In an effort to help struggling farms during the coronavirus pandemic, Blue Hill at Stone Barns is expanding their fermentation program. 

The upscale restaurants (Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Westchester County) have long been at the forefront of farm-to-table dining. But, like all restaurants in New York, Blue Hill closed in March when the coronavirus pandemic broke out. Though co-owners Dan and David Barber are confident the traditional restaurant model will once again return, the brothers are troubled by the catastrophic impact on farms.

Blue Hill Farm and Stone Barns Center (a non-profit farm and educational center) have partnered to form a new entity resourcED, which surveyed over 500 farmers. A key conclusion — over a third of farms will not survive the pandemic. August sales at farms are expected to be down by 50% due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and over 30% of farmers say they are struggling to cover expenses. 

“The excess product is a huge concern. That’s shaped our box program, our fermentation program,” says Andrew Luzmore, Blue Hill’s market forager. 

The resourcED survey was the impetus at Blue Hill to launch their picnic dining and box program. Diners can buy a picnic dinner and eat a farm-to-table meal on the farm’s patio or lawn (physically distanced from others), still allowing Blue Hill to purchase food from local farmers. This program allows consumers to pick-up a box full of produce, dairy products, seafood or meat, all sourced from local farms.

Blue Hill’s mainstay fermentation and preservation programs, used for over 15 years to maintain food flavor and nutrients through long Northeastern winters, have also been expanded, to absorb more of excess farm production.

“The focus on preservation program is bred out of necessity, and necessity breeds creativity,” says Cortney Burns, chef, fermentation consultant for Blue Hill and author of “Bar Tartine, Techniques & Recipes” and the forthcoming “Nourish Me Home.” “What we’re doing now with fermentation at Blue Hill rides on the coattails of what has been part of the backbone of Blue Hill for years. Working here has me looking at fermentation through a different lens these days. How can we be completely in service to good agriculture? How can we create a greater economy for farms?”

Adds Luzmore: “The fermentation program has definitely expanded a lot. We’re shifting more to helping farmers with excess product.”

For example, Blue Hill recently purchased  napa cabbage that would have been wasted from a Hudson Valley farmer. They are fermenting the cabbage, “making a delicious, nutritious  probiotic-rich food for our diners, whilst  buying up overabundant harvests,” Burns notes.

It’s conscious cooking, Burns says “We’re not just buying for the sake of preservation. We want to create variety.” Another example is how the Stone Barns Center is trialing preserving different beet varieties.

Fermented grapes and capers, buckwheat vinaigrette, peach umeboshi and whey tonic are among the creations Blue Hill has served picnic-style and in boxes. Some of the fermented food being offered is purchased from local farmers. Local cultured dairy — such as farm fresh cheese and yogurt — makes up a large percentage of their dairy box, for example.

“There are all these different ways we’re harnessing the power of fermentation,” Burns says. “We’ve had to shift our expectation of a restaurant kitchen. We need to make sure that first, the food doesn’t spoil, and second, that we have lots of probiotic rich food loaded with flavor to serve people.”

A picnic meal at Blue Hill is $195 per person and the boxes range from $45 to $170. Blue Hill is also donating boxes to families with food insecurities. 

Luzmore hopes other restaurants will innovate ways they can support local farms during the pandemic. “It’s almost impossible to buy exactly the amount a restaurant needs, especially now when there’s a greater need to support farms. Considering the constant and changing flux of product coming into the restaurant for the boxes and donations, fermentation allows for a more holistic approach of using excess product.”

“Chef Dan [Barber] has said many times throughout the launch of resourcED: we’ve kind of gone from being a restaurant to a food processing facility. Blue Hill is a fine dining restaurant. We still maintain that mentality and quality, but it’s at a different level. The scale, we’re now thinking of purchasing pallets instead of pounds.”

Fermenting Wild Food

Master forager Pascal Baudar shares insight from research for his new book, “Wildcrafted Fermentation: Exploring, Transforming, and Preserving the Wild Flavors of Your Local Terroir.” He believes more people should live off the land. He tells Modern Farmer: “Lacto fermentation really started to create a new level of dealing with wild plants and understanding how to get those wild plants from a culinary perspective.”

