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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Why I Want to be a Worker-Owner...Again

When I first starting working with Dan and Addie at Real Pickles four years ago, I was impressed by their delicious fermented vegetables and commitment to family farms here in the Pioneer Valley.  I was also intrigued by how they thoughtfully rejected the conventional wisdom that success for a natural foods business means getting national distribution, scaling up and selling out.  What kind of organic food business would limit sales to the northeastern US when there was clear demand across the country?  Who would decline sales to big food distributors in favor of local companies and direct deliveries?

This approach has been very successful for Real Pickles over the past eleven years. And these unconventional ideas about how to run a business are not just ideological.  They are sound decisions for owners whose concern is not maximizing profit, but creating a stable business that contributes to a vibrant regional, organic, and values-based food system.

Based on these priorities, Dan and Addie have decided that the best path for them is to convert their business to a co-op.  As member-owned enterprises, co-operatives are designed to meet human needs and aspirations before maximizing profit.  Because of this, co-ops tend to focus on long-term goals beyond the quarterly balance sheet. Dating back to the 1800s, the co-operative movement offers a democratic economic alternative that roots wealth in local communities. When the United Nations declared 2012 the International Year of Co-ops, the goal was to shine a light on a business model that now includes over a billion members worldwide –  more people than directly own stock in publicly traded corporations.

For me personally, Real Pickles’ transition to a co-op is an exciting opportunity.  Before joining the business, I spent a decade as a member of Equal Exchange, a Fair Trade Organization committed to working with small farmer co-ops throughout the world.  Through this work, I was able to see how co-operatives enable people to change their lives and communities — often in the context of geographical isolation, governmental neglect and poverty — and meet their needs, together.

In Darjeeling, India, I visited a community living on an abandoned tea plantation that had formed a co-op and were slowly bringing the tea bushes back into production so that they could diversify their incomes beyond local cash crops. In Chiapas, Mexico, I saw how coffee co-ops are essential tools for the independence of Zapatista Autonomous Communities, where indigenous communities provide themselves with essential services.

Kristin having morning coffee with the
Castellon family, Miraflor Co-op, Nicaragua, 2002

Most meaningful to me were the co-operative communities I met in Nicaragua.  Like many coffee-growing countries, Nicaragua is a stunningly beautiful place.  But the beauty of the countryside contrasts with the lack of opportunity faced by much of the population, a result of decades of dictatorship starting in 1937, an earthquake that devastated the capital in 1972 and a brutal civil war in the 1980s.  Coffee co-ops, however, are a bright spot in rural Nicaragua.  During my visits to these communities, I met teenagers from farming communities who give passionate tours of the local rainforest as part of eco-tourism programs created by their co-op, women who run co-op-sponsored outreach programs on domestic violence, and young co-op staff people who are trained experts in coffee quality.  Through their co-ops, thousands of coffee farmers in Nicaragua have shared ownership of highly efficient coffee processing and export facilities.  The farmers, co-op staff people, and community activists I met in Nicaragua during my time at Equal Exchange have persisted through political conflict and open warfare, and inspired me to continue to work for justice and community ownership in the food system.

To me, it is important that Equal Exchange is itself organized as a co-operative, living the values of democracy that it values in its suppliers.  As a former worker-owner, I – along with my fellow members – elected the board of directors and participated in core business decisions. It was the worker-owners who decided to expand beyond coffee into tea and chocolate, to create a policy that limited our highest salary to four times the lowest, to buy a building, and to set up our own roasting facility. These weren’t always easy decisions and we did not always agree.  But democratic ownership means that we are accountable for own work lives and the success of the business that we share.

During my time at Equal Exchange, I watched a series of socially responsible businesses in the northeast transition from small, committed companies to “brands” purchased and managed by multinational corporations: Stonyfield Farm (Danone), Fresh Samantha Juice (Odwalla and later Coca-Cola), Organic Cow of Vermont (Dean Foods) and Tom’s Toothpaste (Colgate).  While some of these businesses have been able to keep some portion of their mission intact, their bottom line is to generate profit for the parent company and enhance its reputation.  Over time, commitment to the values that drew consumers to these companies seems, inevitably, to fade.

I admire Dan and Addie’s commitment to their vision.  Real Pickles as a co-operative is a logical extension of this commitment and I am impressed by their decision to follow this path. Looking forward, my day-to-day job at Real Pickles Co-operative will look about the same — I’ll still work on new product ideas, make sales calls, and, in a pinch, forklift cases of sauerkraut and kimchi onto delivery trucks.  But becoming part of the co-op will provide a deeper sense of ownership of the business and commitment to sustaining our mission. Together with my fellow co-op members, I am looking forward to being a worker-owner… again.



We are excited to announce the latest step in our plan to go co-op: An opportunity to invest in Real Pickles!  Offered to MA & VT residents, this is an excellent way to support our transition to a co-operative structure as well as our continuing work in helping to build a vibrant, regional, organic food system.  Read more:  www.realpickles.com/invest

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

We're Going Co-op!

by Dan and Addie

We have big news to share:  Real Pickles is becoming a worker co-operative!

