By Sonja Heyck-Merlin
Like the owners of many small businesses, Simon Frost and Daniel Price of Thirty Acre Farm have found that division of labor works best. Price grows the vegetables and Frost adds value by transforming the produce into lacto-ferments in their processing facility in Bremen, Maine. The product line includes an assortment of sauerkrauts — kraut with seaweed, kraut with cauliflower, kraut with cucumbers — all with varying textures, flavors, colors and spice levels. Frost also churns out lacto-fermented kimchi and hot sauce, with 90% of the produce used coming from Price’s farming efforts.
A decade ago, Frost and his wife were living in Whitefield, Maine, on 30 acres of overgrown farmland. He was working full-time as a carpenter and farming on the side. A few years in, they grew a bumper crop of cabbage and decided to turn it into kraut in the small commercial kitchen in their home. Their first customer was Rising Tide Co-op in Damariscotta. Within a few years, they were selling at the Portland Farmers Market and had moved the value-added processing to a rented facility a few miles from their house. “We started in five-gallon pails,” Frost says. “Now, we’re fermenting in 2,500-pound batches. So, the scales have changed drastically.”
Meanwhile, Price was running an organic vegetable operation in Waldo County, which also included selling at the Portland Farmers Market. This is where the pair struck up a tight friendship. Price then spent a few years growing produce in the mountains of North Carolina, but returned to Maine. He reconnected with Frost, who suggested that Price grow the vegetables, so Frost could focus on fermenting. In 2019, they reorganized the business as an S corporation, with each of them owning 50%.
The word fermentation comes from the Latin word fervere, which means “to boil.” There are two kinds of fermentation: alcoholic fermentation, which helps create products like bread, wine and beer, and lacto-fermentation (also known as lactic fermentation).The latter is Frost’s specialty.
The process of culinary fermentation dates back to early human civilizations. In 7000 B.C.E. ancient China, for example, the Chinese were brewing an alcoholic beverage called kui, made with rice, honey and the fruits of grape and hawthorn plants. The first documented lacto-fermentation of cucumbers occurred in the Middle East in 2000 B.C.E.
Food preservation by fermentation was vital to these early civilizations and for thousands of subsequent years until the advent of modern food preservation techniques. In cold climates, people could capture the fruits of the short growing season in a crock, and in hot climates it was a way to prevent fresh produce from spoiling. A chunk of cheese allowed an adventurer to leave the herd for extended missions; a barrel of kraut provided the vitamin C to keep sailors alive as they crossed oceans.
It wasn’t until the mid-1800s, however, that scientists, specifically Louis Pasteur, developed an explanation for fermentation — that living cells, like yeast, bacteria and fungi are responsible for the metabolic process of fermentation.
During lacto-fermentation, vegetables are submerged in a salty solution and shielded from oxygen. Inevitably, some rod-shaped Lactobacillus bacteria will be present. Think of Lactobacillus(of which there are many species) as a free resource; they’re found in the air, in the soil, and on plant parts like fruits, leaves and roots. Lactobacillusis everywhere.
Once vegetables, like cabbage or cucumbers, are immersed in their saline bath — it’s salty enough to staunch bad bacteria, as long as there’s no oxygen — the Lactobacillus present on the produce not only survive but thrive. They convert the lactose and other sugars in the vegetables into lactic acid, forming an acidic environment that safely preserves the vegetables and gives foods like kraut and traditional Kosher dill pickles their tangy, effervescent flavor.
Lacto-ferments don’t just taste good, they’re good for the gut microbiome. Many websites and books purport this claim, waxing poetic about the health benefits of lacto-fermented foods, and even institutes of medicine, like the Cleveland Clinic, are making a case for them. And in northern climates like Maine, fermentation continues to be a way to lock in the nutrients of the short growing season, enabling people to eat a local diet year-round.
For Thirty Acre Farm, the lacto-fermentation process — what ancient civilizations perhaps thought of as magic, but humans now call biochemistry — now takes place in a 60-by-100-foot barn on a piece of farmland in Bremen on the Pemaquid Peninsula. Frost and Price purchased the land in 2019 and built the barn in 2020. While lacto-fermentation starters, which include different Lactobacillus species, are commercially available, Frost says he doesn’t need them. “They’re just in the air now,” he says.
The vegetables, however, are not plucked from so close. Although Frost and Price both own houses near the processing facility, they cultivate two parcels of leased land on the Kennebec River about 45 minutes away. One field is in Pittston and the other is in Dresden, and together they add up to about 20 acres of prime farmland. Eventually, Price would like to do some growing in Bremen, but it’s hard to beat the productivity of the sandy river bottom land soil types — Madawaska and Hadley — on their leased ground.
Each year, Price grows on half of the land, planting the other half in cover crops for the entirety of the growing season. “We have gone the route of planting everything on raised beds with plastic, which is a function of having satellite fields. Everything’s on drip irrigation,” Price says. Every crop is started in a greenhouse and then transplanted, except for daikon radish, which they direct seed into the plastic.
As one might expect, they grow a lot of cabbage — about 150,000 pounds per year. The first two plantings are 10,000 heads each, and the fall planting is 20,000 heads. They also grow a lot of cauliflower, leeks, onions, sweet peppers, hot peppers and melons, the other mainstays in the fermentation kitchen. They buy in carrots from other Maine organic growers because weeding the crop is labor-intensive and doesn’t easily fit into their plasticulture system. Garlic is another crop they skip growing, opting for the ease of pre-peeled cloves.