Read more (Modern Farmer)

The new wave of protein is not plant-based — it’s fermented.

“Fermentation is really cultivating microbes,” says Thomas Jonas, CEO and co-founder of Sustainable Bioproducts. “And it’s incredibly efficient. Microbes duplicate very fast. So when you think about the double time for a cow or a pig, you’re talking about years. When you talk about microbes, you’re talking about hours. … This is nature’s technology. Nature is really the No. 1 biotech engineer in the world.”

The current agriculture system is incredibly inefficient. Livestock continues to be the world’s largest user of land resources. Pasture land consumes 80% of total agricultural land. Fermented organisms are emerging as new sources of proteins and ingredients. 

Leaders in the biotech industry shared how science is looking beyond plants to create food at a panel sponsored by The Good Food Institute.

Is Microbe Fermentation the New Era of Farming?

Sustainable Bioproducts creates a 50% protein based food ingredient from a microbe cultivated in the volcanic springs at Yellowstone National Park. Jonas explains that these fungal strains, called extremophiles, naturally produce a complete protein when grown in a controlled environment. Sustainable Bioproducts will soon move to a 36,000-square foot facility in Chicago’s former meatpacking district for production. The facility will take up just 0.7 acres. Compare the amount of food Sustainable Bioproducts produces to the equivalent of cow meat and 7,000 acres of grazing land would be needed for the cows.

“It’s the next generation of very efficient farming. I think what we want to get through farming are the nutrients that we need for our food. And microbes can do this tremendously efficiently,” Jonas said. 

By fermenting proteins in bioreactors versus deriving the protein from plants or raising it and slaughtering it on a feedlot, food scientists can do a lot with the health profiles.

Michele Fite, chief commercial officer for Motif FoodWorks, said they work with microbes to adjust sensory attributes, like taste, smell, flavor and texture. “We can help so we don’t have to compromise taste or nutrition when consumers are looking to access plant based foods,” she said.

Adds Anja Schwenzfeier, business development manager for Novozymes: “You want to produce specific proteins that might already exist, but you want to do that more efficiently and more sustainably. You deal with molecules you’re already familiar with.” 

“It’s not so much about creating a completely new protein. Right now we’re looking into how we can improve ingredients we already work with through fermentation.”

Fermentation as a Marketing Advantage

Panel moderator Jeff Bercovici, a writer for the Los Angeles Times, asked how biotech companies are meeting consumers in the development of fermented meat alternatives.

“(There is an) evolution of consumer attitude towards their food, which in some ways are really driving them very quickly to embrace meat alternatives, but in some ways there are some counter currents in terms of people wanting to eat whole foods, natural foods, foods with shorter ingredient lists,” Bercovici said.

The panel noted fermentation has long been a stable in the history of food, from beer to yogurt to cheese. As fermentation is making a comeback, it’s a “marketing advantage,” Bercovici notes, “now it’s a net positive, it generates consumer excitement.”

Fite at Motif FoodWorks said they’ve conducted research on meat alternative users. These consumers are currently buying meat alternatives because they believe it’s healthier than red meat and even chicken. “They want to be in this space,” she said. Consumers voice that meat alternatives are more sustainable, better for the environment, better for animal welfare and equally nutritious.

“They’re open to technology helping to solve that issue for them,” she said. “These consumers are more open to technical solutions than consumers that are a lot older have been in the past…there’s a gateway for these consumers to technical advancements, because they believe it aligns with their values.”

Adds Mark Matlock, senior vice president of food research at Archer Daniels Midland Company: “To me, it’s really refreshing to have some consumers who are embracing technology to this degree, to the extent that they may lead the mainstream their direction.”

Battling Land Use Challenges

As the global population grows, the great challenge to the environment over the next decade will be making more food with less space.