Along with Real Pickles staff, we have been laying the groundwork for a co-op transition for a number of months now, and earlier this summer – during the UN's International Year of Cooperatives – we officially decided to make the switch!  Everyone here is excited about the plan to convert Real Pickles to a worker co-op, and we will be working to make it happen over the next few months.  While the two of us will no longer be the sole owners of the business, we will continue to be part of Real Pickles as worker-owners and managers.  We think a worker co-op structure will be an outstanding way to help ensure that Real Pickles will succeed far into the future – producing delicious and healthy food for people and making a lasting contribution to building a new and better food system! 

Why co-op?

We have worked hard over the last decade to build up our business: creating and scaling up our recipes, developing markets for our products, and educating folks about fermented pickles.  We have figured out how to manage the challenges posed by our commitment to sourcing locally – purchasing and processing our year's supply of vegetables all within the short span of the New England growing season.  And three years ago, when we had completely outgrown the community kitchen we were using, we made the big leap to our own organic food facility.

Now, after eleven years in business, it is quite gratifying to be able to say that Real Pickles has achieved a certain level of success as an organic food business.  We are not making big bucks, but things are financially solid.  We have a fantastic staff of twelve.  We operate out of a 100% solar-powered, energy-efficient facility.  We are supplying over 300 stores around the Northeast with delicious, nourishing food.  And, we are supporting local farms with annual purchases nearing 200,000 pounds of certified organic vegetables.  Yes!

Where does one go from here?  These days, the typical path for a business like ours involves continued rapid growth followed by selling out to a large industrial food corporation.  Entrepreneurs who have gone this route will offer a variety of rationalizations for why such a move can be socially beneficial.  As we see it, leaving it to big corporations to run the world leads to very bad social outcomes.  As far as Real Pickles goes, our deeply socially-responsible approach to doing business doesn't fit with big corporations' drive for monetary profit.  We are committed to keeping Real Pickles a small business working to truly change the food system, and so we clearly must choose a different direction.

We have decided, then, to try to help re-write the standard storyline for a successful organic food business.  We are interested in creating a new structure for the business which will support both its continued financial success and success in contributing to a better world.  And, while neither of us have any plans to leave Real Pickles anytime soon, we want this structure to help ensure that Real Pickles can be viable in the long run by eventually coming to be able to thrive without dependence on its founders.

As we see it, a worker co-operative is the most promising structure for Real Pickles.  As a worker co-op, Real Pickles' social mission and guiding principles will be inscribed in its articles of organization and bylaws, and be made difficult to change.  The business will stay rooted in the community.  Its owners will continue to be local residents who are directly involved in the day-to-day operations, and they will be highly unlikely to re-locate the business out of the area.  A worker co-op structure will also give members of our staff the opportunity to share in the decision-making and profits.  We expect this opportunity will serve as an important contributor to Real Pickles' future success as it incentivizes our excellent staff to remain at Real Pickles on a long-term basis. 

How will it work?

Five of us here at Real Pickles have made the commitment to sign on as founding worker-owners of the co-operative: Brendan Flannelly-King, Annie Winkler, Kristin Howard, and us (Dan & Addie).  Our hope is that additional staff members will join us following the transition.  According to our plan, staff will become eligible for worker-ownership following a year of employment at Real Pickles.  Once approved by the existing membership, a staff member will purchase one share of common stock in the co-operative, entitling him or her to a single vote in co-op affairs and to a share of the profits through annual patronage dividends.

As a co-operative, Real Pickles will be governed by the worker-owners via a board of directors.  On a day-to-day level, our current management structure will remain in place.  The business will continue to be managed in as participatory and inclusive a manner as possible, an approach which has been greatly successful in contributing to a satisfying and productive Real Pickles workplace.   

This fall, we will be working through the remaining steps necessary to making our co-op transition happen.  A key task will be to raise additional funds so that the worker-owners can purchase the business.  As plans develop we will keep you updated, so stay tuned!  It's an exciting time here at Real Pickles.  We are hopeful that at the end of this process – and the beginning of a new chapter – Real Pickles will be in an excellent position to be producing delicious and healthy food for people, providing meaningful and satisfying work for its staff, and making positive social change in the food system for many decades to come!



We are excited to announce the latest step in our plan to go co-op: An opportunity to invest in Real Pickles!  Offered to MA & VT residents, this is an excellent way to support our transition to a co-operative structure as well as our continuing work in helping to build a vibrant, regional, organic food system.  Read more:  www.realpickles.com/invest

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Fermentation is hot (off the presses)!

Apparently we at Real Pickles are in on a hip, hot, and exciting trend.  Judging by the release of TWO excellent (and beautiful) pickle books in recent months, there is no shortage of things to say about pickling of all kinds, fermented or otherwise.  We are also proud to report that Real Pickles is recognized in both!  The Art of Fermentation (Chelsea Green Publishing) is the 9-year follow up to Sandor Ellix Katz's wildly popular Wild Fermentation.  Many ferments and workshops later, Katz offers this incredibly articulate and comprehensive volume on fermentation of food.  Andrea Chesman's The Pickled Pantry: From Apples to Zucchini, 150 recipes for Pickles, Relishes, Chutney & More (Storey Publishing) is a fantastically thorough reference for making pickles of all kinds, with recipes for making the pickles themselves as well as recipes for using finished pickles in other dishes.  

