this important strategic planning work.

To further foster a learning culture in our business, we started holding internal classes on five core topics - Social Mission, History of Real Pickles, the Co-operative Movement, Finances and Governance. While all staff people attend, all potential worker-owners are required to complete these classes before becoming part of the co-op. This has given us all a common base of understanding of Real Pickles as a co-operative business and some of the tools we need to be effective business owners.

The need to think like owners was highlighted when, recently, we were looking at increasing certain benefits for staff - in this case, starting a Real Pickles sponsored retirement account, increasing our paid time off and implementing a family leave policy. While we as employees were, in principle, supportive of enhancing benefits for ourselves and our co-workers, as owners we also had to take responsibility for the impacts of these decisions on the business that provides us with employment. When we looked at the costs within our budget for next year, we ended up proceeding more cautiously, scaling back the new benefits for the upcoming year with the understanding that we will revisit this topic after we have another year as a co-op under our belts and can envision what long term sustainability looks like.

Another example of new owners having to broaden their perspectives came recently when it was time for Dan’s first annual review as General Manager. A small group of board members was formed to conduct the review process. This process of evaluating our General Manager — who is also the founder, hired many of us and who many of us report to directly — exemplifies how the workers have had to step up and manage multiple roles with this new co-operative. In the end, the review went extremely well. It was a powerful experience for all involved and a clear example of what makes a co-op different from other business models.

Charting Our Future

Last May, as we looked forward, we knew that if the co-op was to be successful over time we would have to make worker-ownership appealing to more staff people. We expected that other employees would see the value of being worker-owners but didn’t expect it to happen so quickly.  Even before we officially made the transition to a co-op, two more staff people expressed their interest. In the midst of working on our business strategy, investment campaign, incorporation and legal documents, we had to scramble to articulate the “path to worker-ownership” at Real Pickles, with an eye to finding the balance between making the ownership process clear and accessible to workers while maintaining a high level of training and engagement for potential new members.

We have also been careful to create clear distinctions between the responsibilities of the worker-owners, the board and staff. We wrote our bylaws with an eye to these issues but, taking a cue from fellow worker co-op Equal Exchange, we later also created a governance matrix that both lays out responsibilities from our bylaws (such as only a consensus of all worker-owners can amend Real Pickles’ mission) and clearly communicates what body is accountable for other areas of the business (for example, the General Manager creates the annual budget to be ratified by the Board of Directors). This clarity of responsibilities has served us well so far and the clear delineation of authority and oversight has helped us to work efficiently.

For Brendan Flannelly-King, Real Pickles’ facility manager and one of the five founding members, much of the work setting up the co-op felt abstract and it was often difficult to imagine what it would be like to be an owner. “In some ways,” he says, “owning the business has been easier than I had expected. It’s hard work, but since the worker-owners as a body aren’t involved in operations, we have been able to really focus on strategy.” As we look to our second year, we’re working to anticipate the systems that will help us to be even better business owners, and will help make future decisions as clear and simple as possible.

Real Pickles & Our Community

Real Pickles as a sole proprietorship has long had a strong network of support within the community and we knew we would need to engage that network in a variety of ways as we made the transition to a cooperative. One thing we did was to gather a group of community members as a Board of Advisors to help us look at strategic planning, particularly the issue of how to grow our business in a way that is thoughtful and sustainable. This topic has provided fodder for energetic meetings with lots of debate about competition, mechanization, growth and sustainability. We as worker-owners have been inspired and motivated by these discussions.

We have also found that the outreach work we did throughout the months leading up to our co-op transition has continued to benefit us. Real Pickles’ local following has grown and become even more dedicated - we sold over 7000 more jars in the Pioneer Valley in 2013 than we did in 2012! It is encouraging that worker cooperation appears to have value not only for our own employees but also for customers who can see its benefits for the wider community.

