Kraut Kingdom: Hawthorne Valley's New Fermentation Facility | General Food & Drink | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram
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Kraut Kingdom: Hawthorne Valley's New Fermentation Facility 

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These days, to call forth an image of America's heartland is to summon the sight of a swath of corn stretching into the horizon. But it wasn't always like that—it was once a patchwork of diversified family farms. In 1971, Earl Butz was appointed secretary of agriculture by President Nixon. Known for his horn-rimmed glasses and surly misdemeanor, the Midwestern conservative heralded a change in the American food landscape. His fierce "get big or get out" campaign nocked the arrow of industrial agriculture that pierced the nation's farmland.

Throughout his tenure, "King Corn" steadily struck down of New Deal initiatives that supported good land stewardship and protected farmers' wages, instead advocating for growers to plant commodity crops "from fence row to fence row," creating a fierce price competition that favored large, commercial operations.

As the rip tide of Big Ag began sucking under small and medium-sized farms, a group of Waldorf educators in the Northeast banded together to raise funds for a farm that they could cultivate biodynamically and use as a place-based learning center for children. "Hawthorne Valley has always been about connection—an enterprise of reconnecting people to soil, to their community, and to their own sense of purpose and higher calling in world," says Executive Director Martin Ping.

In July 1972, the founders purchased a farm nestled in the small Columbia County hamlet of Harlemville and set out to prove the viability of small and mid-sized farming, while creating an oasis where children, who were growing up in an increasingly materialistic and mechanized culture, could mend their frayed connection to nature. More than four decades later, the organization has all but taken over Harlemville, expanding to include 900 acres and most of the buildings along Main Street.

More Than the Sum of Its Parts

Hawthorne Valley embodies the principles of biodynamic agriculture in which the farm is viewed as an organism made up of interdependent "organs" that contribute to the overall health and resilience of the whole. In Hawthorne Valley's case, these organs include a K to 12 Waldorf school; visiting student programs; Biodynamic veggie and dairy farm operations; an organic product line; a full-line grocery store; social, ecological, and cultural research initiatives; and teacher training programs.

The project pushes back on Butz's theory that small farms were doomed to fail. Ping is cautious to overstate the organization's triumphs, however. "This all remains a work in progress, and the long-term success of small and mid-size farms remains fragile as they try to operate in an financial system that favors the large," he says. "To the extent that Hawthorne Valley has been modestly successful, as a work in progress, I would say that it is largely attributable to the holistic approach we take in integrating our work across a diverse spectrum of initiatives and enterprises." He points to their direct marketing efforts (their CSA, farmers' markets, and retail farm store) and their diversified on-farm value-adding programs (the bakery, creamery, and fermentation operations) as the keys to remaining financially viable.

It helps, too, that the public is finally catching up with Hawthorne Valley's longheld food values. Organic is the fastest growing sector of the food industry, with consistent double-digit growth every year over the past decade. In 2016 alone, US shoppers spent $47 billion on organic products, accounting for more than five percent of total food sales. Andreas Schneider, Hawthorne Valley alumnus and the Director of Farm Production Enterprises, says, "We are absolutely seeing this revolution in how people think about what they eat. It is really a statement about wellness and wanting foods that are good for your body, that give you a stronger connection to land where food is produced."

Have Your Kraut and Eat it Too

Since 1999, Hawthorne Valley has operated a "kraut cellar" on campus out of a 1,500-square-foot basement space. Their product line includes rotating flavors of kraut (caraway and jalapeño, to name two), kimchi, curtido, kvass, and hot sauce. National excitement has bubbled up around raw, probiotic foods as public awareness about the detrimental health impacts of processed products has increased. Amidst this growing trend, Hawthorne Valley ferments became an in-demand fixture in the region's natural food stores and co-ops, but their facility was unsuited to meet the growing market.