Both of these resources are essential additions to the available literature on pickle-making and fermentation.  We have always enjoyed - and refer frequently to - the standard volumes on lacto-fermentation of vegetables, such as Katz's Wild Fermentation (2003, Chelsea Green), Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions (1999, New Trends), Making Sauerkraut & Pickled Vegetables at Home by Klaus Kaufman and Annelies Shoneck (1997, Alive Books), and Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning (1999, Chelsea Green).   The new treasuries not only add to the existing authorities, but spring far ahead in depth and breadth.  Here at Real Pickles, both copies are under constant perusal during lunch and break times and are beginning to show loving dog-ears and signs of use. 

The Art of Fermentation provides an excellent account of the history of fermentation as well as its prevalence and pervasiveness in our modern diet.  As in his previous Wild Fermentation, Katz's new book also seeks to engage and encourage each reader to set down their bacterial fears and embark on a cultural adventure.  As Michael Pollan remarks in the foreword, "To ferment your own food is to lodge an eloquent protest—of the senses—against the homogenization of flavors and food experiences now rolling like a great, undifferentiated lawn across the globe."  In addition to the book's breadth of information, the photos will delight even the casual peruser, from scanning electron microscopy images to the latest in kombucha fiber fashion.  But for fermentation enthusiasts, as we consider ourselves here at Real Pickles, the book is an excellent reference for putting up a broad array of fermented products.  Our fermentation manager, Katie, was so excited about The Art that she slept with the book under her pillow for the first week to maximize osmotic potential.  She just couldn't put it down.  She says, "I love that it doesn't read like a cookbook...that it is history, stories, science and just so much amazing information!"  Katz's new compendium also boasts a one-of-a-kind chapter on commercial enterprises, well representing our end of Wells Street here in Greenfield, MA with input from both Dan at Real Pickles and Will from Katalyst Kombucha.  Dan is consulted for his expertise on scaling up, marketing, and consumer education.  

The Pickled Pantry: From Apples to Zucchini, 150 recipes for Pickles, Relishes, Chutney & More  is a comprehensive new cookbook on pickles of all kinds.  Chesman starts with the fundamentals, necessary equipment, basic ingredients, and delves into pickle recipes both common and surprising.  Her section on fermented pickles is particularly good.  Along the way, she peppers the read with anecdotes and profiles of other picklers.  Real Pickles is the subject of one of the featured profiles, telling the story of our first decade in business.  Chesman also includes many delicious-sounding recipes in which to enjoy your finished pickles.  Personally, I am very excited by the recipes in the back of Pickled Pantry.  As soon as the pickle season slows down a bit, I will be cooking up such tasty dishes as Roasted and Braised Duck with Sauerkraut and Root Vegetables, Kimchi Rice Salad with Tofu, and may even try the intriguing German Chocolate Sauerkraut Cake(!).  Clearly, Chesman has a lifetime of experimentation and successful meals behind her - and I am so looking forward to benefiting! 

For those interested in DIY pickle-making and home ferments, these books will fascinate and educate, no matter your pickle proficiency.  But these publications also represent a growing focus on – and resurgence of – pickles and fermented foods.  Now that we have industrial food and refrigerated trucks, pickles and ferments could be viewed as a relict of a simpler time, replaced by a year-round supply of food imported from anywhere.  Except that, as both Katz and Chesman emphasize over and over, ferments and pickles expand the range of our palate, creating the strong flavors that we both crave and despise.  Often, the fermented product is tastier and more nutritious than the original fresh ingredients.

Some fermented foods already command the attention of foodies across the globe:  Encyclopedic tomes are written on the wide-ranging flavors and terroir of wine and cheese - and other ferments are gaining the recognition they deserve.  We'll know that pickles have earned their rightful place when soils known for growing great cabbage increase property values or when the local grocery starts hosting successful weekly pickle tastings. 

Growing pickle popularity also makes us a happier population because pickles make us laugh.  I'm serious!  Try inserting the word "pickle" into any sentence and you are guaranteed a chuckle.  But no joke: People are excited about fermented foods, and the momentum is growing.  Creating ferments brings us face to face with the chemistry and microbiology of what we eat, which can be simultaneously unnerving and compelling.  When a mason jar is popping and fizzing and whining on your kitchen counter, you know that you are not the only living thing in the room.

Fermentation is surprising, creative, exotic, fun, scientific, and delicious.  I invite you to embark on a sour journey, use these books as your guide, open your mind and your mouth, and dig into the vast and growing world of pickles.  Send us a postcard!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Regional Distribution: An Interview with Joe Angello


At Real Pickles, we have always had an unconventional approach to distributing our fermented vegetables, choosing to work with small independently-owned regional distributors rather than large national ones.  Angello's Distributing, based in upstate New York, was the first distributor to carry our products.  I recently talked with Joe Angello, its founder and owner, about his experiences in the natural food industry and what it’s like running a regional distribution business.