Central to our vision as a sustainable, mission-based co-operative is further engaging our community — the growers who supply us, the farm stands, food co-ops, natural food stores and other businesses that carry our products, the people who purchase them, the investors who helped finance our transition, and the co-ops that have supported us along the way — as we chart the future success of our business. Thanks to the many people who have supported us in this exciting first year of what we hope will be a long and inspiring journey. A co-op is a community effort, and we could not have done it without you!
The current Real Pickles worker-owners (from l to r): Kristin Howard,
Dan Rosenberg, Andy Van Assche, Rebecca Lay, Brendan Flannelly-King,
Annie Winkler, Addie Rose Holland. (Photo credit: Heather Wernimont)

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Beyond Local: The Case for Regional Food

Where should we get our food from?  How far need it travel?

These are essential questions for anyone who wants a better food system – one that is ecologically sound and socially just.  After all, a big impetus for the rapidly growing movement to transform the food system is the modern-day reality that places like New England – quite capable of raising such crops as apples or tomatoes – will instead import them from thousands of miles away and burn up large quantities of climate-changing fossil fuels in the process. 

Long-distance food transport brings other drawbacks, too.  By getting our food from California or New Zealand, we're often giving up on flavor and nutrition because those distant farms are growing crops that were bred, first and foremost, to be shipped.  Farms supplying national or global markets also tend to become big and concentrated, and thus are more likely (organic or not) to be engaged in industrial, monoculture practices, rather than the kind of agriculture that supports healthy soil, healthy crops, and healthy ecosystems.  And, of course, eaters in this kind of food system are left hopelessly disconnected from the source of their food, which brings all sorts of unintended consequences.

As local as possible

Buy local! This has been a primary response to the crazy, unhealthy, industrial food system we have in this country.  Leave behind that bad supermarket food shipped in from who knows where, and go get to know your neighborhood farmer.  The push to buy local is taking the burgeoning new food system far.  Countless farmers markets and community supported agriculture farms have come into being.  More and more restaurant chefs are buying ingredients from local farms.  Local food has even begun to make its way into schools and hospitals.

The idea of buying local makes sense in many ways.  If our food system is broken and a central problem is that we're sourcing from thousands of miles away, the obvious response is to switch to getting our food from as close to home as possible.  And if the disconnect between farmers and eaters is a serious problem, we should start buying our food from a farmer who we can actually meet face to face.  There's a logic to it, and this indeed is an important part of the solution to building a new and better food system.

Is "buy local", however, the end of the story?  Is the right way to create the food system we need to buy as local as possible every time?  It's an increasingly popular idea.  These days it serves as the basis for commissioned studies and marketing slogans suggesting that single small states – even single towns – might feed themselves almost entirely.  But, I think the real answer is more complicated.

Urban and rural

A trip to a pickle festival in New York City a couple of years ago got me thinking about the issue in a new way.  Addie Rose and I traveled to the Lower East Side to set up the Real Pickles booth at the Peck Slip Pickle Fest, a special one-day event at a public food market called New Amsterdam Market.  During a short break between pickle sales, I got a chance to walk the market, and was struck by how different it was than the farmers markets back home in western Massachusetts.  In rural western Massachusetts, farmers and other food producers typically travel ten or twenty miles to get to a farmers market.  Here at New Amsterdam Market, I noticed that the vendors – vegetable farmers, cheesemakers, maple syrup producers – were coming from a much greater distance.  Some had driven 100 miles or more from various points in the Hudson Valley.  Others had traveled even further, coming down from the Finger Lakes or Northern Vermont.  There were a few vendors with products made in Brooklyn, but few if any were using agricultural ingredients produced local to the city.

None of this came to me as a real surprise.  A place like New York City – with its urban development stretching for many miles – obviously can't support many real farms anywhere close to its borders.  But, it got me thinking about all the talk about being a "locavore" and switching to a "100-mile diet". 

For those of us living in rural places like Vermont or the Berkshires or Maine, it's remarkably easy to become convinced that solving our food system's problems can be wholly accomplished by the act of buying as local as possible – and organic – in an effort to create a multitude of insulated, local food systems.  And, yet the point of changing the food system is not to create an elitist alternative for a limited subset of the population.  The point is to bring about a transformation that gives everyone the opportunity to participate in and benefit from a healthy, just, and sustainable food system. 

If everyone is to be part of the new food system, then I think we need to keep this fact in mind: the majority of the U.S. population lives in concentrated urban areas whose local agricultural resources are entirely inadequate to support the food needs of their populations.  For those in and around cities, then, the task of sourcing food from much closer to home means re-building the food system on a regional level.  Instead of local food systems with a 100-mile radius (as many choose to define "local"), this means focusing on regional food systems with, perhaps, a 250- or 500-mile radius.  