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"The kraut business was sitting under the nonprofit Hawthorne Valley. They recognized at the right moment that it was stifling their growth," says Kate Danaher, the senior director of Social Enterprise Lending and Integrated Capital at RSF Social Finance. RSF is a financial intermediary that works with investment and philanthropic capital to offer direct, transparent financial services to social enterprises. The company has a long relationship with Hawthorne Valley—it was once housed on the campus and has loaned the organization money multiple times.

To address their kraut conundrum, Hawthorne Valley created a for-profit subsidiary, Whitethorne LLC, which afforded them the opportunity to raise different types of capital. In 2016, Whitethorne took $1.56 million in loans from RSF to build out the lacto-fermentation operation.

Since its founding, Hawthorne Valley has had to raise money to offset its operating costs. Danaher explains that by building out the kraut business as a for-profit, they are creating a "long-term buffer," a funding arm that will fiscally support the nonprofit's mission. "I'm really excited about it," Danaher says. "It's very unique what they're doing. You don't see it a lot."

Digging into the Artistry

Of the total funds loaned, $900,000 was allocated to the purchase of a 22,000-square foot production facility in Hudson, next to the Harney & Sons tea plant. The remaining $600,000 was split between facility upgrades and equipment. The single biggest change to the fermentation operation is the introduction of a line filler—a specialized machine for packing jars of product. Up until now, all the jars of sauerkraut were handpacked. "Automating packaging is going to free up bandwidth to focus more attention on crafting and fermenting and allow us to keep improving the quality," says Schneider, who oversees the new facility. "Live fermentation is an art more than a science. The new space is really set up to let our fermentation pros dig into the artistry of it."

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After six months of renovations that included adding a walk-in cooler the size of their former facility, the big move began in October with the goal of completing the transition by Thanksgiving. The team currently consists of eight people. "We all chip in," Schneider says. "The sales folks are helping with production right now. This is definitely a jump up for us and a little bit of a scrappy start-up team right now."

The Future is Fermented

The timing is right. A report published earlier this year by BIS Research concluded that the global fermented foods and ingredients market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 4.98 percent over the next six years, reaching $888 billion by 2023.

While Hawthorne Valley does intend to ramp up its production and increase its distribution to span the East Coast, they are not trying to put anyone out of business. "We want to grow in a way that is mindful of our brothers and sisters in the fermentation world," Ping says. To this end, their facility will offer co-packing services for other local fermentation operations, including some by former students and staff of Hawthorne Valley, like Sauerkraut Seth and Poor Devil Pepper Co. They are also discussing forming a fermenter's guild to share research and best practices and to educate the public about lacto-fermented foods.

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"This food is alive. It's alive with energy. It hasn't been processed to death, cooked, or pasteurized. Any of that initial goodness you pull out of plant, is enhanced with lacto-fermentation," Schneider says fervently. Microorganisms in these cultures continually break down the food, increasing the nutrient bioavailability. One of history's happy accidents, fermented food gave people the capacity to store food for longer, becoming a staple in diets around the world. On a scientific level, this preservation is possible because lacto-fermentation encourages the growth of lactobacillus. The lactic acid produced by this "friendly bacteria" drops the pH low enough to preserve the food and prevent the proliferation of harmful pathogens, which eliminates the need for aggressive federal regulating that products like dairy face.

Additionally research has shown that probiotic foods and drinks can play an important role in overall health by providing enzymes to aid digestion, by making nutrient assimilation easier, and by supplying and nourishing a diverse and positive community of intestinal bacteria. "Everyone has a unique microbiome, a unique digestive system, and is going to respond differently to raw and fermented foods," Schneider says. "But there is no doubt that there are benefits to eating a diet that includes high quality fermented foods that come direct from farms."

Ultimately the mission of Hawthorne Valley, with its twin aims of regenerating land and reconnecting people, has endured, even as the organization has aged and metamorphosed. "What the new space represents is exciting—the fact we can hopefully start reaching a lot more people and developing their connection to the food, and the farmers that grow it, is a really wonderful extension of Hawthorne Valley," Schneider says. And by being the majority shareholder of Whitethorne, Hawthorne Valley can ensure that mission and values remain intact even as the organization grows its reach long into the future.

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