The Fermentation Association recently surveyed our community to better understand who has engaged with us, how their businesses are doing and to gauge the impact of the pandemic. We want to share the very interesting results.

A few qualifying comments first, however. This survey should not be interpreted as producing a profile of the fermented industry — it reached only those with whom we have connected since TFA was launched in 2017. This group is heavily weighted to Food and Beverage Producers and those in the Science, Health and Research fields. And, even as we note surprisingly high response rates below, the quantities of responses to certain questions were small and would not meet standard analytical thresholds of statistical significance. So please treat the comments and conclusions that follow as directional rather than definitive. 

We received 450 full or partial responses — nearly twice the number we had expected and what we would have considered “good.” Not surprisingly, the bulk of these were from Food and Beverage Producers — just under half — with a strong representation of the Science, Health and Research community, a little less than one-fifth. The balance of the respondents were classified as Supplier or Service Provider (9%); Chef/Writer/Educator (8%); Retailer/Distributor/Broker (3%); Food Service/Hospitality (3%); or fell into a miscellaneous Other category (12%).

We will be presenting further analyses and follow-up discussions in the coming weeks. This article focuses on the two largest segments: first, Food & Beverage Producers; then, Science, Health, and Research. 

FOOD & BEVERAGE PRODUCERS

  • We found that over 80% of our Producers are small businesses with 25 or fewer  employees, and 65% had 2020 sales of less than $500,000. That said, over 11%  of the companies represented are toward the other end of the spectrum, with 100 or more on staff, and 13% with revenue of over $10 million.
  • We reach a lot of Owners/Founders/Senior Executives, over 70% of respondents. The next most well-represented functional areas are Operations and Product Development.
  • These businesses are spread across the developmental timeline — a little over 40% are selling at the local level, or earlier in their growth cycle (selling at farmers market or still in testing/pre-launch mode). Yet 45% are selling regionally, nationally or internationally.
  • Retail is still the largest (45%) channel of sale for these producers, but Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) is just slightly behind at 40%, with the remaining 15% through Food Service/Hospitality.
  • Sauerkraut/Kimchi, Pickles, Condiments/Sauces and Kombucha were the most frequently-listed product categories, each mentioned by more than 20% of the producers. Kefir, Vinegar/Shrubs, Wine and Miso also were mentioned often. Of the 25 product categories listed, we had respondents involved in every one — except poor, slimy, and unrepresented natto.
  • Nearly half of producers selling at retail and/or DTC had sales gains in 2020 and another third maintained their revenues. Not surprisingly, nearly 40% of producers selling into food service saw sales take a hit — only 15% reported gains. 
  • The Covid-19 pandemic caused a host of issues for producers, though their prevalence seemed to vary depending on the size of the company. Among larger producers, over 90% had issues meeting demand, with the primary problems being shortages of raw materials, packaging and staff, as well as distribution delays. Fewer of the small producers reported issues, but their problems fell into the same categories. Financial difficulties were cited more often among small producers.
  • Nearly 30% of producers took advantage of the government’s Payroll Protection Plan.
  • This year appears to continue or build on the sales levels achieved in 2020 for most producers. Nearly 40% report first quarter 2021 sales at the same level as last year, and nearly 50% reported further increases. And producers are optimistic about continuing these trends, with a mere 5% anticipating sales declines.  
  • Most (nearly two-thirds) of responding producers did not participate in tradeshows and conferences, and therefore felt no business impact from show cancellations in 2020.
  • The producers that did participate in events favored the Natural Products Expos, Fancy Food Shows and IFT Show. While some felt that they lost short-terms sales and their future growth was hurt by the shows being cancelled, nearly 30% noted that they saved money and time by not attending. Some of those savings were reinvested in increased marketing, DTC sales and virtual events.
  • Interestingly, half of the producers plan to continue their involvement as events resume at the same level as before the pandemic, and fully one-third plan to increase activity.
  • Looking ahead, producers see numerous challenges on the horizon, led by a need for expanded distribution. They expect many of the recent shortages to continue to challenge, compounded by production, facility and financial constraints. While Covid protocols and food safety concerns persist, they are joined by the need for product development, e-commerce skills, and consumer marketing
  • The clearly-articulated top priority for producers is a better-educated consumer. When asked what would foster increased consumption of fermented foods and beverages, the top item for nearly 70% is consumer education as to the nature and benefits of fermentation. The next highest priorities all support this same goal — more research into health impact (+40%), greater familiarity with flavors of fermentation (+40%) and more exposure at retail (+30%).

SCIENCE, HEALTH & RESEARCH

  • The bulk — nearly 75% — of these respondents work in an academic environment, with very small clusters in government and medical/health organizations. It’s a well-educated group, with over half holding doctorates, plus another quarter with Master’s degrees. Roles are split quite evenly into thirds — professors, science/technical support and students/postdocs.
  • Over 60% of these respondents are looking into connections between fermentation and health; roughly half are specifically focused on gut health and the human microbiome. Overall, three-quarters are currently researching fermentation and fermented products. Their activities, though, span the full spectrum of product categories. All the key categories among our producers — Sauerkraut/Kimchi, Pickles, Condiments/Sauces, Kombucha and Kefir — were well-represented in research. But they were joined by meaningful work across the board — Yogurt, Beer, Cheese, Alternative Proteins, Koji, Wine, Sourdough, Tempeh, Tea — even Natto!
  • Slightly more than a third of this group is involved with fermented alternative proteins – an important, emerging category.
  • Funding for research showed more declines (30% of respondents) than gains (under 15%) over the last year. But half of our sample expects funding to increase in the coming 12-18 month.
  • Our Science, Health & Research respondents were split in how they viewed the interest in fermentation research — 60% felt the focus was increasing, but the topic was not yet a top priority. Yet a third saw fermentation as a hot topic, with more emphasis and activity than ever. 
  • Respondents in this group shared the views of producers that the key activities that would drive increased consumption of fermented products are:
    • Consumer education about fermentation
    • More research into health benefits
    • Greater consumer familiarity with fermented flavors