Those of us in rural areas – rich in agricultural resources – thus have an inescapable responsibility.  As we do the necessary work of helping to overhaul the food system, we must consider what part we can play in feeding the populations of places like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.  While it is surely tempting (and so much simpler) to focus inwardly and exclusively on how to feed merely ourselves, that is not, in the end, the way to build a better food system.  It is essential to be actively promoting and supporting our local farm economies – and, at the same, we need to be thinking more broadly.


There's another strong reason why we need to think regionally as well as locally, one that undermines the notion that it would even be possible for any one town or small state to securely depend on its own agricultural resources.  It has to do with things like weather and pests – those unavoidable factors that make farming inevitably risky and unpredictable.  Factors which also threaten to make farming even more unpredictable as a result of climate change.

The changing pattern of cucumber growing here in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts helps to illustrate the issue.  Dave from Chamutka Farm in Whately has been growing pickling cucumbers (among other crops) since 1980.  Before that, as a kid, he helped out his parents and other local growers raise them for the old Oxford pickle plant in nearby Deerfield.  Dave, who was Real Pickles' first cucumber supplier, has witnessed the harvest season for local pickling cucumbers shrink dramatically in recent years.  When he first started growing, he could harvest cucumbers all summer long, typically going into mid to late September.  By the time Dave started supplying cucumbers to Real Pickles in 2001, cucumber harvests would last at least until early September.  Over the last decade, however, it has come to be a crapshoot to expect a harvest beyond mid-August.  For Real Pickles, that means pickling all of our cucumbers for the entire year (60,000 pounds in 2013) within a single six-week period.

What's steadily squeezing out our local cucumber season?  It's a disease called cucurbit downy mildew, which blows in from the southern states each summer and, just about overnight, wipes out the cucumber crop.  These days it's showing up much earlier than it used to, a trend that is likely to continue as the climate warms.  As UMass Extension vegetable specialist, Ruth Hazzard, explained to me recently, human attempts to breed cucumber plants resistant to it have been failing to keep up with downy mildew's rapid evolution via genetic mutation and natural selection.  In the future, cucumbers could become a much less reliable local crop.  And yet, as downy mildew does not typically reach all parts of the Northeast (check out these maps illustrating its recent impact), it may still be a reliable regional crop.    

Differences in weather (and its effects) from one locale to another point us in a similar direction.  Tropical Storm Irene barreled through the Northeast in August 2011 and brought epic amounts of rainfall.  Small rivers flooded immediately, and within a few days, major rivers started overflowing their banks – leading to crops losses for numerous farms located along riverbanks (where the best soil is).  Three of the six farms that regularly supply Real Pickles had flooded fields and ruined vegetable crops.  It was a disastrous event for many farmers – though not for all farmers in the region.  For one thing, Pioneer Valley farms located on higher ground tended to fare better during Irene.  Looking regionally, the storm was a disaster for farms in such places as Vermont, the Hudson River Valley, and western Massachusetts.  But, farms in many other parts of the Northeast – further from the track of the storm – emerged relatively unscathed.

Last season, farms in our area had to contend with one of the rainiest months of June in memory.  About ten inches of rain fell here in the Pioneer Valley that month, adversely affecting our local food system in a variety of ways.  The direct effect on Real Pickles was that 20,000 pounds of summer cabbage that we had planned to buy from one of our local farms rotted in the sopping fields.  While our local farms had all experienced similar weather, farms in some other parts of the Northeast had not.  The same week that we got the local cabbage news, we received a call from our friends at a farmers co-op in Pennsylvania and learned that organic farmers down there had produced a bumper crop of summer cabbage.  We bought enough to fill up a tractor trailer – making the transport as energy efficient as possible – and were able to make the batches of sauerkraut and kimchi that we needed.