The average American consumes 215 pounds of meat a year. Raising that meat uses 32 million acres of land, and produces 82 million metric tons of greenhouse emissions.

“The real challenge for the planet is not going to be ‘Are we going to have enough oil or carbohydrates?’ it’s ‘Are we going to have enough protein?’” Matlock said. “We create protein the way a cow creates protein. … we have to think: where are our rare resources going to be put?”

A third of the corn crop grown in America feeds livestock.

This morning, you probably had a cup of one of the most popular fermented beverages: coffee. The Growler magazine article “Science of Coffee: the changing chemistry of coffee beans from farm to cup” details how coffee makers have embraced fermentation in recent years “to take maximum advantage of beans’ unique potentials. … The fickle nature of fermentation’s microfauna plays a bigger role in coffee than even many coffee industry people understand.” One coffee company founder shared the story of buying a unique variety of Colombian coffee with incredible flavor. When he bought the brand a year later, the flavor wasn’t as good. The reason — the bean grower started making good money off the coffee, and upgraded the wood fermentation tank to a stainless steel tank. “That totally changed the coffee.”

Read more (The Growler)

Oregon Public Broadcasting featured Southern Oregon’s fermented food pioneers in their latest segment. Kristen and Christopher Shockey moved to Applegate Valley years ago with hopes of getting their 40-acre homestead to pay for itself. They began selling sauerkraut “before it was cool.” OPB said: “They saw the process that makes sauerkraut, called fermentation, as a way to literally bottle and beauty and the landscape around them.” The Shockey’s started fermenting any and every vegetable their neighbors were growing in surplus. They wrote the book “Fermented Vegetables” in 2014, “helping to propel the fermentation wave that swept things like kimchi, kombucha and kefir into mass culinary consciousness,” OPB added. Today the Shockey’s are teaching fermentation classes and releasing another book.

Read more (Oregon Public Broadcasting)

Jared Schwartz was in art school when the quality of the American food culture struck a nerve in him. He worked in restaurant kitchens while studying photography in Boston and was disturbed by the mindlessness of the food industry. No one was paying attention to the food they were eating, from the ingredients they were consuming to the source of the food.

“I started looking at the most traditional aspects in the food world, the way Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese people eat. Everything comes back to salt and fermentation,” says Jared. “It creatively made me think what can we do in fermentation that’s not around the standard. We have this standard – but what’s the future of it?”

Jared moved to update New York and began fermenting full-time. Heavily involved in multiple businesses, Jared is growing five local food brands – and adding more. Today, he is the director of operations and innovation at Farm Ferments (a fermentation hub in New York’s Hudson Valley), Hawthorne Valley Ferments (the fermented vegetable line of Hawthorne Valley biodynamic farm), Poor Devil Pepper Co. (the fermented hot sauce company started by Jared and wife Laura Webster) and Sauerkraut Seth’s (a raw sauerkraut). Hawthorne Valley Ferments, Poor Devil Pepper Co. and Sauerkraut Seth’s source almost all ingredients from organic, regenerative farms in New York state and the northeast.

“With Farm Ferments, we’re trying to create that middle ground for fermentation processors instead of becoming a monster powerhouse. We want to include smaller brands in that,” Jared says.

“With Whitethorne, we’re trying to create that middle ground for fermentation processors instead of becoming a monster powerhouse. We want to include smaller brands in that,” Jared says.

Though he began Poor Devil Pepper Co., he loves seeing more fermented sauce and dressing labels join the industry. More brands means more customers learning about fermentation. He adds: “If there’s only one fermented hot sauce or one fermented salad dressing in a case, people are like ‘Why buy it?’ It’s not going to move. There’s strength in community.”

Below Jared, a board member of the Fermentation Association, discusses successfully launching multiple fermented food brands, the importance of collaboration in the fermentation industry and how brands can support the farmers that source their food.

Q: Tell me about Hawthorne Valley Ferments, you’ve helped triple production.
When I started about 7 years ago, I started pushing the envelope in terms of production capabilities and sort of recipe fine-tuning, and we’ve started to grow progressively.

