Valley Bounty: Fermentation meets cooperation: Real Pickles in Greenfield supports and supplies the regional food system

Shane Carroll packages kimchi at Real Pickles in Greenfield.

Shane Carroll packages kimchi at Real Pickles in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Kate Hunter, assistant manager in sales/marketing and a worker owner with Victor Signore, vegetable coordinator and worker owner, at Real Pickles in Greenfield.

Kate Hunter, assistant manager in sales/marketing and a worker owner with Victor Signore, vegetable coordinator and worker owner, at Real Pickles in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Gillis MacDougall, back left, a worker owner, Marie Maude Joseph, back right, and Katie Desi, employees, package kimchi at Real Pickles in Greenfield.

Gillis MacDougall, back left, a worker owner, Marie Maude Joseph, back right, and Katie Desi, employees, package kimchi at Real Pickles in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Katie Desi, front, and Marie Maude Joseph package kimchi at Real Pickles in Greenfield.

Katie Desi, front, and Marie Maude Joseph package kimchi at Real Pickles in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Kimchi at Real Pickles in Greenfield.

Kimchi at Real Pickles in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Damien Vieu packages kimchi at Real Pickles in Greenfield.

Damien Vieu packages kimchi at Real Pickles in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Kimchi at Real Pickles in Greenfield.

Kimchi at Real Pickles in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Shane Carroll, Gillis MacDougall, Marie Maude Joseph, Victor Signore, Katie Desi, and Andy VanAssche package kimchi at Real Pickles in Greenfield.

Shane Carroll, Gillis MacDougall, Marie Maude Joseph, Victor Signore, Katie Desi, and Andy VanAssche package kimchi at Real Pickles in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Kate Hunter, assistant manager in sales/marketing and a worker owner with Victor Signore, vegetable coordinator and worker owner, at Real Pickles in Greenfield.

Kate Hunter, assistant manager in sales/marketing and a worker owner with Victor Signore, vegetable coordinator and worker owner, at Real Pickles in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Kate Hunter, assistant manager in sales/marketing and a worker owner with Victor Signore, vegetable coordinator and worker owner, at Real Pickles in Greenfield.

Kate Hunter, assistant manager in sales/marketing and a worker owner with Victor Signore, vegetable coordinator and worker owner, at Real Pickles in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By JACOB NELSON

For the Gazette

Published: 03-22-2024 9:58 AM

A knock on the door interrupts the conversation. Someone is here to trade cheese for Real Pickles’ fermented veggies.

Kate Hunter, a marketing coordinator, assistant sales manager, and worker-owner at Real Pickles, gets up to confirm the terms. Out the door go cases of their Organic Sauerkraut, Organic Ginger Carrots, Organic Beets, and Organic Turmeric Kraut. The return? Several pounds of raw milk, 100% grass-fed cheese from Chase Hill Farm in Warwick to be shared among staff. It’s a moment that captures the essence of Real Pickles — a company committed to cooperation, keeping things local, and really good food.

“Real Pickles is a worker-owned co-op making pickles and ferments with produce that’s all organic and regionally grown,” Hunter explains. “A big part of our mission is supporting the regional food system, so we’ve committed to only purchasing veggies from farms in the Northeast (defined as New England, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania) and only selling in that region too.”

The business began in 2001 when founder Dan Rosenberg made his first commercial batches of lacto-fermented pickles in the kitchen of a friend’s restaurant. The cucumbers were freshly picked from Chamutka Farm in Whately, which still supplies Real Pickles today.

Rosenberg was inspired by the health benefits of fermented vegetables and the idea that food businesses could invigorate the local food economy if they committed to buying and selling closer to home.

The next year, Real Pickles started working out of the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center in Greenfield, run by the Franklin County CDC. By 2009 they outgrew the shared kitchen and moved into a newly purchased building across the street.

