April 1, 2015 By Treena Hein
Jenna Empey and Alex Currie of Pyramid Farms and Ferments turn the organic produce they grow on their 60-acre farm into a range of fermented products. Photo by Contributed
It turns out that reviving a lost art and science such as fermentation is, well, both an art and a science.
On the artistic side, a great deal of creativity certainly goes into the unique and health-promoting products offered by Pyramid Farms and Ferments. But just as important to this business’s success is knowledge of the science of bacterial fermentation. It is a form of food preservation that has largely been lost from North America’s modern industrial food landscape, says co-owner and self-proclaimed “bacterial farmer” Jenna Empey, a fact that has presented both challenges and opportunities for her and her husband and business partner, Alex Currie.
“I have Ukrainian roots but none of the first-hand family knowledge of fermentation made it to my generation or even the generation before me,” Empey explains. “When I was starting to learn about it, I consulted with some older relatives who shared childhood memories of how their families and communities used to preserve the cabbage harvest through winter, but we created all of our recipes ourselves.”
Empey and Currie turn the organic produce they grow on their 60-acre farm – as well as produce they buy from neighbours in Prince Edward County – into a range of innovative fermented products, first released on the market in 2012. At any point in time, they offer five or more different sauerkrauts, three types of kimchi (a spicy Korean fermented food) and five flavours of Kombucha (a fermented tea beverage that has been described as an effervescent lemonade).
Before it all began, Empey had worked in agriculture for more than a decade in the Prince Edward County (PEC) region, and then moved to Halifax.
“I was living in an urban environment and missed farming and working with food, so I began experimenting with fermentation,” she notes. “I’ve always grown and preserved food, but this was an entirely new way to work with it, one that is ever-changing and I really responded to it.”
In Halifax, she happened to meet a guy named Alex, who was at that point working at a restaurant and running his own record label. Jenna worked at the label as well and they discovered that they complimented each other in many ways. When the couple decided to move to PEC and start their own farm and fermentation business (and get married), they brought a lot to the table. Alex had a wide range of knowledge and skills from running his own business, writing, recording, production, promotion design and packaging (he’s a graphic designer by trade). He operates the Kombucha side of the business while Jenna heads the fermented foods and farming sides. Currie describes his Kombucha as a little sweet, a little sour, slightly carbonated and very refreshing. His favourite flavour invention so far is green tea with coriander, Echinacea and lemon basil.
“Alex and I have always worked well together,” Empey says. “It can be challenging at times to work daily with your spouse but the rewards are ones you share in, and we are always there to help each other.”
It’s a good thing they are an excellent team.
“There is no book on how to operate your own sauerkraut company,” Empey says. “It is a forgotten art that is just beginning to come back, and we are one of a very few full time fermentation companies in Canada. We’ve learned everything, from troubleshooting equipment, packaging, marketing and product consistency, and improved on them by trial and error.”
Fermentation involves a small set of bacteria and yeasts that use the naturally-available sugars in food to reproduce, to create conditions where other organisms that normally cause spoilage cannot grow and to produce molecules that, when combined with the vegetables they are in with, taste fantastic. Empey does her fermentation in what she calls “the cave,” an underground cellar that also serves as a vegetable storage area. At times of production, vegetables – such as cabbage – are shredded and placed in earthenware containers with sea salt. Pressure is added and the process begins.
“Fermentation is amazing and constantly surprises me,” Empey says. “It leaves you with a living, nutrient-dense product that offers you many benefits to your digestion and health. It seems simple, but the outcome is very different based on temperature, environment, salinity and the ingredients you use. We’re essentially bacteria farmers, providing ideal conditions to encourage the necessary bacterial development to create delicious sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha.”
Pyramid Farm & Ferments doubled its income between 2012 and 2013, and Empey and Currie are hoping to continue the upswing. They’re installing new fermentation tanks, and were recently awarded a grant from the National Farmers Union and Slow Food The County to purchase a cabbage slicer that will increase shredding capacity by ten-fold. The next big business goal is to renovate a permanent commercial kitchen and retail space.
But while Empey explains that Ontario growers produce excellent cabbage, available nearly all year round, there are some challenges involved with supply.
“We’ve found many of the bigger produce operations here have gotten out of growing cabbage because customers don’t really know what to do with it anymore,” she says. “So, sometimes, it’s hard for us to find the types of cabbage we want. We are also limited by a lack of cold storage. In the near future, I would like to cultivate relationships with Ontario farmers to grow and wholesale the varieties and quantities of cabbage we want to use for our fermented foods. We would like to expand our line of fermented foods throughout retail in Ontario, but making the time to cultivate retail relationships and do sales calls can be challenging.”
Hopefully the recognition that Pyramid Farm & Ferments is receiving will make that easier. Recently, the business was chosen as one of only 20 firms to participate in the ACE bakery Artisan Incubator program in 2013. The couple’s hard work and creativity have also won them a Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence.
“We are thrilled to have won the Premier’s Award,” Empey says. “It means a great deal to be recognized as an industry leader and for our creativity and innovation. We are constantly learning, and it’s wonderful to be producing products that are delicious and improve digestive health as well. Our slogan is Go With Your Gut, which speaks to how our fermented foods have rich cultures of beneficial bacteria that can do wonders for your immune system and overall gut health.”
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