Q: What do you mean by pushing the envelope?
In terms of getting to the nitty-gritty of ferment time, turn overs, the farms were working with and sort of diving into the effective quality of different salt types. We’re finding the sweet spot that kind of creates a smoother cog of the fermentation system because I feel like every company is doing the same thing, but they all kind of have their own twists on it that takes a bit to come into.

Q: What are some of the twists?
Trade secrets. But like their own salt types, their own weight systems, their own ferment times. And a lot of it is environmentally related. Out west, they’re going to do things different than what we’re doing out east because of yeasts in the air. Northern California wine country is going to be battling yeasts off grapes where we’re dealing with different frost times on the east coast.

Q: When did you and your wife start Poor Devil Pepper Company? 
A: Poor Devil started in 2014 working after hours at Hawthorne Valley Ferments. I started making sauerkraut and ferments at Hawthorne Valley and, at the same time, started taking the logic of basic sauerkrauts and kimchis and turning it into salad dressings, hot sauces, everything under the sun. We started in 5-gallon buckets and just grew it. We distribute on the east coast and down to about North Carolina currently. We’re mostly with eastern distributors.

Q: Is fermentation a growing industry?
Oh, 10,000 percent. It’s an interesting time because no one has ever really studied the good benefits of bacteria until the last five years. Now, every few months, you start hearing about these scientists all over the world that are actually taking the time to study gut bacteria. I saw something recently about a connection between gut biome and autism. There are all these amazing studies. The more focus that can go to that, the money, the time, that’s what truly keeps probiotics alive. There was never really money behind that before, because that’s really what it comes down to as much as people could do pro bono scientific research on it.

I personally don’t like the idea of taking an extract or like a powderized version of something. But, especially in the organic environment, people are well-informed and know where their food is coming from. The more light that is shed on fermentation, the bigger it can be.

Q: You have a generation coming up that’s caring about GMO and they care about clean eating. Do you see more consumers educating themselves about where their food is coming from?
Oh yeah. The only yang to that is that I fear in some ways every certification under the sun is dumbing down consumers too much. There should never be a need to have a non-GMO seal and an organic seal next to each other. But we take it because it’s all good in the long run. But in some ways, you feel extorted. I’ve gotten so many calls because our labels saw raw so we don’t say unpasteurized and we get calls saying “It says raw – but is it unpasteurized?” You can’t walk both those roads. It’s back to that sort of what people are told to eat. If someone says “Eat unpasteurized sauerkraut,” they say “But it says raw sauerkraut, I don’t know what to eat.” It’s confusing people.

Q: Tell me why Poor Devil is so unique compared to other sauces?
It’s down to that umami flavor. You’re able to take the natural fermentation and unpasteurization and you’re instantly tasting more flavor. In some cases, it brings out more heat because you’re not cooking it. It’s true sauce work. Like making a true gravy. There are layers to it. Fermentation allows you to keep levels of flavor in a sauce and not combine them.

Q: How did Farm Ferments start?
It started at Hawthorne Valley, which a is a nonprofit biodynamic farm. It started out of there. We were looking for a means to grow the fermentation movement and our food access program and looking at the supply chain in a different way. We still source 98 percent of everything we make from New York state, and probably 80 percent from our county. We started look at the supply chain from a different angle. We thought, instead of these farmers growing for a CSA or a farmers market, let’s give them the backdrop of a wholesale producer and work with some other producers in the area. That’s a guaranteed outlet. And so it kind of grew out of that. We were in a 2,500 square foot basement on a farm making krauts and hot sauces, then this past year we moved 10 minutes away to a fully renovated, building that is soon to be a state-of-the-art production facility for all things fermented vegetables.

Q: So Hawthorne Valley helps brands find farmers they can work with?
Yeah, that was definitely a big piece to it, creating social impact of more jobs in the area. Part of Hawthorne Valley itself, there’s a biodynamic farm, there’s dairy that’s part of it, there’s a bakery, a farm store and a Waldorf School that are part of the nonprofit. The hope taking Farm Ferments is growing that Hawthorne Valley name to create more education about biodynamic farming and regenerative, sustainable agriculture.