These examples all drive home the same point:  While a global industrialized food system is clearly not a resilient one, neither is an entirely local one.  If we are to build a better food system, resiliency must be among its central features.  The inevitable conclusion, then, is that we need to make a shift toward regional scale.  We must move away from the hopelessly unhealthy, inefficient, and insecure reality offered by our current global food system.  And we also need to properly account for the impacts of weather, pests, and climate change – and do our best to ensure that everyone can be reliably fed.

Local and Regional

The work of building the new food system that we need involves a wide array of priorities – like reducing corporate dominance, expanding organic production, and shifting to healthy, minimally processed foods.  Cutting back dramatically on long-distance food transport is another top priority.  Here, we need to engage in food system development on two scales: local and regional.

How do we do this?  CISA recently put out a fantastic guide, Eat Up and Take Action for Local Food, outlining all the many ways one can help build up our local food economies.  Buy locally-grown food, support access to it for low-income folks, become a local foods entrepreneur, invest in a local foods business.  There is plenty of important work to be done.

On the regional level, a key task is to build up the regional connections between farms, processors, distributors, retailers, and eaters.  At Real Pickles, we enjoy working with and supporting three family-owned distributors – Angello's, Regional Access, and Associated Buyers – all of whom do a great and efficient job of connecting Northeast family farms and producers with retailers throughout the region.  (I mention "efficient" because regional food distribution can, in many cases, outcompete local food distribution when it comes to minimizing energy consumption, a key consideration.)  We also make a point of keeping in touch with Northeast farms outside the Connecticut River Valley, so that we are prepared whenever those inevitable weather challenges arise.  We primarily buy our vegetables from local farms, but we can turn to Pete's Greens in Vermont or Tuscarora Organic Growers in Pennsylvania if we need to. 

Encouraging retailers and eaters to support local and regional products is important, too.  For years now, "buy local" marketing campaigns have been successfully raising awareness about the benefits of supporting local farms.  It may be time for "buy regional" campaigns, as well.  At Real Pickles, we honor our original commitments to buy our vegetables only from Northeast family farms and sell our products only within the Northeast.  This is our way of publicly promoting the idea of regional food systems.  We would love to see many more food businesses making similar commitments!

If we want a better food system, then we must be sourcing our food much closer to home.  The food system is complex, however, and simple prescriptions will only take us so far.  Responding to the reality of global food transport with the call to "buy local" is extremely important.  If, however, we are to truly to change the food system – the whole system, not just the margins of it – we must also develop a regional perspective.  By doing so, we will help to ensure that our food system can be healthy, secure, and sustainable.  And that it can be so for everyone!

NOTE:  If you're interested in learning more about regional food systems, I recommend checking out the work of Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NESAWG).  In particular, you'll find excellent in-depth papers on the topic here and here.  For a number of years now, NESAWG has also been helping to build a Northeast regional food system through their annual conference, It Takes a Region.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Why 8 hours of pickle tasting rocked my world…

Some of the delicious pickle entries for GFA 2014
Last weekend, Dan and I participated in the fourth annual Good Food Awards' judging event - in the pickle category.  We were psyched for this!  Not only did we get to travel to San Francisco and taste LOTS of incredible pickles - we also got to meet new pickle people and connect with pickle friends we’ve made at previous GFA events.  It was a fantastic experience.

The event was much larger than we expected, almost as big as the GFA ceremony itself.  For each of the 10 categories (pickles, preserves, cheese, beer, chocolate, coffee, spirits, confections, oils, charcuterie) there were 20 or so judges ready to taste the nearly 1,500 total GFA entries for 2014, including ~120 pickle entries.  In the morning, the pickle judges split into small groups focused on regions (I was South; Dan was West), and each group selected 10 pickles to recommend to the larger group based on flavor, balance, texture, and appearance, among other criteria.  After lunch, the pickle judges tasted the 50 pickles selected in the morning and gave them numerical scores.  We won’t know until the awards ceremony which pickles won, but I have my guesses…

Dan's group took pickle tasting very seriously
I loved tasting SO many different kinds of pickles - vinegar, fermented, krauts, fruit, onions, beets, and relishes.  The fermented black bean and garlic paste was a highlight for me - its spicy kick was significant and enduring!  I also loved the turmeric-yellow kraut packed with ginger, yum.  Dan's day was made by the vinegar pickled sea beans (the what?) - an aquatic plant neither of us had heard of, harvested from salt marshes.  And those pickled cherries - nicely flavored with a little cinnamon and clove - came in handy immediately following the jar of cucumber pickles full of halved habanero peppers.

