Pickles to the People: Creating a Community Around Fermentation

When Dan Rosenberg began experimenting with making pickles in Boston in 1999, he did not realize how far his relationship with fermented foods would take him. He studied traditional diets throughout the world, the benefits of raw, fermented foods throughout many of these cultures, and learned some new fermenting skills in a NOFA workshop that left him eager to experiment with winter trials of sauerkraut, turnips and cucumbers. 

At a party that Dan and his partner, Addie Rose Holland, helped host, he debuted some of these early pickles in a five-gallon bucket, along with a “pickle manifesto” he wrote on the benefits of fermentation and local agriculture. In order to share their fermented foods with even more people, Addie Rose says, “We decided to move out to Western Mass where organic veggies were more plentiful and we could start making farmer connections and make our pickle dreams come true.”

In 2001, Real Pickles was officially launched. At that time, there were only a handful of commercial producers across the country making fermented pickles. This inspired them to bring a variety of fermented pickles back to the American diet. 

“We learned that fermented foods were an important part of the traditional diets and nutrition around the world before the advent of industrial food, and fermented pickles in particular offer important probiotic health benefits,” says Addie Rose. Real Pickles uses lactic acid fermentation to make their products, a method that has been used for thousands of years across the world. The lactic acid fermentation relies on beneficial cultures that break down natural sugars in the vegetables. This turns them into the probiotic delivery systems we more commonly call “pickles.” 

From the beginning, Real Pickles made a commitment to social responsibility within the local food system by providing minimally processed, high-quality organic foods. The company sources vegetables solely from farms in the Northeast, primarily from eight farms that are within 40 miles of their Greenfield facility. 

Real Pickles started with Dan and Addie Rose, but has grown much larger in production in the past 15 years (this year alone, they will ferment over 300,000 pounds of vegetables). By 2009, they had purchased their own building, which they have since converted to solar power, helping Real Pickles grow in a sustainable way. 

In 2013, they decided to transition Real Pickles from a traditional sole proprietorship to a worker cooperative. It took many months, many meetings, and a successful community investment campaign launched in March 2013 to make the transition. Addie Rose says, “Real Pickles was founded with a strong mission to produce healthy food and contribute to improving our food system. Dan and I wanted to ensure that this mission would stay intact into the future, even beyond our involvement. We wanted to rewrite the story of a successful natural foods business—getting big and selling out—into something more sustainable for our food system as well as our community and employees.” 

Workers at Real Pickles have the opportunity to become worker-owners after one of year employment.  This brings them directly into the process of governing the business, as well as receiving a share of the profits through annual patronage dividends.  Further management, development, community outreach, and guidance is done by a board of directors and board of advisors, assisting the business in long-term planning and growth. Annie Winkler, a worker-owner at Real Pickles, has supported the business as a cooperative. 

“I love thinking about governance, systems that hold things together, and how we can make the place we work a place where we want to work,” she says. “The worker-ownership body has a really high level of trust. Consensus-based decision making works well in an environment of trust.”  

Restructuring Real Pickles as a worker cooperative has helped the company to continually uphold its founding commitment to the local community of farmers, workers, and customers—creating a food system that benefits all involved. Working with farms like Next Barn Over in Hadley, Real Pickles produces nutritious kimchi, pickles, krauts, and more. Ray Young, who runs Next Barn Over, enjoys the relationship they have built. 

“Not only are they lovely folks to work with,” says Young, “but knowing ahead of time where our crops are going takes some of the risk and stress out of farming, and we like working with other business that have shared values around taking care of the planet and each other.” 

Recipes for Puckery Pickle Hummus, Kimchi Jun (Kimchi Pancakes), Chocolate Sauerkraut Cake with Mocha Frosting.