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From their website: "We are committed to promoting human and ecological health by providing people with delicious, nourishing food and by working toward a regional, organic food system. We aim to produce the highest quality, traditional pickled foods available, using natural fermentation. We buy our vegetables only from Northeast family farms and sell our products only within the Northeast. Our ingredients are 100% organic."
Becoming a regional naturally fermented and raw foods company that went from a sole-proprietorship (started in 2001) to a worker-owned cooperative (in 2013) is what makes Real Pickles unique and allowed them to preserve the mission (pun intended!) of Real Pickles. According to the company’s most recent annual report, the average distance of Real Pickles farm to fermentation process is 17 miles, with the average distance of Real Pickles products from fermentation to fork is 131 miles. They are designed to be a small to medium company, having made the decision to be regional rather than “local” not only to widen their distribution reach, but also to cover them should there be a vegetable shortage in the local area of Western Massachusetts. Their regional reach is the North East: New England (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut), New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. They work only with local distributors and do not sell out of their regional area.
Lactic acid fermentation has been around for thousands of years and is considered the original pickling method, an essential part of healthy human diets across the globe. Natural fermentation (relying on naturally-occurring cultures, which produces lactic acid while breaking down natural sugars) is a process similar to what is done to make sourdough bread and yogurt. “Lactic acid fermentation of vegetables involves no vinegar or dairy products. Because traditional pickle-making is an artisanal process, unsuited for industrial food production, Real Pickles is one of only a small number of businesses in the country using the method. We choose to make raw, naturally fermented pickles because they taste better and because they offer numerous health benefits.”
Kristin Howard, one of the three worker-owners to comb through the bylaws and find investors, is most proud of the worker-coop model of the company. A lot of the work at a pickle business is fairly mundane; “How do we make this meaningful work, work that keeps people engaged, and where they have a say?”
Kristin Howard, head of sales and one of the eight current worker-owners, shared that studying economics in college (including studying abroad in Belize) and learning specifically about social and development issues were the two events that largely inspired her in the area of worker-owners. How do you make changes in your community, both as an individual and as a business owner? Working at a worker co-op also influenced her in the direction her life would take.
The naturally fermented and raw foods produced by Real Pickles, including a variety of dill pickles, kimchee, pickled beets, and sauerkraut, has huge health benefits for consumers. First, it is fresh, so not only does the food taste better, but it is also better for your body. Eating fresh, organic, naturally fermented food has many benefits to our health, for both our brains and our guts. The health benefits include: being a great source of probiotics, increasing nutrients while decreasing anti-nutrients, maintaining gut flora which helps control appetite and weight gain, reducing cancer risk, and improving mental health because of its impact on brain function and behavior.
When the workers at Real Pickles were deciding to go from being a sole-proprietorship to a worker-owned cooperative, they made deliberate decisions based on “What do we want to be?” and “How big do we want to grow?” They launched a community investment campaign, giving themselves a year to raise $500,000, with the goal of achieving it in six months. They raised the money in eight weeks.
After working at Real Pickles for one year, a worker can petition to become a worker-owner. Their mission to stay a small to medium business and to grow and sell regionally was written into their bylaws. Also included in their bylaws is a capped ratio of highest to lowest wage earnings at 3:1, which they keep lower than that. This is in comparison to other large companies that have highest to lowest ratios of 200:1 or even 2000:1.
The societal and environmental benefits of Real Pickles are based on the fact that they are locally sourced and sold. As stated above, the average distance of Real Pickles farm to fermentation process is 17 miles, with the average distance of Real Pickles products from fermentation to fork is 131 miles. This local focus uses fewer fossil fuels and less manpower to get the food to where it will be consumed.
The company has a 2-3 week shut down in May, just prior to the production season, so it is nearly open year-round. They focus on the fermentation production in the summer and fall, while winter and spring is when they pack it into jars. They have a solar array, which in May of 2016 (during their shut-down) they will nearly double. They are also going away from oil and moving to heat pumps. Production has more than doubled and because of that, they are also building a second floor in the fermentation room so they can continue to grow their production even further.
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Kristin Howard, Worker-Owner, Head of Sales