Q: Where are you hoping to expand Farm Ferments? How do you scale?
There’s always growth for it, and I feel that’s where the Fermentation Association is helpful to all brands. How to create a competitive brand in the fermentation industry from my experience is competitive, but it’s also collaborative. The true growth of it as a whole, there’s a place for everybody. To me personally, no one on the west coast should have a predominantly stronghold on the east coast on ferments. At this point, there’s so many people doing it. There’s room for them. You walk into a Whole Foods in New York City, I’d rather see five local brands taking up the shelf than your high performance SKUs from the west coast. But I think there’s room for everybody. The same products are going to be different because of the production process.

Q: So you see the fermentation industry as a community of collaborates rather than competitors.
Yeah. I think that set will only expand. Especially as the research and science behind the industry growth finds new ways to naturally produce probiotics through fermentation or finds a way to extract them. The greatest thing I could see would be larger ferment sets over the board, whether its krauts or kombuchas, yogurts, less in the vitamin set in terms of probiotics.

Q: You’d rather see ferments growing naturally through food than probiotics through a pill?

Yeah, exactly.

Q: You recently added Seth’s Sauerkraut to Farm Ferments. Are you actively looking for more brands on the east coast?

Off and on. We’re reaching a point of automation that’s kind of unique to the field. We’re actively looking to be a stepping stone for helping other brands grow in a collaborative effort. We’re not there yet, but it’s a goal in terms of our capacity.

Q: I love how in tune you are to local farmers in your area. How do you think fermentation brands can connect with and support farmers?
The biggest question I’ve learned to ask farmers what are their strengths. Every farmer will always tell you they can grow you everything you need. But to really work with farms and invest in them, let them supply you with what you need and work with them with what they grow best. Not every farmer can grow the best cabbage, but maybe they can grow the best carrots or garlic. Not every farmer has the same equipment either, see if they’re hand cutting or mechanically doing it. See what they’re setup to do. Find a system that works for everybody, work on communication between those farms.

Also, it’s kind of always hard knowing in terms of nature what’s going to happen to the crop. But the biggest thing brands can do is to still support local farmers even if someone has a bad crop one year. Still go back to them. In terms of working with them, get to know them. Get your fingers in the dirt, learn about how they’re growing things.

Q: Tell me more about working on communication between brands and farmers

The food system as a whole, there are too many people at this point all trying to grow 70 varieties of heirloom tomatoes for the same audience. This is a scary thought, but a lot of farmers are dying off or retiring and it’s the younger generation that’s only focusing on heirlooms, focusing on what’s trending. They’ve become these specialty fancy vegetable farmers. We’re seeing it in upstate New York. But who am I going to be buying cabbage from in the next 10 years? People want to be growing those heirloom tomatoes even though there isn’t a full market for it, but at the same time, they don’t want to be a cabbage farmer. That’s the mentality we’re seeing with the newer farmers. How does the next generation of farmers fit into the current and next generation of fermentation folks?

Regardless if you’re a consumer or a producer, looking at the future, there are a lot of good food things that are happening. But there’s got to be this the full circle connection for it to make sense.

Q: If farmers just focus on growing what’s popular right now, where does that leave fermented product producers?
As the fermentation industry grows, it will be interesting to see how that affects the farming industry. As messed up as our food system currently is, where everyone one way or another is going to make something cheaper, the farmers are the ones who are getting the short end of the stick. How that gets solved, I have no clue. But we need to keep doing what we can to support each other, the fermentation folks and farmers.

Q: What changes do you think are needed to propel the fermentation industry.
The industry is going up and up. It’s almost like a defined set. If you go into any grocery store, kombucha is established already, they have a defined section. But every other fermented food product is this whirlwind between fresh produce, cheese, meat. Categories for fermented products need to be outlined. Especially as there’s more exposure for fermented products.

