Local fermentation company launches start-up campaign

By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

BOZEMAN – Up to 40 percent of food in the U.S. never makes it to the dinner table or your fork, according to the National Resource Defense Council. Instead, many fruits, vegetables and crops end up in landfills or are simply tilled back into the soil.

The reason?

In part, food waste is made up of misshapen vegetables.

“They look a little bit different, but they took the exact same amount of time, energy, soil nutrients and water for the farmer to grow,” said Vanessa Walsten, co-owner of Farmented Foods, a company that buys organic vegetable “seconds”, or atypically shaped or otherwise unsellable crops, and turns the “ugly” produce into fermented goods.

“We live in a time where we have a lot of choices and it’s these choices that can have a big impact on the environment,” Walsten added while speaking at the monthly 406 Creatives lecture series at the Bozeman Public Library on May 18. “Why don’t we ever see this ugly one in the grocery store? When given a choice on the shelf, we’re always going to pick the normal looking one.”

During an interdisciplinary farm-to-market course at Montana State University, Walsten and fellow student Vanessa Bakken set out to address this food waste for a class project and the idea for Farmented Foods was borne. They partnered with local farmer Dylan Strike to create a value-added product for his farm.

At the conclusion of the semester, Bakken and Walsten had devised a business plan to help farmers like Strike deal with their excess—they wanted to ferment the wasted vegetables.

The new startup company Farmented Foods is seeking to reduce food waste by turning misshapen or excess produce into fermented goods, such as sauerkraut, radish kimchi and spicy carrot chips.

Fermentation is a method of food preservation whereby naturally occurring bacteria converts sugars into lactic acid and enhances the nutrient content of the food. In addition to making nutrients more readily available, fermentation boosts the immune system and can improve cognitive function.

“Having a product that we feel not only helps the environment, but also increases the health of our customers, made us even more excited about our product,” Walsten said.

A year and a half after completing their farm-to-market course, the MSU alumnae are transforming and selling visually unappealing vegetables through their new Farmented Foods company.

“We want to create a recipe for every single over-produced crop or ugly vegetable, so we can have a greater impact on farmers and help them be more sustainable while also helping to solve this unnecessary food loss,” Bakken said.

“Perception is really one of the big factors that is preventing us from having sustainable farming systems,” she added. “We don’t just want ugly carrots and ugly vegetables to become the norm, we want it to become a badge of honor … so farmers no longer have to worry about the look of their products.”

“Choices are important, and if leveraged correctly, they can solve problems,” Walsten said. “As entrepreneurs and business owners, it’s our responsibility to help guide and influence our consumers and customers to focus on these factors.”

After many trials and much research, the duo released their first line of products—sauerkraut, radish kimchi and spicy carrot chips—five months ago at the Bozeman Winter Farmers’ Market and say they are thrilled by the community’s response.

“Neither Vanessa nor myself slept at all the night before [we released the products],” Bakken said. “We were afraid people weren’t going to love fermented foods as much as we had.” But she went on to say that people kept coming back and buying their goods.

Today, Farmented Foods is available at four retail stores in Bozeman and Livingston, and the duo is pursuing relationships with several local restaurants.

They also launched a subscription campaign on May 15, and will ship direct to customers all over the nation. The business partners initiated the campaign, which will run through June 3, with the goal of raising $3,000 as a push to expand the business. This goal was met in a matter of a week. Surplus funds will be used to support the release of two additional products and up their production from 500 jars a month to 1,000 by the end of the summer.

“I think one of the biggest challenges is, it’s just Vanessa and I. Expanding is a big variable,” Bakken said, adding that fermentation is labor intensive and they are looking for ways to ease the process and help with distribution.

She also said a challenge they face is that many people aren’t sure how to incorporate fermented foods into their lifestyle. To help with this, Bakken and Walsten share many recipes on social media and through a newsletter on their website, and they are always experimenting with new ways to add fermentation into their own diets.

“We’ve gotten really creative in the kitchen and we incorporate these fermented products into our everyday life. It’s pretty much in every single meal,” Bakken said. She enjoys the fermented veggies on eggs, sandwiches and more.

Beyond the fermented vegetable itself, Walsten said the brine leftover in the jar is jam-packed with nutrients and can be used in cocktails like bloody marys.

Each product made by Farmented Foods is made with organic excess crops, currently supplied by Strike and Terrapin farms in Bozeman and Two Bear Farm in Kalispell. Farmented products can be found in Bozeman at Joe’s Parkway Market, Daniel’s Gourmet Meats and the Gallatin Valley Farmers’ Market.

To learn more about Farmented Foods, visit farmented.com. To support the funding campaign, visit thelocalcrowd.com/communities/bozeman.