Once in a while people start working on a project before they know how important and prolific it will turn out to be. Such was the case in 2001 when Dan Rosenberg started Real Pickles in the commercial kitchens of Greenfield’s Western MA Food Processing Center. Twenty-three years later, they’re still going strong and still based in Greenfield – right across the street from where it all began.
At the time of their establishment, the demand for fermented foods wasn’t as high as it is today. The health benefits hadn’t yet become as widely known or as popular in the United States. And while there was an established national Natural Foods movement, the acceptance and integration of Organic foods was just starting to gain traction in the larger markets. Certification through the USDA wasn’t even available until 2002. Little did they know, the stage was set to shift in a big way.
Twenty years later, Organic Foods represent a multi-billion dollar international market. Through all of the ups and downs, Real Pickles has remained a mission based company that has never sacrificed their ideals to the demands of commerce. How have they stayed true to their guiding principles? What makes their product so outstanding? To answer these questions one can look to their mission statement, their process, and even the structure of the company itself.
“We are committed to promoting human and ecological health by providing people with delicious, nourishing food and by working toward a regional, organic food system.
We aim to produce the highest quality, traditional pickled foods available, using natural fermentation. We buy our vegetables only from Northeast family farms and sell our products only within the Northeast. Our ingredients are 100% organic.”Real Pickles Mission
Their mission begins with food. They start by using 100% organic raw veggies, which have been sourced regionally from the Northeast. They work closely with their network of farms to coordinate so they can be ready to process the influx in a reasonable manner. As early as late June, produce begins to arrive at their facility. Veggies such as cucumbers and napa cabbages need attention first. As the summer progresses the focus shifts towards the heartier end of the scale, with winter cabbages, carrots, and beets rounding out the season.
All told, they process a large variety of vegetables: carrots, green and red cabbage, cucumbers, garlic, ginger, turmeric, all manner of different peppers, beets, leeks, cilantro, flowering dill, and even their paprika is made at the facility. They are able to source their ginger and turmeric locally thanks to the hard work of the folks at Amherst’s Old Friends Farms, who use a system of unheated hoop houses to grow these traditionally hot climate foods. Most kitchens would simply buy turmeric powder, but by staying within their mission they elevate their own product while also supporting regional farmers.
The results are greater than the sum of their parts. After breaking down and prepping the veggies, they begin the process of lacto-fermentation.
Lacto-fermentation is a time honored process, it far predates canning foods, and is part of human history in ways that have connected and sustained us for thousands of years. From sauerkraut providing the vitamin C needed to stave off scurvy on the high seas, to our evolving love of the brassica family, and even transforming foods from poisonous to edible (see: removing cyanide from cassava roots). This process is mysterious in the best possible way. It is complex and natural and deeply valuable. It’s theorized that a unique enzyme which helps us process fermented food was one of our crucial evolutionary advantages, back when caloric intake was the key factor for a species’ survival. Needless to say, lacto-fermentation today still helps provide access to nutrients by aiding in bioavailability, producing essential amino-acids, and supporting a healthy gut microbiome.
Our health is critically tied to the food we eat, and that’s true across the table. When the veggies are grown in healthy, organic, and nutrient rich soil they pass those benefits back up the food chain to us. By enriching and supporting regional farms and feeding their ferments organic foods, Real Pickles captures the goodness and keeps it in the jar for us to enjoy.
And more than that, they keep these nutrients within our region by not selling their product beyond the Northeastern states. But fear not, Real Pickles is ready with a list of alternative companies who serve those areas outside of the Northeast. This practice of regionality is deceptively impactful. It means less trucking and shipping heavy product, costing more fuel and degrading the freshness of each jar. Regionality supports our neighboring farms and families and keeps local economies humming, which all leads to consumers having more choices and control over where they put their money and what they put into their bodies.
But how could a company uphold such a principle, especially with the demand that comes from producing a high quality and desirable product? Wouldn’t it make more sense to sell nationally, or even internationally? When we look at businesses that have thrived in this sort of industry we see a trend towards selling off to larger corporations after reaching a certain tier of success. (A tier Real Pickles has certainly achieved.) But time after time, those businesses that are sold off will inevitably be tuned to chase profits, often at the expense of quality and principles. Guiding principles, like the ones that Real Pickles explicitly wrote into their bylaws ten years ago during the process of becoming a worker-owned co-op, become threatened by a need to maximize profits over all other concerns.
If they wanted to sell their pickles outside of the Northeast region they would need to literally change the documents that structure the company. This was the foresight of Dan Rosenberg, former GM and owner, and the current mission of Kristin Howard, who recently stepped up into the role of General Manager at Real Pickles. Being a worker-owned co-op means there is a track for each employee towards mutual ownership of the business, including financial assistance in the form of an 8 year, 0% interest, repayment plan. It takes a year of working within the company to become eligible, and Real Pickles is excited to have another group of folks who are looking to become members close to their anniversary. Currently the co-op has 16 member-owners, each paying their share and receiving a portion of the co-op’s annual surplus, all while developing an internal capital pool. That’s the sort of commitment that helps prove to supportive institutions that the business is here to stay, and worth investing in or lending to. It’s the sort of stability that allows the company to forgo any thoughts of selling off, or offering public shares. And it’s the sort of structure that allows the employees the chance to govern the place they work and support the underlying principles of the co-op.
The co-op protects the principles. The principles lead to high quality products. The business generated supports our local economy and makes possible ongoing investment in practices that protect our regional environment. And that’s what makes this project so important and prolific.
There is one other benefit to lacto-fermentation which canning and preservatives can never touch, and that’s flavor. Coffee and chocolate, beer and wine, bread and cheese and real pickles of all types benefit from the full flavor punch that lacto-fermentation provides.
And with the freedom to explore deliciousness, the co-op is finally rolling out small batch ferments once more! After a hiatus spurred by 2020’s constraints, they are so excited to be able to try their hand once again at new and exciting flavors.
If you’d like to find Real Pickles brand products, you can explore your local co-op or independent natural food store, as well as a few select regional super markets.
You can also find them here, in the Old Creamery Co-op’s coolers!
(Photos courtesy of Real Pickles)