Q: Fermentation is in the news a lot lately as a trend. Do you think its trending or a movement?
It’s a little bit of both. It’s always trending depending on what the crowd is. It’s big with the DIY foodie crowd, fermentation has a type. It’s really big w chefs right now, everyone is starting to pickle their own things, test the water, and I think Rene Redezpi and the folks at NOMA are championing a lot of great stuff, opening their ferment lab. That’s the energy that keeps the trend bubbling. For such a traditional, ancient thing, there are so many unknowns to it. And the more energy behind it is going to keep the next wave of it moving.

The voices of organic and natural advocates are critical to public policy, and change in the food system starts with farmers, food producers and even parents feeding their family in a healthy, sustainable way.

“Your voices matter more than ever. You are the reason we’ve seen so many changes in our food system over the past 85 years,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan), keynote speaker at Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, Calif. Stabenow is the Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry and the co-author of the 2018 Farm Bill. “We’ve made progress, but there’s a lot more to do. That’s where all of you come in. “

Legislation is catching up with consumer desire. For the first time in U.S. history, organic food is permanently protected and protected under the current farm bill. The farm bill is the government’s primary food and agriculture policy tool, and it’s renewed every five years.

Organic food is a movement that’s been rising for decades, Stabenow said. Though it may feel like the organic industry just took off, Stabenow said “It’s moving more quickly now because of the incredible demand from the public. … Organics is the fastest growing part of our farm economy, so we made it a priority in the farm bill.”

“Now more than ever before people are paying attention to what they eat. They want to know where their food comes from and how it’s grown. … People are also becoming more interested in the hands that plant the seed, the soil in which they grow and the impact on our family’s health.”

The farm bill is the best example of how food policy has changed. The first farm bill was established in 1933, during the Great Depression. A national organics program wasn’t put in the bill until the 1990s.

The organic industry has grown from $3.6 billion in 1997 to over $50 billion today.

Stabenow is proud of the policies added to the 2018 Farm Bill, passed in a difficult political climate. Republicans control all parts of the federal government. And President Donald Trump has pushed for such tight regulations on the organics program that he’s been accused of “waging war” on the organics industry. But bipartisan support helped pass what Stabenow called “the most progressive farm bill yet.”

The major bill highlight for the organic industry was the establishment of permanent, mandatory funding for organics. Stabenow compared it to organics previously sitting at the “kid’s table” with temporary funding for organics that was depleted and reevaluated every five years.

“I’m proud to say we’re now at the adult’s table,” Stabenow said. “What does that mean? It means organic research and provisions will live on past the current farm bill. It means farmers markets and food hubs and community food provisions will continue to grow the local food movement.”

With organics finally protected, Stabenow said, it’s time to look at new ideas. What can propel the next farm bill with healthy and sustainable policies?

“As creators, as innovators as advocates you really are the engine driving our country to a more sustainable future, and I can’t think of anything more important than being able to do that,” she said.

America could be facing a pickle shortage. Since the mid-2000s, a mildew has been destroying cucumber crops. Fewer farmers are growing cucumbers now because of the high amount of failed harvests. USDA records show pickling cucumber acreage has declined 25 percent between 2004 and 2015. Lina Quesada-Ocampo, vegetable pathologist at North Carolina State University told NPR: “This is the number one threat to the pickle industry.” Thankfully, vegetable breeder Michael Mazourek, a professor at Cornell University, is developing a cucumber variety resistant to mildew.

Read more (NPR)

As Australian farmer is converting whey from his family’s sheep’s milk cheesery into vodka. Ryan Hartshorn won Tasmania’s 2017 Young Innovator of the Year for his Hartshorn Distillery’s Sheep Whey Vodka, “believed to be the only vodka made from sheep whey in the world.”

Read more

Love letter to sauerkraut. A columnist for the Record Eagle in Michigan praises the fermented cabbage as having “a world of uses” outside of condiments, like used as an acid in dishes in the place of vinegar and lemon. Local MI producer The Brinery is listed as a favorite.

Read more