Over the next four years business tripled, and in 2013 Rosenberg and his team made the big decision to restructure Real Pickles as a worker-owned cooperative. This democratized how the business was governed and allowed employees to literally buy into the business and its mission, earning dividends for their hard work.

Today Real Pickles employs 22 people. Fourteen are established worker owners, with two more on the way. They make a dozen different products, sell to over 700 stores, and this year aim to use almost a half a million pounds of produce.

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The man whose job it is to secure all that produce is vegetable coordinator Victor Signore. Like Hunter, he is also a worker-owner and votes on the co-op’s board of directors.

Because Real Pickles always uses fresh produce grown nearby, “our production season runs with the growing season,” Signore says. “We process vegetables starting in June with cucumbers, mixing in carrots, beets and cabbage as the summer goes on, and continuing through fall and winter with storage crops.”

After being washed, diced, sliced, and spiced, veggies are packed into large food grade drums and sealed with an airlock to ferment. For most products, fermentation takes about three months. From there, ferments are packed into smaller containers for sale (usually 16-ounce glass jars that customers are encouraged to reuse) and shipped out to stores.

Production slows over the winter, stopping once all the produce in Real Pickles’ large storage area is used up. Then attention turns to packing products for sale and, for Signore, lining up where next year’s veggies will come from.

Because of how much produce they use and their commitment to buy from Northeast farms, Real Pickles can’t wait until harvest time to buy what they need. That would leave far too much to chance. Instead, they make agreements with farmers ahead of time to grow produce for them specifically.

This arrangement works for both sides, explains Signore. “For us, it gives the best guarantee of getting exactly what we need,” he says. “And farmers get financial security, knowing ahead of time that if they can grow it, we will buy it.”

To begin, Real Pickles determines their sales and production goals. Using those numbers, “I start contacting the roster of local farms we buy from,” says Signore. “I ask what amount of different crops they think they can grow, and what their harvest times might be. By March, after many back and forth discussions, the full picture is pretty much in place.”

When Signore started at Real Pickles in 2020, they worked with nine or 10 farms. This year, they have agreements with 15 farms. Some are longtime suppliers, like Red Fire Farm in Montague and Granby, Atlas Farm in Deerfield, and their original partner Chamutka Farm. Others are newer as Real Pickles increases production and diversifies who they work with, like Mountain View Farm in Easthampton, Lakeside Organics in Hadley, and more suppliers in Vermont and New York.

Buying produce from specific farms does increase the chance of a bad growing season disrupting Real Pickles’ plans. “We and the farms are taking a risk together,” Signore acknowledges, “and climate change is increasing that risk.”

To counteract this, Signore is always working on a plan B, checking in with other farms to see where excess produce might be bought in a pinch. “We’ve also diversified our farm partners geographically,” he says. “If carrots do poorly in the Valley for instance, we can get carrots from Vermont or New York.”

So far, Real Pickle’s business model has done well for farms they work with, for customers looking for organic ferments and to vote with their dollar for a strong regional food system, and for its worker-owners.

“Most of us gravitated to Real Pickles wanting to do something for our community,” says Signore. “We want to support local farmers, give people healthy, local organic products, and keep money, jobs, and food local.”

Adds Hunter, “It’s about healthy soil, healthy food, healthy people. Those goals are intertwined in our mission and support each other.”

It’s safe to say that Real Pickles is also deeply intertwined with other businesses in our local food community. Partnerships with local farms are one example. Their staff’s penchant for bartering is another — for cheese, sourdough bread from Rise Above Bakery in Greenfield, and food from other businesses too.

“It’s great to be friendly with Chase Hill Farm, and now they carry our ferments in their farm store,” says Hunter. “That’s the awesome part of Real Pickles — working with other local businesses and helping each other out.”

“That and working with a bunch of foodies,” she adds. “We make the best grilled cheese sandwich office lunches for days with a rainbow of ferments on top.”

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). For more stories and info about local farms and food businesses near you, visit buylocalfood.org.