“If I tell them, they will consider me a fool; if I am silent, I cannot escape my conscience.”
This quote is from a man named Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone who lived in Italy in the early part of the 13th century. He is better known as Saint Francis of Assisi. I admire Saint Francis for his patronage of animals, the environment, and the natural world. I began this article with that specific quote not for any religious reasons, but for its applicability to the daily work I do in the food system. I thought of Saint Francis’ words once again recently while driving back from a visit with Dawn Story, the owner of a local business called Farmstead Ferments, at her very cool store in Scottsville, Virginia. I know this is all one giant leap: from 13th century Italy to present day central Virginia, but bear with me…
Several years ago I started Foodwaze out of frustration with Yelp. I wanted to create a mobile app that provides consumers with a more reliable tool for locating and identifying sources of sustainable food at farms, restaurants, cafes, markets, and more. At the time I began my mission, the farm-to-table movement was firmly entrenched, particularly around Charlottesville, our home base.
Having no previous experience in the food industry, it took me a little while to realize what a giant black hole I’d launched into. Not only is the food industry too massive for words, but the trendy lingo surrounding localism and sustainability is dizzying. “We use local ingredients when we can.” That phrase, or some variation of it, is on more restaurant menus and websites than you can shake a fork at.
Don’t get me wrong, using local ingredients is not a bad thing by any means. More and more restaurants, cafes, and markets are doing it, even if it’s only “when they can.” It’s a reasonable phrase to use as a hedge against some very legitimate bottlenecks in the system that prevent the easy flow of local ingredients from farm to table. One of them is the aforementioned size and complexity of the food industry, even within smaller local communities. After all, there are a lot of restaurants out there that need provisioning. And there are a lot of chefs who have have some pretty big pots to fill. So we should go easy on everyone and let the system carry on.
Or should we not? That’s the question I ponder, which often makes me feel like a fool. I had set out to visit Dawn Story with a twofold mission. One was to learn more about Farmstead Ferments for Foodwaze; but also to write a blog about the importance of fermented foods. I’ve spoken about this topic quite a bit, in collaboration with The Juice Laundry, at our joint yoga/health talk series this past spring and summer. Fermented foods are important!
The process of preserving foods through fermentation dates back thousands of years. Fermented foods are generally those that have been through a process of lacto-fermentation in which natural bacteria feed on the sugar and starch in the food creating lactic acid. This process preserves the food, and creates beneficial enzymes, B-vitamins, Omega-3 fatty acids, and various strains of probiotics. For a more thorough and in-depth explanation of the history and health benefits of fermented foods, click here, because as I stated, I’m not really writing about fermented foods, per se, but rather my unconventional theories about the future of our food system.
Central Virginia is fortunate to have its very own fermented foods producer. As with most artisan food businesses, Farmstead Ferments started small. Story, who grew up in the area and is a trained herbalist, began making fermented foods and selling them at local farmers markets in 2010. The quick and positive response to her products led to a growth trajectory in the business that now includes distribution to nearly one hundred markets and restaurants throughout Virginia, and even up into DC and Maryland.
One of the newest places to showcase her products is her very own store in Scottsville, called Farmstead Ferments Mercantile. It opened in 2017 in a former restaurant space that Story and her staff had already been using for their commercial kitchen. The spacious store exudes rustic charm and demands that visitors stay awhile. There is a bar along one side where you can sample a variety of their products, which in addition to traditional sauerkrauts, includes other ferments such as water kefir, kraut juice, and pickled eggs. Coolers along the other wall showcase Farmstead Ferments products, as well as those from other local producers, such as eggs and pastured meats. There are also a variety of herbal teas, aromatherapy sprays, essential oils, and other products from Story’s second business called New Moon Naturals.
You will also find a selection of seasonal vegetables, much of it from the farm where Story and her staff grow most of the ingredients for their ferments. They began on one farm in southern Albemarle County and moved within the past few years to a bigger property that’s closer to Scottsville, just a few miles west of town.
While not certified organic, they do not use chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Instead they focus on building soil fertility through the use of regenerative organic practices that include crop rotations, cover cropping, row covers, and good old manual labor. Story is an avid permaculturist and also uses Korean Natural Farming methods, one of which includes - appropriately - the use of fermented plant juice sprays for fertility. What you will also find on their farm is a lot of biodiversity - plenty of hens scurrying around to fertilize the soil - and quite a few weeds. That’s because Story knows that many plants people consider a nuisance are actually medicinal edibles, like nettle, burdock root, and dandelion root. They wind up in several of her krauts.