KH: Why did you decide to start a food distribution business?

JA: It was a reaction to the consolidation of natural food distribution.  Northeast Cooperatives had just been purchased by UNFI [United Natural Foods] and a clear monopoly was being established.  We were recognizing that good local producers had no access to the market.  The only way was through UNFI and they were more focused on national brands.

I didn’t spend a lot of time on a business plan.  If I did, Angello’s might not have happened.  I’m more of a jump in and do it kind of guy.  I borrowed a truck and was working out of the cooler at Hawthorne Valley Farm.  Later I found space at Clermont Fruit Processors in a building that had been in agricultural use for over eighty years.


KH: What does Angello’s look like now?

JA: We have fifteen staff people, both full and part time.  We run two to four trucks.  Produce wasn’t our original intention but we started the business at the height of the season and within a month it became obvious that people were interested in fresh, local produce.  I came from fifteen or twenty years in the fish business.  Fish is expensive and perishable and the intensity level and competition is high.  Produce can be hard but it’s easier than fish and we really worked on how to make it as fresh as possible.

Produce accounts for about 40% of our sales now.  We also distribute dairy, grass-feed beef, baked goods, fermented foods and some beverages.

Our core customers are independent natural food stores and co-ops in the Hudson Valley, North Jersey and the Berkshires.  What we do resonates with the end user customer.  Shoppers really look for and appreciate good quality organic foods. 


KH: Angello’s has been distributing Real Pickles since 2004 - before my time at Real Pickles.  How did Real Pickles and Angello’s first start working together?

JA: One day in the early days of Angello’s I ran into a guy I knew doing a delivery.  He had been the Northeast Cooperatives delivery guy when I had worked at the Hawthorne Valley Farm Store.  He was grumbling about the UNFI purchase and I said, “Come on over. We could use some help”.  It was a rough time in our business.  I think he might have introduced us to Real Pickles.  He definitely introduced us to Paul Harlow at Westminster Organics.  Real Pickles and Angello’s stand for the same thing on different parts of the food chain.  It’s one of the brands we’ve had from the beginning that keeps carrying on, and the relationship keeps get stronger.


KH: What do you see as the biggest challenges for independent and regional food producers and distributors?

JA: Marketing is one of our biggest challenges, both for producers and distributors.  We go head to head with major corporations like General Mills and Kraft Foods, who have an unlimited amount of marketing money.  Most all of these companies are giant publicly traded stock companies.  Is that really where we want our food dollar to go?  Those of us who work in regional food all need to be looking at ways to pool our interests so that we can better promote the independent brands that get passed over by the big guys.


KH: What do we need to be thinking about as consumers and shoppers?

JA: We need more public scrutiny about what’s inside the package.  People like Michael Pollan have been doing that and Vandana Shiva has been doing it on a global level.  We need to make high quality food a priority - for the health of our environment, the health of ourselves, the health of the economy.  The idea that cheaper food is better food is deep in our psyche. That has got to get thrown out the window.

If you spend an extra twenty cents on a six ounce yogurt to buy yogurt from a dairy in your region rather than from a multi-national brand, where is that money circulating?  How is it impacting our society, the environment and where we live? What’s really happening?  These are important questions to ask.


KH: Is there anything else interesting about Angello’s that we might not know?

JA: We care about these issues at the international level too.  We’ve been importing chocolate from the Grenada Chocolate Company.  The chocolate bars are actually made by a cooperative in Grenada.  Extreme things like child labor and slave labor happen in the chocolate industry, particularly in the Ivory Coast which produces 40% of the world’s cocoa supply.  There’s a great documentary called Nothing Like Chocolate that looks at these issues and features the positive things being done by the Grenada Chocolate Company.


KH: What has changed in the industry since you started the business?

JA: When we got started there was not much of a consciousness or awareness of local food.  We didn’t recognize it as a trend. It’s not why we started. For us it was more common sense.  All this stuff is here and you can’t buy it in the stores.  It didn’t make any sense. 

We were in the right place at the right time.  There was more awareness starting around 2005.  Banks still had money so we were able to buy our building.  We couldn’t do that now. People started to be really interested in local.  Have you been into a Walmart recently?  Everything says “local”. Banks and insurance companies talk about being local.  It’s like the word “natural”. It gets to be ridiculous.


KH: What should we know about food distribution that we probably don't know?

JA: What appears at face value to be a simple task of getting a jar of pickles from Greenfield, MA to Clermont, NY to getting to a retail shelf in New York City is extremely complicated.  There are so many ways for that not to happen.  We’ve been doing it well and doing it continuously.

Giant companies have done a good job of keeping their costs at a level that is hard to maintain at a smaller scale like ours.  It’s more difficult than I think people realize.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

People Power, Not Corporate Power

Big corporations are a central part of modern American life: We buy an overwhelming proportion of our goods and services from them, we absorb their advertisements nearly everywhere we go, we invest our retirement savings in them, and we depend on the latest twists and turns in their average stock values to tell us whether our lives are headed in the right direction.  These institutions have brought us many material wonders, to be sure.  But what, we might ask, is their collective impact on our pursuit of loftier goals?  Does the dominance of big corporations in our society, for example, make it harder to achieve sustainability, social justice, or true democracy?  Might it be that such institutions actually put these kinds of social achievements fundamentally out of reach?  If so, what can be done?

