Integration Acres has been owned and operated for 14 years by Chris Chmiel and Michelle Gorman. The farm is comprised of close to 50 acres. One parcel has 16 acres of forest, 1.5 acres of pawpaw orchard and goat pasture and .5 acre of vegetable garden. The other 32-acre piece has 30 acres of fenced goat pasture, one acre for buildings and barns and one acre for vegetable gardens.
Integration Acres currently has three full-time, one part-time and several seasonal employees. We have a seasonal, pasture-based goat dairy and farmstead cheese operation. Our small kitchen facility is inspected by the Ohio Department of Agriculture for cheese production and food safety. This facility allows us to value add and process a variety of products, with goat cheese and pawpaws being our main processed products. We also process ramps, spicebush berries, black walnuts and increasingly more and more garden vegetables.
We raise hogs, which are fed whey from the cheese making and scraps from the gardens and the kitchen. We also raise meat chickens on pasture during the summer.
Our direct sales are made at the Athens Farmers Market, on our website www.integrationacres.com and at a new on-farm storefront. We have retail and restaurant accounts in Athens, Ohio, and several retail accounts in Columbus, Ohio. We also collaborate with two different subscription farms.
Before this grant, Integration Acres had incorporated several sustainable practices, including several previous SARE funded aspects like utilizing native pawpaws, grazing animals with pawpaws and turning black walnut hulls into compost. For the purpose of this grant I’m focusing this answer on the fermentation aspect.
During the 2010 season, we started experimenting with the production of fermented foods. Fermented foods are made by adding salt to vegetables and letting them sit at room temperatures to allow lactic acid producing bacteria to proliferate, lowering the pH. We made sour pickles, sauerkraut, saueruben (turnips) and sauerbeets, plus two Asian fermented foods (kakdooki and a root kimchi) using radishes, turnips and Jerusalem artichokes. We experimented with fermented nasturtium seeds as a caper substitute and cornichons (small pickles).
We learned early on that our inspectors as well as our customers had little to no working knowledge of the process or benefits of live fermentation. Our kitchen is inspected and approved by the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Division, but our inspector had never worked with any producer doing this type of fermentation. Fortunately we were able to work with the inspector and the department on the legal ropes of fermenting. We learned that the main tool for food safety of fermented foods is monitoring products’ pH (acidity) levels. Because we already use a pH meter in our cheese and jarred foods production, we were familiar with this tool and had one to use. Checking and recording the pH during the fermentation process allowed us to gauge how the ferment was coming along and when we achieved a safe pH level.
Our main goal was to be able to produce fermented vegetable products in a cost effective manner. Through experimentation we could develop a list of successful recipes, production techniques and marketing strategies that added value to vegetables.
Prior to this grant we had started fermenting vegetables in our commercial kitchen, which is certified by the Ohio Department of Agriculture Food Safety Division. We worked with our inspector to learn the basic food science and record keeping details needed. We had some of the production details worked out but we needed to work on our efficiency and profitability. So, we started to experiment with different crops, recipes, processing techniques and marketing strategies to find the most profitable fermented products to develop further.
We tried to maximize our garden beds by growing spring, summer and fall crops that we could ferment. We raised cucumbers, garlic, onions, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, root vegetables, Jerusalem artichokes, daikon radishes, green beans, beets, carrots and turnips. We also purchased crops from other vendors at our Athens Farmers Market to experiment with and to develop production recipes.
We purchased some processing equipment to help decrease production costs. The vegetable peeler greatly saved time when fermenting root crops. The slicer/ shredder was helpful in processing any ferment that required that type of processing. We experimented with various vessels for fermenting larger batches. We also experimented with different size and types of containers for different markets. We tested our products on our customers at the farmers market and our other customers like restaurants, CSAs and retail stores. By getting this valuable customer feedback we have been able to learn what satisfied the customer; what tastes good, what they liked about the packaging, etc.
Chris Chmiel helped coordinate this project and the team members who experimented with the ferments. He helped with the workshops and produced the educational information. He also gathered feedback from customers to help the product recipes and packaging evolution.
Kelly Shaw has been instrumental in helping our farm become one of the first commercial fermentation operations in our region. She had the previous desire and knowledge to ferment. She brought that to our farm and worked with the owners and inspectors to further develop this aspect to our business. She helped present information at the workshops, collect data on processing times, helped make the ferments in the kitchen and helped grow the vegetables in the garden.
