Farming Magazine - March, 2013

COLUMNS

New England Farmers Union: A Fermentation Celebration

By Mary McClintock and Annette Higby

Dan Rosenberg started Real Pickles in 2001, taking 1,000 pounds of organic pickling cucumbers and making dill pickles to sell to about 25 stores in western Massachusetts. Co-owner Addie Rose Holland soon joined Rosenberg in the production of high-quality, traditional pickled foods, using natural fermentation to create products that are raw, vinegar-free and 100 percent organic.

From 2002 to 2008, Real Pickles operated out of the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center in Greenfield, Mass., a food business incubator with a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen facility. Funded in part by a $250,000 Farm to Institution grant from USDA Rural Development, the center helps farmers and food entrepreneurs add value to food grown in the region. The center provides equipment for processing (including freezing) fruits and vegetables, and center personnel assist farmers who use the facilities.

Strawberry jam, chutneys and frozen food for schools allow farmers to extend their season, thereby achieving two goals of the center: meet regional food needs and satisfy consumer demand for local food. Inspired by USDA's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, Farm to Institution projects all across the country are connecting local farmers with schools, hospitals and other institutional buyers.

Over the years, Real Pickles added organic sauerkraut, ginger carrots, beets, kimchi and more to its product list. In 2009, Real Pickles outgrew the food processing center and moved to its own 100 percent solar-powered, energy-efficient organic pickling facility in Greenfield. Rosenberg and Holland chose to reuse an existing building rather than build a new one. They transformed a century-old industrial structure into a pickling facility with financing help from their local bank and from Franklin County Community Development Corporation and Equity Trust.

Real Pickles made extensive energy efficiency improvements to the building to reduce its ongoing energy use. A $15,000 USDA Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) grant and rebates from its electric and gas utilities were essential in making the project affordable. REAP provides grants and guaranteed loans to agricultural producers and small businesses in rural America for financing renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, energy audits and feasibility studies. REAP helps farmers and small businesses adopt new and innovative technologies to generate energy from wind, geothermal, hydropower, solar, anaerobic digesters and biomass sources. A total of $474,258 in REAP grants was given in New England in 2012.

Overall, the Real Pickles facility uses relatively little energy because its pickling process does not involve any heating equipment (all of its products are raw), and Rosenberg and Holland paid close attention to energy efficiency when renovating the building. Real Pickles uses a Freeaire system for its walk-in refrigerator, which utilizes outside air during the winter months to keep things cool, and controls the mechanical components for optimal efficiency, reducing the cooler's electric usage by an estimated 60 percent.

The 17.6-kilowatt photovoltaic system installed on the roof above the kitchen and office area provides more electricity than needed to power the facility. "By making our facility 100 percent solar-powered, we have taken a small but important step as a business to help move our society forward in pursuit of cleaner air, greater community self-reliance, and a more stable global climate," said Rosenberg.

Real Pickles sources most of its vegetables from six nearby farms, including Atlas Farm in Deerfield, Mass.; Chamutka Farm in Whately, Mass.; Harlow Farm in Westminster, Vt.; Old Friends Farm in Amherst, Mass.; Red Fire Farm in Granby, Mass.; and Riverland Farm in Sunderland, Mass. This year, Real Pickles expects to buy about 200,000 pounds of vegetables.

In 2010, Rosenberg and Real Pickles were honored by Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) with the organization's Local Hero Award. In 2011 and 2012, Real Pickles was awarded a top honor for its Organic Garlic Dill Pickles at the Good Food Awards in San Francisco.

Real Pickles is part of a growing local food network in New England. The USDA Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program is helping to strengthen and expand this web of new markets and opportunities for farmers and consumers. From REAP grants, to food processing centers and season-extending high tunnels, the USDA is helping innovative and entrepreneurial farmers in our region succeed. These investments add to our rural economies, grow farms and create jobs. Keeping and funding these programs in the federal farm bill is a priority for the New England Farmers Union (NEFU).

Looking ahead, Rosenberg and Holland plan to continue to pursue innovation and have decided to become a worker-owned cooperative. New governance structures will give their workers a vote at the board level and a share of Real Pickles' profits. The company has a staff of 12, five of whom will be the initial worker-owners of the cooperative. The day-to-day management will continue with the current management structure, and Rosenberg and Holland will continue to be part of Real Pickles as worker-owners and managers.

Reflecting on why Real Pickles is a member of NEFU, Rosenberg said, "Real Pickles is in business to change the food system into a new, better regional food system. On a day-to-day level, we work toward that goal. We recognize that many things need to happen to make a better food system and we can't do it all. The work that NEFU does in bringing together New England's farmers and food producers to advocate for New England agriculture at the state, regional and federal policy levels is essential to creating a better regional food system."

For more information about Real Pickles, visit www.realpickles.com. To join NEFU, visit www.newenglandfarmersunion.org.

Mary McClintock writes occasionally for NEFU, and Annette Higby is NEFU's policy director.