WHITEFIELD, Maine — What do you do when you find yourself with a large surplus crop of cabbage? Well, if you had just read a book about the health benefits of fermented foods, you likely would give making sauerkraut a shot.
At least that’s what Simon Frost of Thirty Acre Farm did.
In the 15 years since he made his first crock of kraut, Frost’s traditional diversified vegetable farming plans have morphed into a booming lacto-fermentation business that makes a range of fermented jarred products from the fresh vegetables grown at the Whitefield-based farm.
“I think that if we were just trying to grow vegetables with the resources we had we would have failed long ago,” Frost said. “We’re fortunate. … We had an inkling there was something good to come from the sauerkraut, but we didn’t know we could build a business that would support our family ultimately.”
When Frost and his wife Jane began dabbling with sauerkraut back in 2002 they had been homesteading on a small farm in Waldoboro and were transitioning larger plot of land in Whitefield, where they could raise a family and continue farming.
At the onset of their farming endeavors in Waldoboro the Frosts were growing enough food to feed themselves, maintain a small community supported agriculture program and sell to a nearby food coop. But at this scale, Frost also needed to work off the farm to supplement their income.
“It wasn’t crazy successful,” Frost said.
Once they settled in Whitefield they continued making sauerkraut and selling it at farmers markets alongside pork from the pigs they were raising, an array of fresh produce and eggs. But something about the sauerkraut seemed special, motivating Frost to ferment other fresh crops they were growing, such as red cabbage for a “ruby kraut” and an array of vegetables to make kimchi, a spicy Asian fermented dish.
While it was never the plan for the farm’s focus to be growing for the sake of fermentation, Frost began seeing the increased potential for that line of products and ultimately decided that having a specialty product would be financially beneficial for his farm business and his growing family.
“It’s just been an evolving process. We really thought we were going to raise a lot of animals and sell meat in conjunction to the sauerkraut, but the reality of raising a family and the margins on raising meat in the state are not a great story, so we more and more shifted to the sauerkrauts and ferments.”
Today, about 70 percent of Thirty Acre Farm’s business is fermented products, with the remaining 30 percent being the fresh vegetables they continue to sell alongside their jarred products at the Portland Farmer’s Market.
Frost has tweaked the recipes for their ferments over the years, but the cornerstone of the recipe has stayed relatively simple: salt mixed with fresh, chopped vegetables.
Through the fermentation process, called lacto-fermentation, cabbage or any vegetable is chopped and mixed with salt, which naturally wilts the produce causing the vegetables to sweat. The solid vegetables are then pressed below the liquid, where an anaerobic environment is created. In this environment lactobacillus, a healthy bacteria naturally found on organic produce, is able to reproduce and consume the vegetable sugars creating a lactic acid that preserves the vegetables long term. With the salt content killing any harmful bacteria, the vegetables can ferment for up to a year in cool conditions. The work cycle at Thirty Acre Farm has the farm crew growing the produce through the summer, fermenting in the fall and packaging the final products during the winter.
For Frost the health benefits of fermented foods were another reason to make them his farm’s focus. The healthy bacteria found in fermented foods helps with digestion and can boost immunity, Frost said.
Frost got into homesteading after graduating college and became more aware of the food he was putting into his body, fueling his desire to grow his own food.
“I think the thing that was so great about [doing the fermentation] is we’re able to preserve the vegetables. We enhance the flavor, nutrition, value by preserving it. We preserve it for over a year by fermenting it, so we can really extend its shelf life,” Frost said.
Sauerkraut is still Thirty Acre Farm’s most in-demand product, but Frost and his crew are producing a line of about a dozen fermented products that came out of many trial recipes, often stemming from surplus items on the farm. Today Thirty Acre Farm makes ruby kraut, mild and spicy kimchi, curried cauliflower sauerkraut, a fennel and beet ferment, a gingered carrot ferment, a product made with leeks and Maine sugar kelp, as well as four different kinds of hot sauces.
Thirty Acre Farm’s products are increasingly being made available throughout Maine. They are being sold at 20 Hannaford supermarkets in past four months. Their products also are sold through the distributor, Crown of Maine, and are in Whole Foods markets that extend as far south as Massachusetts.
With a recent rise in interest over fermented products — especially kimchi — Frost said the business has gotten lucky in terms of matching up with food trends, even if they were a bit early to the game.
“There’s a lot to do about fermented food and cultured foods and probiotics, so we’re in the right place at the right time. People are catching on,” Frost said.
Ninety-five percent of Thirty Acre Farm’s fermented products are made with the produce that grows on the farm’s 15 acres. Frost also buys produce from other small organic Maine to supplement the rest of his produce needs.
Frost’s ultimate goal is to have 30 acres of the Whitefield farm in production and begin sourcing more heavily from other small organic farms, so Maine produce has another way it can be brought beyond state borders.
“My ultimate dream has always been to build something that develops a life of its own that can hopefully outlive myself,” Frost said. “So I think seeing a business grow and reach more and more people, I see real potential in it. That’s probably the most rewarding part of it the work.”
For Frost, the farm’s success has also come with some personal conflicts. The realities of raising two young sons has forced his family to move off the Whitefield farm and onto a smaller garden setting in a nearby community.
What Frost set out to do as a homesteader on 3 acres in Waldoboro is undoubtedly different from where his business and his family is now, but the root of what he’s doing with his farm and his fermented products can be traced back to his original goal.
“My hope was to just provide nutritious food to people,” he said. “I think we’re definitely doing that by growing nutritious crops and them giving them further value through the fermentation process.”