Rory Lewandoski, OSU Extension agent, transferred to another part of the state and was only able to help briefly in the beginning of our project. Unfortunately, our local extension office suffered budget cuts in 2011 and the extension agent that replaced Rory was only part time.
Dan Continenza, Ohio University student and local fermentation enthusiast, helped by experimenting with various recipes. He also helped put on several fermentation workshops in conjunction with Community Food Initiatives in Athens, Ohio.
Charlie Touvell, worker at Casa Nueva Restaurant and local fermentation enthusiast, also helped by experimenting with various recipes. He has also tried to develop a fermentation element to the food preservation work at Casa Nueva.
Farmers from the Athens Farmers Market, including Shade River, Rich Gardens, Proffitt Farm, Yankee Street Farm and Cowdery Farm, all provided produce for ferments and feedback on the products.
Badger Johnson, Community Food Initiatives of Athens, Ohio, helped organize and advertise several workshops on fermentation. These workshops were held at the ACEnet Community Kitchen Incubator in Athens, Ohio.
Our customers were some of our most involved people. By conversing with them and providing opportunities for feedback on our products, we were able to develop a list of best-selling ferments. Customer feedback on the packaging was also an important aspect to our research.
We have been able to come up with a list of several products that we found to be most acceptable and profitable.
First and foremost, the sour pickles became one of our biggest and best sellers. Unfortunately, the fermentation process and packaging are somewhat labor intensive but they are still profitable. They do tend to get softer as they are stored in buckets in the cooler, so having multiple crops throughout the season is good idea. We were able to increase our production and sales by over 150 percent in just one year. Glass jars with plastic seal lined metal lids are the best bet to insure that pickle brine does not leak out. Plastic containers don’t seem to be able stop brine from leaking. Leaking product is bad for labels and the customer. Reusable quart jars were a big hit for our farmer’s market customers. We included a $1 deposit for the jar and lid to insure that we got them back. We even had a retail customer that preferred having the returnable jar and lid.
Kimchi is now our second biggest seller. We have made several different varieties of kimchi, including a root kimchi that is quite popular. With the vegetable peeler and slicer/shredder we were able to cut our production labor for these products by 50 percent. Our recipes seemed to work well and they received rave reviews from even Koreans who have grown up eating kimchi. Kimchi does seem to hold up for many months in the refrigerator. However, the brine is a challenge to keep from leaking out of plastic deli style containers. This requires additional bags for our customers at the farmers market. Retail containers should ideally be a glass jar with a metal lid that has a plastic coating on the underside. It is important that metal not be in direct contact with the brines.
Fermented salsas became a new sensation for us due to these grant experimentations. We were able to cost effectively ferment buckets of tomatoes and separately buckets of peppers, onions and garlic. Then throughout the year we take all the ingredients and slightly chop them up and make into batches of salsa. Being able to deal with large quantities of tomatoes during peak harvest via fermenting was a great find. It is easy to wash and prep tomatoes to ferment whole. The tomatoes really held up well in the buckets of brine for months and stayed quite firm as well.
Sauerkraut is a traditional ferment but was never a great seller for us. We also experimented with spicy pepper sauerkraut and a sauereuben (fermented turnips), both of which had limited appeal. We were able to produce these products more cost effectively with the new slicer/shredder equipment, but they still weren’t the most profitable. If we were to produce larger quantities for sale to restaurants, we would have to increase our cold storage space. We decided to focus on products that sold best in our direct and retail markets, not wholesale.
We tried sauerbeets several times but always had problems with a white mold that would appear on the top of the packaged ferments. Kaavas, a fermented beet beverage from Russia, was another beet product we tried. It is actually a byproduct of the fermented beets, but it had a limited appeal.
Sriracha sauce, a fermented pepper sauce from Vietnam, became a good seller as well. We made several variations that had different levels of heat. These are made very cost effectively and profitably. This may be a product that could be developed for wholesale production to restaurants, as it does have a higher sale price and low storage needs. Peppers are easy to grow, and were found affordably from other farmers at the market.
We tried many specialty soda ferments with fruit that also seem promising. The pawpaw soda is definitely one that didn’t work, but the spicebush berry and raspberry tonics both have potential. A challenge for having these tonics is that another type of vessel (a bottle) was needed. This is not an obstacle that can’t be overcome, but it does add an additional expense and item to have in inventory. Again, a glass jar with a threaded cap with a plastic seal on the inside was the best.
