For good reason, when we talk about sustainable eating, we often center those discussions on eating local, mostly plant-based food. When we eat local, we’re of course supporting local farmers who, in many instances, practice sustainable and/or regenerative farming practices. The food they produce is better for us and better for the Earth, because that type of agriculture cultivates and cares for the land, and reduces the emissions associated with industrial farming and the transportation of that food.
That said, eating local is only part of the sustainable picture. What we do with the food we buy and that our local farmers grow is an important aspect of reaching sustainability and reducing food waste. And one way (which often gets forgotten) to achieve those ends is fermentation.
Take it from Mica McCullough, who co-owns Fermented Food and Beverage Supply Shop in Hammonton, with her husband, Eric Schmehl. McCullough has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sustainable practices, and when Schmehl began toying around with the idea of opening a homebrew shop in South Jersey, she knew broadening the prospective business’s offerings to include fermentation supplies would coalesce with her work in sustainability. McCullough says her studies in sustainability only touched on fermentation, despite the fact that it’s a proven way to improve health and keep foods from going to waste.
“If you have a community garden and have 2,000 pounds of cucumbers and can’t give them away, fermentation is a great way to make them shelf-stable so you can eat them later. It’s a key component of food sovereignty that’s totally overlooked,” McCullough says.
Fermented Food and Beverage Supply not only stocks and sells homebrew supplies—equipment, yeasts, malts, hops, etc.—but also tools and ingredients for fermenting everything from kombucha to cheese, bread, wine, yogurt, tempeh, kimchi, sauerkraut and more. And the Hammonton shop is one of the few in the state to offer such a wide array of homebrew and fermentation supplies, which include unique, local ingredients only available from them.
The idea started when Schmehl was bequeathed a homebrew kit and, like so many others, just got really into it. Seeing few places in the area to get supplies (and guidance), Schmehl and McCullough opened in downtown Hammonton as a place to not only offer those supplies, but host workshops, serve as a sounding board for homebrewers and fermenters and provide a community gathering place.
Now, fermentation can be scary to newcomers. You’re introducing microorganisms like yeast and bacteria to food to hasten its decay and transformation. There’s a lot of conventional non-wisdom about the so-called dangers of fermentation, but McCullough says Fermented Food and Beverage Supply serves to knock down those barriers and get folks on the right track in their fermentation journeys.
“One of the reasons Eric and I wanted to open the store is because there’s a lot of fear,” McCullough says. “A lot of people worry they’re gonna give themselves botulism. It’s a totally unwarranted fear. Our bodies have evolved to know what looks like it shouldn’t be eaten.”
Fermentation is a centuries old process, after all. And it’s what food naturally wants to do. It supports a variety of our biological systems, makes food easier to digest and provides beneficial gut bacteria. And, if you do it right, it makes food pretty damn tasty.
“Fermentation is waiting to happen,” McCullough says. “It is a natural process that wants to happen, that will happen if we create the right conditions. This is not a really appetizing way to think about it but I’ve heard fermentation referred to as controlled rot. … I don’t want to eat controlled rotted milk, but I do want to eat [cheese, yogurt, etc.].”
Fermentation is also one of those processes that has ebbed away from modern knowledge, in the midst of industrialized food production and grocery story-ready everything. Like many others, McCullough remembers a different relationship her parents and grandparents had with food than many of us can access today.
“We did a little fermentation when we were growing up,” she says. “My mom was from the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina. A lot of those skills that were her day-to-day life skills she passed on to my sister and me. It wasn’t fermentation proper but it was a familiarity with food and of growing food and canning it and making fresh sauerkraut and things like that.”
Fermented Food and Beverage Supply shares that knowledge not only with customers who come in curious about creating their own something or other, but in workshops and in private classes. In these settings, it’s easier to troubleshoot what went wrong for folks in the fermentation process, and thus what might keep them from exploring the process more.
“When we do our classes, we ask people to let us know if [what they made] turned out good or especially if it’s bad because we can troubleshoot and help them. We want to help people be self-sufficient, or make and save,” McCullough says. “If you buy kombucha at the grocery store, it’s five bucks for a 12-ounce bottle. We want to help people on the journey to self-sufficiency. The nature of that is we’re putting ourselves out of business. We want a world full of people who know how to make bread. Even though you buy one sourdough starter and you keep that for life, that’s where the classes come in, where we introduce people to new classes and things that they don’t have the starters for.
“One of the biggest roadblocks for people is time. They don’t have the time to make sourdough or forget about the starter in the fridge. It’s a commitment of time and of memory; remembering you have things and they’re fermenting and remembering to check on them.”
It’s tempting when talking about restoring sustainable foodways to get a little grandiose; to say that all we need to do to improve our health and environment is to eat local. There are very real obstacles standing in the way of a more localized, less industrialized food system—namely cost and availability. It’s obvious to say, but you can’t get local bananas here; you can get local peaches, but only part of the year and they’ll cost more. That’s in large part because our food system has gotten so out of whack with subsidies for large, globalized producers and sellers that people don’t really know the true cost of true food.
Extending the life of local produce, dairy and meat, through fermentation, is one way to extend the life, and value, of these local foods.
“I do think there is some weight on the consumer, but what I also think is our country’s agricultural history, specifically in regards to subsidization, has artificially created low prices that we’ve become accustomed to. Which is a challenge to overcome because then you’re continuing to reward the gigantic companies and continuing to prevent smaller companies from entering the race,” McCullough says. “I’ve heard 70 cents of every dollar spent in a local economy stays in the local economy. That money, when you give it to one of the large international grain companies or you give it to Walmart, that money does stay in the local economy.”
Educating consumers, as is part of the mission of Fermented Food and Beverage Supply, about how grocery stores stock shelves and why you might have to pay more or make an extra stop to eat local goes a long way in empowering folks to eat local and build a sustainable food system from the ground up.
In many ways, South Jersey is an ideal location for McCullough and Schmehl to grow Fermented Food and Beverage Supply—though they ship nationwide, it’s one of the few spots between Philly and North Jersey to access this type of shop. But also, South Jersey is a veritable bread basket in the Garden State, which McCullough only appreciated upon moving here and seeing for herself.
“I thought the name Garden State was a joke,” she says. “I thought, Isn’t the whole state pavement? When I visited and moved up here, I learned the Garden State is the part of the state we live in.”
McCullough and Schmehl grow food in their gardens but can’t sell that (or their homebrew) in their shop due to FDA restrictions; they can, however, use that to speak from experience when talking to folks about fermentation. Stocking the store—and it’s a candy store for those interested in natural foods—is driven in part by feedback from the community itself.
“A lot of it in the beginning was asking our friends, what would you be interested in seeing?” McCullough says. “A lot of feedback for sourdough starters, a lot for cheese, a lot of kombuchas. Some of the bigger, more well known items.”
And again, not everybody is going to take to fermentation like McCullough, Schmehl, their customers and many of us. But maybe if we talk about fermentation in the sustainability discussion more often, more folks’ll stop by places like Fermented Food and Beverage Supply, try and fail, ultimately succeed and start to include fermentation in the discussion of how we make our foodways truly sustainable.
“I like fermented vegetables from a food preservation standpoint because it has a huge environmental impact in our country,” McCullough says. “It feels like a natural place to step in. But also I really enjoy having sourdough bread because it makes me feel… like, I’m not a homesteader, we still go to Shop-Rite, but that alone makes me feel like if there was some sort of apocalypse, we’d be OK. We can make bread, we can grow vegetables. Those are things that are starting to get lost, so it feels good holding onto those skills.”
For more information, go to fermentednj.com.