Chilly Dilly
Among the judges were experienced pickle-tasters, pickle-writers, and pickle-makers, and it was fun to talk details of sugar-sour balance, degree of fermentation, slicing techniques, and vegetable texture.  The selection of entries were beautifully displayed - it was lovely to see the variety of veggies, colors, textures, and jars.

The pickle category was expertly coordinated by Chris Forbes from Sour Puss Pickles in Brooklyn, NY and Todd Champagne from Happy Girl Kitchen Co in Monterey, CA.   While Chris masterminded the organization of all those pickles, Todd kept up our spirits by making an appearance as “Chilly Dilly”, a cucurbit that is “...kind of a Big Dill”.  They kept us in pickles all day long, PLUS a parade of palate cleansers to keep our taste buds primed – the highlights included some very special GFA entries from the chocolate and cheese categories once their judges were done tasting from them.  Oh, and some nice selections left over from the spirits and beer categories, too. 

Fermentation crocks from
Counter Culture Pottery
It was a wonderful place to meet and re-connect with a variety of pickle folks.  It put us in a reminiscent mood, too.  When we started Real Pickles in 2001, there were only a handful of businesses around the country making fermented pickles and sauerkraut.  Now there are companies sprouting up all over the place!!  Dan and I really appreciate meeting new companies who are perfecting the art of the pickle, and to talk techniques, recipes, and business models. We had a great time connecting with Mara from Zuk√© and learning about her new-ish pickle business in Boulder, CO.  We also got to meet Jennifer Harris who organizes Sonoma County’s wildly popular Farm to Fermentation Festival, and Sarah Kersten of Counter Culture Pottery, who makes elegant fermentation crocks. 

Dan and Linda Z.
When Real Pickles was getting its start, there were also only a handful of books about fermented pickles, or role models in the world of fermentation (think: pre-Sandor Katz's Wild Fermentation!).  Two of those early authors were Sally Fallon (Nourishing Traditions) and Linda Ziedrich (Joy of Pickling).  We count ourselves very lucky that, this past weekend, we were able to meet and judge pickles alongside one of our early inspirations and teachers, Linda Ziedrich.

When Real Pickles was getting its start (is there an echo in here?), fermented vegetables were a food of the past, a fringe-hippie-food, only found in backwoods natural foods stores and in the pantries of homesteaders.  A mere dozen years later, it is at the height of food-trendiness, the focus of many festivals (see this, this, and this), and the mark of the hippest hipster (any hipster worth his or her hand-harvested unrefined sea salt, anyway). 

The timing of this trend is uncanny (pun intended), as this food revival is gaining recognition from the science community, as well.  In just the last few years, scientists have been recognizing the amazing benefits of fermented foods to our overall health - benefits that our ancestors enjoyed and came to depend on for thousands of years, but that we have unwittingly excluded in our transition to more processed and industrialized foods.  In his newest book, Cooked, Michael Pollan enumerates dozens of recent scientific articles relating the importance of beneficial bacteria in protecting our intestinal health, promoting our immune defense, and maintaining our mental well-being.  Scientists are also recognizing that our recent deficiency in fermented foods teeming with live cultures may be part of the reason for some of our generation’s most serious health problems, such as allergies, obesity, seasonal colds and flus, and some cancers.  Pickle, anyone?

Tasting break.
But back to the Good Food Awards… needless to say, there was plenty of enthusiasm among the pickle judges and aficionados we spent the weekend with. One of the best things about the Good Food Awards is that it is not just a contest, where your product is pitted against those of your peers and competitors.  So much of it is about connecting food producers, inspiring conversation, trading ideas and methods, and giving each other a pat on the back.  Being a food producer can be isolating, especially when regionally-focused, so it can be SO inspiring to talk to other people with similar experiences.  Really, in the world of fermented pickling, we are not competitors.  The more producers there are, the more we are recognized as a legitimate food category.  Participating in the Good Food Awards has given us a real sense for our larger community of fermenters and fellow picklers, and we are so happy to be a part of it!