The views from the farm are cathartic, especially on a day like the unseasonably cool late summer one on which I visited. But it was the Mercantile I could not stop thinking about on the way back. At first I was focused on my own personal interests: how much I wanted this awesome place to be in Charlottesville, closer to where I live. But then I got to thinking: How would it do in Charlottesville, with its excess of food and beverage businesses, splintering the attention of a relatively small population base?
A few years ago, a study showed that Charlottesville is the 14th ranked city nationwide in number of restaurants per capita. Across the country there are well over 600,000 restaurants selling more than $700 billion worth of of food and drink annually. This does not include other places where you can grab a meal, such as the salad bar at a grocery store, or the small bites at a coffee shop. It explains how, or why, we now eat out as a culture more than we eat in. Supplying this colossal industry requires an industrial food production system and transportation network that is devastating the health of our planet and many of its inhabitants, including humans.
This food system will collapse. Yes, I know, I’m a fool… I can hear you saying it. But I will say it again: It will collapse, and it will collapse for the better. When exactly, I am not sure. But the future is already slowly building in its place. This is not being done by businesses that are “sourcing local ingredients when they can…” no offense to many of the great folks running or working at these establishments. It’s being done by businesses like The Juice Laundry, and Farmstead Ferments, and just a few other pathfinders in the Charlottesville area small enough in number to count on one had. Consumers are not exactly banging down the doors at these places, not compared to some businesses on the downtown mall or the Corner that seem to toss around some trendy buzzwords and magically create lines out the door on a regular basis.
What these pathfinder businesses all have in common is a holistic understanding of what makes the world healthy. They are Earth-centered, which means their business models seem to be built around sourcing ingredients, preparing food, and conducting operations in a way that is mindful of the health of the planet, and all its life forms. In a word, it’s called Regeneration. These businesses are not yet using this word much, if at all. I am. Foodwaze is. And many more will as the future unfolds. There are some other amazing organizations out there enlightening people about regeneration, including Kiss the Ground. (Take a look at this piece about Thinking Regeneratively.) This is not some trendy gimmick, or a nostalgic trip back to some past utopia. Humans have never permitted utopia; we’ve been meddling too much with Mother Nature since we first walked the earth. But we’re doing so now with increasing ferocity and disturbing results. The good news is that we’re poised through modern knowledge and communications to leverage regeneration - not for some future utopia, but our future survival.Mike Keenan, who owns The Juice Laundry with his wife Sarah, wrote a great piece recently about transparency and honesty at restaurants. The bedrock of change is being shaped by those who embody these core values. Included in these values is a solicitude toward the greater good; a deep desire to create a world of inclusion, not exclusion. Indeed, I’m struck by how the people behind these pathfinder efforts often express a genuine concern about how the kind of food they’re producing can be accessible to allpeople, not just the foodies and the free spenders.
I believe the impediments to accessibility will fall as the modern food system - and all its excess - crumbles. Rising in place of this system will not be some hi-tech creation (let’s leave those for the fossil fuel problem!), but a regenerative model that nourishes the world, as never before in history. Which takes me back to St. Francis, and my opening quote. He purportedly made this statement during the Fifth Christian Crusade, when it’s believed he may have risked his life to seek peace with the Muslims. If true, add that as another reason to admire him. The thoughts I’ve laid out here certainly don’t match the gravity of St. Francis’ situation. I’m not risking my life, I don’t think. But I am saying some things that may seem crazy and really irritate some people. I know it seems farfetched to think that our 80-year experiment with an industrial food system - and the hundreds of thousands of restaurants it now includes - will unravel. If it takes a fool to believe that, well then, I accept.
(Feature photo shows Farmstead Ferments owner Dawn Story, on the right, and staff member Miranda Heatwole-Carroll.)
Michael Reilly is co-founder of Foodwaze, LLC, a social enterprise based in Charlottesville, Virginia. The mission of Foodwaze is to help consumers find the best sources of real regenerative food at restaurants, cafes, markets, farms, and more. Foodwaze produces an online and mobile food guide that curates and rates businesses based on their commitment to a local regenerative food system.