Touted for its historical health benefits across the globe, fermented foods have been on the hot list recently, especially in the Maryland region. In part, due to Rachael Armstead and her husband who have pioneered them back from ancient history, into value-added products for farmers markets and wholesale outlets through their work with the local and state health departments. Rachel worked on farms in the region before starting The Sweet Farm four short years ago, and noticed the abundance of fresh produce that could be grown in the region. Produce perfect for making her favorite foods, fermented pickles, sauerkraut, and cultured mustard.
This week we had the privilege of learning from Rachel, who worked tirelessly with the state health department to create a set of standard operating producers (SOPs) that were non-existent four years ago. She became the first certified in the state to sell raw fermented goods at market and wholesale, paving the way for others to follow. Unlike some surrounding states, the Maryland Department of Health does require the use of a commercial kitchen facility.
The fermenting movement is hot. And fermenters are adamant that ferments be from the freshest produce, great news for local farmers. Because the fermentation process is not as forgiving as pickling with vinegar, it is imperative that the produce used is freshly harvested and fermented right away. When cabbage is fermented long after harvest, it becomes too dried out. Cucumbers need to head straight to the walk-in cooler or directly into a wash tank to get the field heat off. Cabbage grown for fermenting is preferably grown in the fall in our region for best results. We’ve heard from Rachel and other commercial fermenters across the state, who are in need of more local produce– cucumbers and cabbage in particular.
Though the most common, fermenting is not just for cabbage and cucumbers. In addition, produce that grows well in our region and makes for good fermented products include: beets, carrots, turnips (try hakureis!), and radishes. Apples are great too, but need to be used sparingly as the sugars create yeast in process. In smaller quantities, locally grown onions, garlic, ginger, celeriac, dill and fennel are also sought after. Interestingly, juniper berries (found locally from wild cedar trees) can be used in place of caraway or mustard seed.
Or test the waters yourself. Fermented products are a relatively easy to prepare, healthful, and trendy. They have a long shelf-life in the fridge. It is also hard to go terribly wrong (unlike acidified foods with botulism which is odor and tasteless). At worst, you could develop a little mold on the top, which can be skimmed off, or prevented using a weight in the jar or tucking an extra cabbage leaf on top to keep oxygen out.
Additionally, think about this marketing opportunity. Consider selling a 1/2 or whole bushel box of cucumbers or cabbage to your market or to CSA customers when abundant. Provide a recipe, benefits, tools on your website for making ferments at home. From my eexperience in canning tomatoes and fermenting sauerkraut, canning is more labor intensive.
If you are considering adding any kind of value-added products to your farm entity, now is a good time. USDA Rural Development grants are currently open (through June), with matching funds available to Maryland producers through MARBIDCO. Read the 2016 Value Added Producer Grant Program for details. A new guide (click photo on right to view) was released this week to help farmers navigate the application.