In the aftermath of two recent federal court decisions – both, as it happens, ultimately threatening to impact a western Massachusetts food business like Real Pickles – I think these are questions worth exploring.

Cukes, Not Nukes

A couple weeks ago, many of us on the Real Pickles staff traveled to nearby Brattleboro, VT, to protest the continued operation of our neighbor, the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.  With our "Cukes Not Nukes!" protest signs, we joined over 1,000 people in marching to the local headquarters of its absentee owner, New Orleans-based Entergy Corporation, where 130 people were then arrested in a non-violent civil disobedience action.

There have long been plenty of good reasons to shut down VT Yankee.  The question of how to responsibly manage its waste seems hopelessly unanswerable, given the million-year duration of its radioactivity.  And, a major failure at the reactor could make a sizable portion of New England uninhabitable for thousands of years.  While such a prospect was real even when VT Yankee first went on-line in 1972, it has become ever more possible as the reactor has grown older and experienced a longer and longer list of mishaps.

In recent months, however, another reason to protest has come to the fore.  And, that is the extreme level of corporate power revealed in the decision-making process about VT Yankee's future, as well as a corresponding failure of democracy.  VT Yankee's original 40-year operating license expired on March 21 (the day before the march).  But, unfortunately, rather than now heading toward decommissioning, VT Yankee continues to operate.  Last year, in the midst of an unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) granted a 20-year license extension, a lucrative prize which Entergy worked for years to obtain.

How could the NRC make such a decision?  After all, VT Yankee is the very same reactor model as those that failed at Fukushima.  Serious problems continue to plague VT Yankee, and the consequences of a major accident there would be profound.  It is difficult to view the result as anything other than the undue influence of a powerful energy corporation faced with the opportunity for massive financial gain.  Perhaps, a "corporate mind-set" was at play, as well – a phenomenon which leads people to have outsized faith in corporations to bring about positive societal outcomes.  I view the corporate mind-set as a consequence of big corporations' pervasive influence in society.

In January of this year, even more serious questions about democracy were raised when a federal court invalidated the state of Vermont's decision to deny Entergy permission to continue operating the plant beyond March 21.  The NRC had given its permission, but Entergy had previously signed a contract with Vermont agreeing it also would need the state's go-ahead to keep the reactor going.  After a long public debate during which it was firmly established that the clear majority of citizens wanted VT Yankee shut down, Vermont's legislature sided with the citizenry.  But, Entergy sued.  It hired a team of superstar lawyers, spent millions of dollars, and – in a wildly off-base court decision – won.  Vermont has appealed the decision.  For now, however, corporate power has won.  And the inhabitants of New England remain at risk.


Real Food, Not Frankenfood

Another recent court victory for a big corporation raises many of the same questions as the Vermont Yankee story.  It also hits particularly close to home for an organic food business like ours.  This case involves Monsanto, the world's biggest marketer of genetically engineered seeds.

Nuclear power is a very risky business, though its risks are fairly well understood.  With genetic engineering, the risks are similarly great.  Yet, it's hard to even predict all that could go wrong.  The problem is this: our understanding of living organisms is insufficient to warrant messing around with their basic genetic structure in this way.  Living organisms are highly complex.  To think that inserting a fish gene into a tomato will not produce a long list of unforeseen effects is naive and dangerous.  Will new carcinogens or allergens be created?  Will the plants cross-breed with wild plants and then undermine the health of our ecosystems in some unexpected way?  It turns out that such things are already beginning to happen.  To fully understand the impacts of genetic engineering could take decades, by which time it will be far too late to rein in this technology.

It is a serious problem that the federal government has essentially decided that any and all genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are safe and require no testing, raising the question again about the influence of corporate power on our government.  The most recent win for the biotech companies is just as troubling.  Last year, a coalition of organic farmers, seed companies, and advocacy organizations decided to challenge Monsanto for its aggressive actions against farmers whose crops have been contaminated by Monsanto's GMOs.  The contamination happens when GMO pollen gets carried by wind or insects onto other farms, and then cross-pollinates with non-GMO crops.  Farmers who have never purchased genetically modified seed suddenly find GMO crops growing in their fields.

GMO contamination threatens the existence of organic agriculture – and poses huge threats to all agriculture.  One would expect farmers to have legal recourse against the biotech companies.  After all, these corporations are clearly guilty of "genetic trespass", robbing farmers of the organic or non-GMO status of their crops.  In actuality, Monsanto has, for years now, been harassing and successfully suing farmers for patent infringement whenever their GMOs are found in those farmers' fields.  It has made no difference that the farmers neither planted Monsanto's seeds nor wanted them in their fields in the first place.