Price also grows some additional produce for wholesale accounts, their farmstand in Bremen, and the Portland Farmers Market, which they take turns attending. The way Price looks at it is if they’re already growing cantaloupes for hot sauce, why not plant some watermelons to sell at market? Likewise, if they’re already growing cucumbers, why not plant some summer squash and zucchini? According to Price, the extra produce provides immediate cashflow, and they’ve found their niche within the Portland market, offering vegetables that other organic growers aren’t. Plus, it adds diversity and eye appeal to the stand, so customers are more apt to stop and sample the ferments that are always available for taste testing.
On harvest days, Price and one full-time farm employee load produce into a box truck and make the haul back to the barn in Dresden. (On a big cabbage harvest day, they load the heads into 12 pallet-sized totes lined up on a 20-foot gooseneck trailer.) The barn has a large shed roof overhang on one side where they unload. From there, the produce is moved into the 20-by-50-foot wash-pack area where it is cleaned. There is another full-time employee who helps with washing and processing.
In 2022, the Governor Mills Administration invested approximately $20 million in federal funds to help Maine farmers and food processors improve critical infrastructure. The competitive grant program was administered by Coastal Enterprises, Inc. Thirty Acre Farm was one of 64 applicants to receive grant funding, which for them amounted to a substantial sum — $250,000. Frost and Price are still in the process of using the funds to carry out their plans, the majority of which are being used to upgrade the equipment in the processing kitchen.
So far, they’ve purchased and installed a Latvian-made Alistar S55 processing machine. It consists of a cabbage core drill, a processor, a machine where they can add salt and spices, and a conveyor that dumps the shredded vegetables into large bins. The processing machine drives a 2-foot wide spinning blade that can shred a large cabbage in seconds. It can also chop carrots, leeks and hot peppers. While they used a mechanized system before the S55, it was much slower, and it couldn’t process the Napa cabbage for their kimchi.
The grant will also fund a machine to automatically fill the small glass jars all their ferments are packaged in, a process that is currently being done by hand. While Frost might be a bit nostalgic for the early days when he chopped cabbage by hand, he’s really excited about the new equipment. “I feel like our processing can be done more consistently and better with the machinery. We’re dialing it in and making it consistent as we grow into a more regional brand,” Frost says.
After the vegetables are processed and salted, they’re fermented in different sizes of containers. The largest are about 200 gallons and used for their more popular krauts. They use 50-gallon vessels for their more niche products like cauliflower kraut ( what they call “caulikraut”) and curtido. Curtido is their spicy salute to the classic Central American relish that contains cabbage, carrots, onions, jalapenos and oregano. Frost uses large bags filled with water laid across the top of each fermentation vessel, no matter the vessel size, to keep the Lactobacillushappily dunked beneath the brine. “Gasses can still escape,” Frost says, “but nothing can get in.”
The fermentation vessels are kept in their own section of the barn. In Frost’s opinion, the ideal fermentation temperature is between 70 and 75 degrees. After the initial fermentation, which takes about four weeks, is complete, the fermentation vessels are moved into a walk-in cooler set at 50 degrees. Jarring only occurs when product is needed for sale. “We get ahead in anticipation of orders but not too far ahead,” Frost says. “We could not afford to buy all these jars at once.”
Every batch is pH-tested to make sure it is below 4.0. Frost admits it’s been a learning curve, alluding to some overly active jars of ruby kraut that showered customers with a purple spray upon opening. It’s a living product after all, and living things can be unpredictable. Think over-risen bread dough cascading from a bowl or over-primed homebrew exploding in the bottle.
That said, after a decade of experience withfinicky Lactobacillus, Frost has it pretty dialed in, and every Wednesday three distributors arrive at the farm ready to truck Thirty Acre Farm products to stores all over New England, including Whole Foods.
Thirty Acre Farm also has a Shopify website where customers can order directly. One big seller online is their hot sauce sampler pack that contains four kinds of their novel lacto-fermented hot sauces. One pairs beets and hot peppers, and another uses cantaloupe as a foil to the heat. Online sales currently amount to about 5% of overall sales, but Frost and Price hope to grow the e-commerce side of the business. They recently hired a full-time marketing employee to focus on branding, storytelling and cultivating connections with customers — both wholesale and retail.
They also make appearances at events like MOFGA’s Common Ground Country Fair, the Maker’s Market at Thompson’s Point in Portland, the Boston Veg Food Fest and the Boston Fermentation Festival. “We’re trying to do more of that grassroots farmers’ markety stuff, and hopefully make people aware of the fact that they can get our stuff anytime at stores nearby,” says Frost.
Frost and Price tend to take on these events solo rather than together. Although the pair has the same mission — to run a successful business — they mostly see each other in passing. Price loading trays of plants from the seedling greenhouse, which is beside the processing barn in Bremen, and jumping in the truck to head to the fields. Frost unloading buckets full of shiny red, orange and yellow sweet and hot peppers.
Really though, their favorite place for a meeting of the minds takes place in the mouth of the Medomak River in one of their small boats. “In the summer we go fishing as much as possible, which is a good time to check in,” