by Kirsten K. Shockey
“There’s a propane leak.”
“What?” I said looking up from the 80-quart bowl that had swallowed me up to my elbows. My mother’s husband stood in the doorway of our fermentation kitchen. His eyes were scanning the room. I pulled my hands out of shredded cabbage and salt. “We don’t have propane,” I said.
He continued glancing around the room. “Well then it must be natural gas. The smell is strong. It’s a sizeable leak.” His tone conveyed the gravity of our situation. “Our whole house smells like natural gas.” He and my mother live in a home built above our fermentation kitchen and accompanying aging rooms, the “kraut caves.”
“We really don’t have any propane on the property,” I explained.
He shook his head. “There’s a leak,” he said again.
We were at a stalemate until I burst out laughing. Between guffaws I managed to say one word, “kimchi.” “It’s the kimchi. I guess you could call that natural gas,” I said. I am not sure that he believed me. We’d launched our fermentation business a week earlier, and this was the odor of our first 10-gallon batch of kimchi.
Ah, the smell of fermented vegetables — kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles — we all know it. Some find this aroma a perfume indicating delicious flavor and others … well, crinkle their noses.
When we started fermenting vegetables the current enthusiasm for fermented vegetables hadn’t yet developed. Cheeses, artisan breads, micro- brews were the sexy ferments; our stinky vegetables were a curiosity at the farmers’ market. We did a lot of educating and offered a lot of samples. Samples were, and remain, a wonderful way to start the conversation, and taste is the hook.
Despite the trend, many people still have not tasted raw, fresh, fermented sauerkraut. Our collective imagination sees sauerkraut as a stringy, strong tasting, pale substance that was plopped on our hot dogs in the school lunch line, which we then pushed off the hot dog into the garbage. People are blown away by the tangy, semi-sweet, crisp flavor of fresh, raw and fermented. Over the last few years this simple old-school process has come of age.
Predictions are putting fermented vegetables on the top of food trend lists. Why? The taste. Restaurants, and not just funky little healthy restaurants but the places with stars in their ratings and rock-star chefs, are serving fermented vegetables as chic menu selections. Sustainability. Interest in local and sustainable is spurring on how-to classes and fermentation festivals, which are popping up in hip urban areas as well as in tiny towns. Most recently there is national discussion on curbing food waste. What better way to preserve a vegetable with a short shelf life — just add salt and time. Health. The benefits of eating nutrient dense, gut-healing, probiotic foods, is receiving a lot of airtime and everyone on restrictive diets can eat ferments — from GAPS or gluten-free to paleo or vegan.
Admittedly, home fermentation is simple and inexpensive. Everyone can do it right? Yes, everyone can. Does everyone want to? Absolutely not — many will prefer to leave it to the professionals to create the new flavors and textures. This is where you come in.
For small farmers and homesteaders, fermenting vegetables becomes a viable way to increase their role in a local sustainable food economy. Mary Alionis of Whistling Duck Farm in Southern Oregon calls her farmstead “fermentaria” money in the bank. Sales from this “kraut account” provide the much needed cash at the early spring markets. Folks don’t want any more turnips. Instead, they crave the fresh bright flavor of a tangy ferment. “This works so much better for our farm than the CSA model (where the spring startup income is based on future sales). For us the infusion of income is product leaving the farm so we are relying on subscribers.”
This article hopes to generate ideas that might work for your smallholding or farm. It cannot cover the nitty-gritty of a business plan, nor is it a comprehensive how-to-ferment. Instead it is about some of the things to consider on your journey to becoming a fermented vegetable food entrepreneur.
Starting up (or, Jumping into the Brine)
The beauty of starting a product line based on a 12,000-year-old technology is that you don’t need a lot. This is an advantage when it comes to the startup capital for a small fermentation operation. With a minimal list you are on your way; a vessel, something to weigh down the fermenting vegetables, the vegetables (who come pre-loaded with our friends the lactic acid bacteria), salt, a way to chop and shred said vegetables, a clean space to work in and a climate-stable place to let your crocks bubble.
Often the vegetables will come to you from your own farm in the form of overruns, successional plantings that overlap, or seconds. A lot of ferment can come from minimal field space. The farmers we’ve talked to plant a few extra cabbages and run the bulk of their fermentation operations with surplus from their regular crops. Kraut, kimchi and pickle varieties and flavors will vary from season to season and year to year. But this is part of the charm of the small-scale farmstead ferment that keeps the customer checking in week after week to discover Garlic Scape Radish Kimchi is their new favorite.
Salt is an ingredient you will want to spend some time with. There is a difference. Make some small batches and get to know your salt. We recommend unrefined, mineral-rich salts. They tend to have a “sweeter” taste and lend subtle differences to flavor.
The heart of prepping the vegetables for fermentation is in the shredding, slicing or grating. After all, part of lacto-fermentation magic lies in breaking down the vegetable’s cell structure to create the brine. We started our operation with a long blade of stainless steel. It was soon clear this method took countless hours to process hundreds of pounds of cabbage. As those hours ticked by so did attention to detail. We knew it was a matter of time before one of us slipped. We moved to a hand-crank rotary slicer and dreamed of an electrical processing monster that would reduce the job to seconds. For many operations this is the most expensive tool.
The vessels can be stoneware crocks, which are now widely available in many hardware stores, or food grade buckets. More important than the vessels is your method of weighing your ferments down. The goal is to keep everything under the brine, completely submerged and anaerobic. Just remember, ‘submerging in brine, conquers evil every time.’ The good news is that the larger the batch the easier this is. The bad news is that you would be surprised how much weight a little CO2 can lift. For a 10-gallon crock or 5-gallon bucket we recommend a follower, something like a plate that will span the container and hold down the contents, topped with a few gallon jars of water for added weight.
When planning your operation, think about your farm, your other projects, your available spaces, your workflow and how you might integrate fermentation. Your production kitchen can be very simple; sinks and prep tables. During the cure time it is important that your ferments luxuriate between 55°and 75°F, the ideal being between 60°and 65°F. The bacteria work efficiently at these temperatures and have time to allow different communities of lactic acid to progress through the fermentation, leaving more interesting complex flavors. Faster, warmer fermentations tend to taste more tart and flat.
Once your product is made, there are a few more things to consider. Fermentation is a preservation method; however, to keep your live product stable and tasty you need to chill the bacteria into slow motion. In other words, put the ferment into refrigeration. Most farms have walk-in coolers and during the start-up phase this need not be an added cost. Once fermentation is a viable ancillary income on the farm, you may want to have a separate ferment cooler, which we will talk about in a bit. Sending your fermented vegetables home with the customer requires packaging. Many small operations choose to pack in pint canning jars or to sell bulk at the market (as regulations allow). These are both good places to begin because researching packaging and labeling materials can feel like untangling a Gordian knot.
Does labor become a benefit or liability? While the process is simple, it still takes time and energy to clean, chop, mix and pack a crock full of kimchi, kraut, or pickles.
On a well-established farm, fermentation may be a benefit for the employees as well as the farm’s bottom line. Whistling Duck Farm offers a good example. On a day-to-day basis the “fermentaria” allows Mary to place workers in an indoor space when weather extremes make fieldwork difficult. At the seasonal level it provides added winter work, permitting her to retain good employees by offering year-round employment.
Benefits are also realized on the family operation, as the fermentation is a great place for younger family members to participate and contribute, from packing in crocks to packing in jars. In our business we were able to offer our college-age children viable employment when they were home during the summer.
For a small farm that struggles with available labor it is important to figure out if the added income makes hiring worthwhile.
Waste Not, Want Not & Labor
The most obvious economic advantage from on-farm fermentation is that not only is waste significantly reduced but overruns and seconds become delicious and more valuable. Vegetables that may have ended up on the compost pile or tilled under are now stable for many months. While it is wonderful to save every carrot, or beet, or parsnip it is important to make sure that the trade-off for the labor involved will pencil-out. Because ferments are a value-added product sometimes it will make more sense to use the firsts.
Learning the Art of Vegetable Fermentation
If you have never fermented vegetables, don’t let that daunt you. Unlike baking the perfect French pastry, fermenting vegetables is a simple process that’s easy to learn. If you love DIY and teaching yourself, there are many books that offer instruction. If you prefer to see, touch and smell the process, keep your eye out for workshops in your area. Check with the health food stores, co-ops or local extension offices.
The next step is to start playing with the process in small batches. Don’t let production get in the way of getting comfortable with learning.
Lactic-Acid Bacteria Basics
For a culture raised on germ theory and refrigeration it is counter-intuitive to keep something out on the counter for days and then eat it. Understanding that this bacterium has kept our food preserved and our bodies healthy is a new way of thinking.
Keeping Lactobacillus Alive
Recently, we were asked about sterilization at a class we were teaching. We clarified the difference between the canning process, which demands strict sterilization of the jars, equipment and the food product itself and fermentation. As we explained that with lactic acid fermentation it is important that you keep a clean space and use clean equipment, but strict sanitation, such as antibacterial soaps or vegetable rinses, are a detriment to the very bacteria you are trying to encourage. A woman broke in to tell us her story. She identified herself as a Master Food Preserver who mans the state food preservation hotline. “We tell people not to be clean. You want as much of the lactic acid bacteria as possible to be in process to beat out the bad bacteria. We tell people to throw a handful of dirt into their batch.” She, of course, was joking about the dirt to make her point.
Commingling Field & Ferment
The farm is a busy muddy place. Microbes are your friends, but on the farm you do want to take precautions to isolate your product from some of the other things that are going on in your operation, lest your bacteria, enzymes, yeasts and molds commingle. The following anecdotes illustrate this point.
Bushel baskets, crates and buckets of apples lined one wall of our production kraut kitchen. We’d picked these off of our heirloom trees and were letting them soften by “sweating” for a few weeks to develop their sugars before pressing them into cider. The fruity sweet fragrance of the ripe apples competed with the acidic pickle odor that permeated the space.
It was the height of harvest season. Our ancient double-doored cooler hummed and clanked trying to keep all the cases of cabbages, carrots, onions, winter squash and peppers cool as they waited for their turn in the crock. It was our second season as vegetable fermentation entrepreneurs and we were efficient — we had our recipes dialed in and our routines down.
Stacks of upside down clean jars glistened on the stainless steel table, along with a box of lids and a pile of labels when we rolled out the crock of Lemon Dill Kraut that would fill those jars and head out to the masses. When we lifted out the lid and weights in the crock, the fragrant fresh garlicky smell that characterized this flavor filled the air. The kraut looked perfect under the follower but when we dipped the tongs in to begin packing there was something very wrong with the texture. The neat shreds nearly disintegrated when touched. The texture was creamy, like butter — not what one looks for in sauerkraut. We were puzzled. In that moment of panic we rushed into the cave to check all of our ripening ferments. Most were fine, but two other crocks made in the same week had this undesirable consistency. We briefly thought of marketing the first spreadable krauts (it tasted normal) but it was clear we had met our first product loss. We researched and found that the enzymes that softened the apples had contaminated our krauts.
Whistling Duck Farm faced similar problems resulting from cold storage contamination. The fresh vegetables stored in the walk-in cooler required higher humidity and brought with them mold spores or yeasts from the fields. Various microorganisms (other than lactic-acid) from the vegetables in the coolers can affect the ferments themselves. This can cause molds on the containers of fermented product. Often this mold is isolated to the outside of the containers, be it jars or storage buckets, and merely creates an unpleasant task (and time loss) to keep the products clean. However, one summer Mary invited me to taste her “funky ferments.” We walked around the back of the barn where a row of 5-gallon food grade buckets sat in a line. We opened the buckets tasting everything from plain sauerkraut to carrot kraut. The flavors were bitter or yeasty, not rotten, but not pleasant. After 35 gallons of product had to be composted, Mary put in a small new cooler dedicated to the ferments.
Preservation & Red Tape
The regulations around farmstead fermentation vary widely from state to state. We have talked to farmstead producers throughout the country and each state handles fermentation differently. First, learn the regulations as they apply to your state. USDA microbiologist Fred Breidt, who specializes in the safety of fermented vegetables and advocates proper vegetable fermentation, is often quoted as saying that the scientific literature has never recorded a case of food poisoning involving raw vegetables and “risky is not a word I would use to describe vegetable fermentation. It is one of the oldest and safest technologies we have.”
Pat Block owns a fledgling pickle business, Barrio Brinery, in Santa Fe. In New Mexico the groundwork for fermentation is still being laid. Enrique Limón for the Santa Fe Reporter described obstacles Block faced in November 2014. Block explained how each individual product needed to be sent to New Mexico State University for lab analysis. He said the regulating agencies told him they knew what to do with salsa or jerky, but not fermented pickles.
In Oregon, the farm-direct law is farm fermentation friendly. It allows small farmers to produce fermented vegetables on farm without a certified kitchen. However, five years ago, when we started fermenting commercially, our USDA inspector hadn’t yet seen commercial fermentation. A pickle is not necessarily a pickle. She required one of us to take the acidified foods certification, which pertains to foods that have acid (often vinegar) added to them. Preserving a low-acid vegetable by submerging it in vinegar has to be done carefully with properly lab-tested recipes, lest the food doesn’t acidify safely. Think about the warnings to never diverge from the approved canned salsa recipes. The vinegar or lemon juice must be precise. In lactic acid fermentation, the acidic quality that preserves the food happens as the carbohydrates and sugars in the vegetable are converted into lactic acid. It is not only safer but fool proof when a few simple steps are followed. In many cases it can be safer than raw vegetables because as the lactic acid bacteria are multiplying it is killing any harmful bacteria that might be on the vegetables.
People are seeking bold new flavor. Farmstead fermentation is a fun, easy opportunity for you to expand the diversity of your farm’s products. It might be time to roll up your sleeves and jump in.
Kirsten K. Shockey created more than 40 varieties of fermented vegetables through the family’s farmstead food company. Selling led to teaching which became the book Fermented Vegetables by Storey Publishing, available from Acres U.S.A. For more information visit fermentista.us.
This article appears in the January 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.