In response, the group of farmers, seed companies, and non-profits filed a lawsuit against Monsanto, preemptively seeking protection from patent infringement should the farmers represented ever find their crops contaminated by Monsanto's GMOs.  Monsanto hired a team of top lawyers and fought back hard. In February, the judge threw out the case, ridiculing the plaintiffs for a "transparent effort to create controversy where none exists."  The case is now being appealed.  One is again left to wonder about the prospects for a society where corporate influence is so pervasive.

People Power

Is there another path?  Is an economy dominated by big corporations the only way?

My opinion is that it's time to dig out that old classic, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973), and consider the advice of E.F. Schumacher: "Today, we suffer from an almost universal idolatry of giantism.  It is therefore necessary to insist on the virtues of smallness."  Forty years later, "bigger is better" remains the conventional wisdom.  Yet the evidence tells us that bigger is not always better.  Increasingly, the idolatry of giantism brings us to a place in which profit-driven corporate influence wins the day, regardless of what ordinary people want or need.  If we instead want a society run by the people, many changes are needed.  Among the most essential is a shift from an economy dominated by big corporations to one oriented around small businesses (especially those with democratic structures, like cooperatives).

In a corporate-dominated economy, corporations hold the power.  In an economy predominantly made up of small businesses (even if big businesses still exist), it is possible for people to determine the direction of their lives, and of society.  We are no longer battling the excessive influence of big business on government decision-making processes, nor the pervasive "corporate mind-set", nor the effects of all that slick advertising.  What happens when businesses misbehave, acting against societal interests?  Small businesses can be held responsible for their actions; in a corporate economy, the big corporations always seem to evade true accountability.  Small businesses are less likely to misbehave in the first place.  Only a huge absentee corporation – headquartered 1,500 miles away and beholden to the financial interests of investors on Wall Street – could possibly fight so hard to keep Vermont Yankee running.

To move to a small business economy, we will need entrepreneurs starting up new small businesses – and keeping them small.  Customers supporting these businesses with their purchases.  Millions moving their money out of the big banks and into community banks.  Investors shifting their money from Wall Street to local and regional enterprises.  Masses of people pushing for political change thru protest movements like Occupy Wall Street.  In other words, we must choose to make use of the people power we do have, however limited it may be.  We will then see that we have what it takes to build a green, socially-just, and democratic society.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Good Food, Good Times

As honored as we are to be two-time winners of the Good Food Awards, the best part of the experience was in the details (as is usually the case). In our line of work, this is as close as we come to a professional meeting or academic conference. When else have we been able to meet a bunch of fantastic pickle makers and other food producers and talk geeky pickle-talk?? Not very often. If only for that, we thank the Good Food Awards (GFA) for creating the opportunity.

The big event.  (Photo credit: Marc Fiorito)
The ceremony was a terrific event, and organizers did a great job of making GFA feel like a truly special honor. We gathered at the historic and impressive Ferry Building, a bona fide shrine to local food. Downstairs, the Ferry Building food shops and restaurants bustled with hungry activity while the gigantic upstairs hall filled with food producers dressed in their best. What exactly does “Black Tie Optional” mean to a food producer? The range of interpretations was fully featured at this event. From tuxes to trousers - foodies and members of the press turned out to witness the announcement of the 2012 winners. Alice Waters again hosted - this time acting as the medal-distributor - along with keynote speaker, Ruth Reichl. Both stood to the side of the stage and greeted each winner with a medal and a handshake before guiding them to the stage to stand with their fellow category winners to accept their award. Amidst the clinking of mason jars full of local hard cider and the excited chatter of nutriment networking, a speaker selected from each category (voted by the category winners) gave the acceptance speech. Many spoke of changing times, the ability to source quality ingredients that were not available a decade ago, and the increasing consumer demand for tasty and responsible food. Over such a wide variety of categories (coffee, chocolate, beer, preserves, charcuterie, pickles, cheese, spirits), there were many interesting points that could have served as keynotes in themselves - but in the interest of getting to the tasting tables, talks were limited to 3 minutes each.

Real Pickles’ Dan was selected to speak for the pickle category (you can read his speech here). He was a little (very) nervous but found out when he sat down with his fellow winner-speakers that he wasn't alone. He really appreciated the opportunity to talk in the ceremony about the idea of building regional food systems, since that's a big part of why Real Pickles got started, and it's an effort that many other winners are involved in, as well.

The tasting.
After the ceremony, we headed downstairs for tasting!!! The Ferry Building continues its history as a terminal for ferries bound for points across the bay. But now, it is a gathering place for all who love good food (and have some spending money). During the week, food purveyors vend their victuals to ferry passengers, financial district lunchers, and tourists alike - from locally-roasted Blue Bottle Coffee to regional Cowgirl Creamery cheeses to raw Hog Island oysters (my favorite, anytime of day). You can even browse the shelves of an oversized armoire full of amazing jams and pickles, which serves as a mini-shop for Happy Girl Kitchen. For the GFA tasting party, the Ferry Building shops were closed, but tasting tables for each region were set up in the hallway by region. Each region’s table was lined with plates containing a bite-sized portion of each winning product. For the East region, we enjoyed marvelous mouthfuls from Sour Puss Pickles and Sweet Deliverance in NYC, Formaggio Kitchen in Boston, Cellars at Jasper Hill in Vermont, and Rogue Chocolatiers - new neighbors in Western Massachusetts! Washing the regional mixture down with gulps of winning beer from familiar Smuttynose and faraway Alaskan Brewing Company, we proceeded to the next table for pleasurable provincial provisions.