Fermented green beans also became a sensation for us. We had several varieties, some with garlic, onions and peppers. These fermented quickly and didn’t require that much processing labor. Customers liked that they kept their crunch well into the season. We packaged these in either plastic or glass. The brine escaping from the seal is also something to be cautious and aware of.
Overall many of our experiments worked, but a few didn’t. For example we tried some wild chanterelle mushroom ferments, but we were never able to get the pH low enough for it to be absolutely food safe. Kakdooki, a Korean daikon ferment which is like a kimchi but lesser known and not as spicy, was never a huge crowd pleaser either. Summer squash was another crop that we had a hard time successfully fermenting. We tried several variations of fermented roots that were successful and worth further development, with fermented carrots being the most interesting.
The main thing I learned from this grant is that fermenting vegetables profitably can work but it takes a lot of work and attention to pull it off successfully. I’ve decided it is worth it and that our farm wants to continue working on developing these products. I overcame the barriers related to profitability only to create more barriers related to our current infrastructure and expanding production.
As our operation has grown it has become apparent that the amount of attention and detail needed for successful fermentation does merit a staff person completely focused on production. It is a bit of a specialty and an art. If recipes and details are not followed closely products can be less than desirable or even wasted. Coordinating production schedules with harvest dates and kitchen availability can be a challenge as well.
Because our farm produces dairy products and non-dairy products we have two different licenses from the Ohio Department of Agriculture. Since our business is relatively small, we have been able to use one “make room” or kitchen space to process both items. This was somewhat challenging because we would have to completely clean the kitchen of all dairy products before getting into fermenting the vegetables. We were able to work our schedule around peaks of production for different crops. For example, when we had lots of milk and had to make cheese every day in the spring and early summer, we usually didn’t have any vegetables to ferment. In the late summer we had less milk and more vegetables and we were able to schedule our kitchen time to accommodate all of our needs. As our business has grown and continued to stay diversified we realize that we need to have two different processing areas, one for dairy and one for non-dairy. This does require a fair amount more capital investment but it will help with continued business expansion, food safety and expanded markets, most notably the Kosher market.
I would definitely suggest to other farmers that fermenting is worth exploring. It does require some infrastructure but it can help create on-farm work and wealth. These value added products can become highly sought items that can fill valuable local food niches. The process of fermenting is relatively simple and should be a good stepping-stone for more farmers to take into the world of processing. I believe that every community or farmer’s market in the country could benefit from having a fermenting farm or two.
Our fermented food sales have grown each year. Integration Acres fermented food sales are as follows.
2013 is looking like it will continue on this trend as well.
By being a business that markets these products, I’ve been able to use our products as a valuable teaching tool in our local food economy and community. By purchasing vegetables from other local farmers, selling various experimental ferments to our customers, working with my staff and discussing fermentation with the public, I have been able to spread the word about this SARE project.
Integration Acres staff helped put on several workshops over the period of this grant. We had a fermentation workshop at both the 2011 and the 2012 Ohio Pawpaw Festival. These workshops had over 35 people at each one and provided the basics of fermentation, taste testing and question and answer session. These workshops were advertised as part of the Ohio Country Fair tent, an educational attraction at the festival. These workshops are promoted via www.ohiopawpawfest.com.
Integration Acres staff also contributed to the Community Food Initiative workshops held on fermentation. These workshops were held at the ACEnet community kitchen in Athens. These workshops provided hands-on opportunities for fermentation basics, taste testing and a question and answer session. These workshops were promoted locally via press releases and flyers. These workshops had around 15-20 people attending.
Working with Charlie Touvell, a worker at Casa Nueva, we have also been able to support this idea of fermentation as a food preservation technique to another local food business. Casa Nueva is one of our local restaurants that preserves various local products for use at their restaurant year round. Charlie hopes to expand their repertoire of preserved products to include live ferments in the coming year.
We would like to get our brochure to be available on our website for a PDF download in the near future. We will also continue to participate in local fermentation workshops at our community kitchen.
A presentation was given at the 2014 NCR-SARE Farmers Forum, held in conjuction with the
Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) Conference. A recording of this is available through NCR-SARE’s YouTube channel at: https://youtu.be/xHAtPkVO2eA?list=PLQLK9r1ZBhhGr9RLwfvRvJLEtHJOLdXZz