In 2010, Charlottesville native and health food entrepreneur Dawn Story was working as an herbalist, trying to help her clients sort out various ailments.
“At some point I realized that I was on the back end of things,” she says. “So often clients were coming to me with symptoms that, while I could give them this or that as a palliative, to truly fix the problem required a dietary overhaul.”
After running into issues like a habitually disgruntled digestive tract, time and again Story found herself referring clients to probiotic-rich, fermented foods (such as kimchi, a fermented cabbage, radish and vegetable medley). However, finding quality, sustainably produced, locally sourced products was next to impossible. And it was from this lack of availability that the idea for Farmstead Ferments sprang.
“I was already selling herbal teas and tinctures at the farmers market and, because I felt it was something that the community needed, I started creating fermented foods,” says Story.
The response was immediate and overwhelmingly positive.
“First I sold a couple of gallons,” says Story. “Then it would double, and double again. It was really amazing to witness how much people really wanted these foods.”
And the growth didn’t stop. Now Farmstead Ferments has grown to providing an entire line of premium fermented food products to more than 80 regional stores (including six Whole Foods) in four states, selling at every major farmers market in the region and recently purchasing a retail storefront and distribution center in Scottsville.
But what, specifically, is behind this rampant success?
In short, possible health benefits so profound as to be almost unbelievable.
“Fermented foods are beneficial for so many reasons,” Sandor Katz, author of The Art of Fermentation, told the Washington Post. He says fermentation makes the foods easier to digest, and therefore our body processes more of the nutrients.
“The thing is, when you look back throughout history, some type of fermented food was a staple of nearly every world culture,” says Story. “It’s like they naturally gravitated to creating foods that are, in essence, one of the best forms of preventative maintenance for our bodies.”
Research shows that fermented foods were —and still are—prevalent in Eastern Europe, Africa and Latin America, but especially in Southeast Asia.
There is the favorite Filipino side dish atchara, made of slivered and pickled papaya. The delectable Indian delicacies of dhokla (derived from a batter of rice and split chickpeas), dosa (a crepe or pancake made from rice batter and lentils), and doubanjiang (a spicy, salty paste made from broad beans, soy beans, salt, rice and other spices). In Vietnam there’s nem chua (a bite-size pork dish that is simultaneously sweet, spicy and sour) and banh cuon (which includes a wide sheet of fermented rice batter). In Korea they eat doenjang (a thick bean paste). In Indonesia, tempeh (a soybean product that uses fermentation to bind soybeans into a cake form), and so on.
“Really, the goal of Farmstead Ferments is to help make great-tasting fermented foods a staple part of the American diet,” says Story. “While perhaps our grandmother’s grandmother was very familiar and fond of these products, at some point the tradition got lost. We’re seeking to reestablish that tradition.”
How will reinstitutionalization take place? And what is Farmstead Ferments’ role in this niche revolution?
“If you trace the pattern of progress, you see chefs on popular networks, movie stars, rock stars and just about everyone else advocating for these foods,” says Story. “So while it may on the surface appear to be a trend, because of its historical roots, the movement is only going to strengthen.”
For its part, Farmstead Ferments’ plans are three-fold: First, Story wants to solidify the business’ presence among the Charlottesville-area community, further increasing its integration within a support network of area farmers.
“With the storefront, we’re looking to partner with other farmers to make our products more local than ever before,” says Story. “Also, the store will provide them with space to sell their goods as well.”
Second, Farmstead will continue to expand its array of workshop and educational offerings, seeking to help homesteaders and interested folks to, as Story puts it, “…discover the joy of creating fermented foods at home.”
Lastly, Farmstead will continue expanding its reach to become a larger regional presence.
“Our motto is: ‘Get the kraut out!’” says Story. “And that’s exactly what we plan to do.”
–Eric J. Wallace