The sandwich.  (Photo credit: Lisa Scott Owen.)
Real Pickles’ Garlic Dills were one of a handful of products chosen by San Francisco chefs to be showcased in special dishes specifically for the event. Evan and Leo, who we got a chance to meet at last year's awards, are opening up a Jewish deli in San Francisco called Wise Sons Deli. They've been hard at work perfecting their fermented pickle and cured pastrami recipes for the new place. Meanwhile, they prepared and served a very special dish at the reception: Brisket braised in Smuttynose Robust Porter with slaw and Real Pickles’ Garlic Dills on a sea salt challah bun. Quite a tasty little sandwich, though half of mine ended up on the floor by way of my dress ... figures.

The next morning, we headed back to the Ferry Building for the GFA Marketplace and the regular Saturday farmers market. The Marketplace was a great chance to taste some of the winning products we'd missed the night before and meet some more winning producers. We got a chance to try a yogurt cheese from Sonoma County, which was wondrous. Someone in the Northeast needs to study with Saint Benoit and get some tips. We also enjoyed meeting some folks from Colorado and tasting their Avalanche goat cheese - yum. Moving on to the regular SF farmers market, we were heartily impressed. Talk about a regional food system! This endless farmers market is brimming with regional foods. Clearly, California has a certain climate advantage over 4-season New England for produce - but there was still plenty to be inspired by in terms of implications for our own food system back home: veggies, dairy, seafood, charcuterie... and a proud showing of lacto-ferments! We got to taste astonishing horseradish-leek kraut from Farmhouse Culture, as well as pick up a bottle of refreshing kimchi juice from Happy Girl Kitchen. It was great to see a farmers market supporting two bustling pickle booths (both GFA winners, I might add).
The kraut section at Rainbow Grocery!

We witnessed West Coast support of lacto-ferment beyond just the Ferry Building. Later on, we stopped in at Rainbow Grocery, a very impressive food coop in the Mission District, and found our jaws dropping at the sight of the raw kraut section. So many producers ... so much shelf space. One employee noticed our reaction and said, “Yup, we like our kraut!” Some say that California leads the way, predicting the market, harbinger of the next big societal trend. Well, New England, are you ready for more raw kraut?!?

The pickle posse.
Before the GFA weekend came to an end, we also experienced what was perhaps the biggest highlight for us: A pickle posse party! As pickle-makers working in a rural area and only selling our products regionally, we only get so many opportunities to meet other people involved in our craft. The GFA weekend is a great way to get a bunch of us together. Many of us from this year’s group spent an evening embracing our inner pickle nerd by waxing eloquent about preferred cabbage slicing equipment, debating the fundamentals of fermentation chemistry, and deliberating about the challenges of buying local vegetables and managing a small business.  (Pictured here: Ann's Raspberry Farm, Sour Puss Pickles, Emmy's Pickles and Jams, Real Pickles, and Firefly Kitchens. Olykraut joined us later in the evening.)  In what can sometimes be solitary work, it feels good to be connected to such a great group of talented food makers, creative entrepreneurs, and all-around fun and interesting people. We’re excited for the next opportunity (fingers crossed for next year)!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Good Food Awards speech: "Pickles Are Not Obsolete!"

Addie and I are just back from the Good Food Awards in San Francisco, where we were honored for the 2nd year in a row for our Organic Garlic Dill Pickles.  While our first experience at the Good Food Awards in 2011 was quite special, this time around we were fortunate enough to receive an additional honor:  Real Pickles was selected by our 10 fellow pickle winners from around the country to deliver the acceptance speech for the group!  (Thanks, picklers!)

At the ceremony, each pickle winner was called up to the stage and received a Good Food Awards medal from renowned chef and food activist Alice Waters.  And, then I delivered the speech: 

Thanks very much. My partner Addie and I are thrilled to be back at the Good Food Awards for a 2nd time as part of what is again a fantastic pickle posse! 

I think pickles are a really great fit with the Good Food Awards, with its focus on helping to bring good food back into the American diet, promoting both taste and social responsibility.  Pickle-makers in the United States have much to offer on both counts, and I would say the winners here tonight are clear illustrations of that.

Those engaged in the craft today are drawing on pickling traditions from around the world to produce tasty pickles, as three of tonight’s winners did – Farmhouse Culture, Spirit Creek Farm, and Firefly Kitchens – in creating a version of the Salvadoran classic, curtido.  And we are drawing on the American pickling tradition, as Cuisine En Locale did to produce their winning pickled peaches (which I'm very excited to try). 

Some of us here (like Olykraut) are using the traditional fermentation process to make our pickles, while others (like Miss Jenny's and Let's Be Frank) are using the modern vinegar approach.  Both are great ways to preserve the wonderful flavors of organically-grown produce and indeed to enhance those flavors along the way. 

Pickle-makers are also making major contributions in the realm of social responsibility.  Our special tool of course, our not-so-secret weapon, is our ability to take perishable fruits and vegetables and make them non-perishable, and yet still tasty and nutritious.

In an industrial food system – with monoculture farming and long-distance food transport (both made possible by cheap fossil fuels) – one might be tempted to wonder if pickles are obsolete.  I mean, why bother with making dill pickles for winter when we can just buy in cucumbers from Mexico, right?  Part of the answer, of course, is:  Who really could live without pickles?  (I know, I might be a little bit biased.)

But, as it turns out: pickles are not obsolete anyway.  Because, as more and more Americans are coming to realize, our industrial food system is broken.  It doesn't work.  It's causing or exacerbating a huge list of ecological and social ills, from climate change and soil erosion to human disease epidemics and the decline of our rural economies.  What we need instead is a regionally-based organic food system where everyone (not just the privileged few) has access to healthy food from small producers located (whenever possible) within their own region.

And in such a food system, pickles are an essential food:  one that can keep people eating nutritious fruits and vegetables from regional sources all year long, regardless of how cold the weather gets.

Our contribution to building a regional, organic food system is an important part of what we pickle-makers are being honored for tonight.  So many of the winning producers here have developed close relationships with their local farmers to source their ingredients, as we have done in Massachusetts at Real Pickles, Sour Puss Pickles has done in New York, and Emmy's has done here in California; while others are growing ingredients themselves, like Ann's Raspberry Farm.

And, thus, just as practitioners of each craft being honored here tonight are contributing to the task of making "good food" the norm in America, so too are those of the pickling craft.  And, I think I can safely speak for all of my fellow pickle winners when I express sincere gratitude to the organizers of the Good Food Awards for doing your part to help promote our work and achieve wider recognition for it.  So, thank you very much. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Tips From Pickle Fanatics

While Winter tends to be a quiet time of year for making pickles, it is undeniably a great time for eating them. Fresh local produce is harder to come by and the tangy flavor of fermented foods is a perfect accompaniment to hearty cold weather fare. When it comes to fermented vegetables, the Real Pickles staff are, as you may have guessed, enthusiastic and creative users of the stuff. I talked with some other members of our staff recently to get a sense of how they are incorporating Real Pickles into their meals.

Katie, our fermentation specialist, has been on a tempeh reuben kick.  Known to us all as an excellent cook, she melts some Swiss cheese on rye bread, adds some slices of Rhapsody’s tasty tempeh, and tops it with Organic Garlic Kraut and Thousand Island dressing (she makes her own by combining ketchup, mayo and a chopped pickle).  “It’s an easy sandwich that you can make in a frying pan or a toaster oven,” she notes.

Apples and sauerkraut are a popular combination among staff, especially in these colder months. Some thinly sliced raw cabbage, Organic Sauerkraut, chopped apple, feta and toasted walnuts tossed in a creamy dressing is a perfect crunchy winter salad. Another inspired example of this combination is the pizza that Dan and Addie have been making, topped with ricotta, gruyere, shallots, thinly sliced apple and Organic Garlic Kraut. Dan and Addie particularly like using the sourdough crusts from our friends at Berkshire Mountain Bakery. We are always impressed by the beautiful caramelized shallots when they bring in leftovers for lunch.

In my own home, we make a version of the Real Pickles vegetable fried rice recipe at least a couple of times a month. We start by sautéeing lots of garlic, add some leftover rice, crack in an egg or two and then add whatever cooked vegetables we have around (carrots, kale and broccoli are always good). Sometimes we’ll throw in some frozen peas or green beans from our summer garden. We top it all with a big serving of Organic Asian-style Cabbage and some sesame oil. A handful of chopped salted peanuts tossed on top are an added bonus.

Brendan, who works in the kitchen and is our source of outstanding homemade goat cheese, also makes a lot of stir fries and likes to add in some Organic Ginger Carrots at the very end, heating just enough to warm it all through. He also suggests mixing the carrots into green salads.

Fermented foods are popular with staff for breakfast, especially as an accompaniment to eggs. A slug or two of Organic Tomatillo Hot Sauce on scrambled eggs has long been our favorite use for it. Annie, our lead production manager, likes to cover an over-medium egg with melted cheddar cheese and Organic Red Cabbage. Hannah also likes to precede her day in the Real Pickles kitchen with fried eggs for breakfast, topping hers with Organic Asian-style Cabbage.

If you’ve had a busy week and are looking for a simple and satisfying meal, you can always take a cue from the Real Pickles lunch table: unwrap a wedge of cheese, get some crusty bread or crackers and top it off with whatever Real Pickles vegetables you have open. Joe, our facility manager, takes this simplicity approach a step further. He traveled back home to Louisville over the holidays and his stash of Organic Dill Pickles intended for family and friends became the road trip snack of choice. “We easily went through an entire jar of pickles in one sitting and drank the brine when they were gone.”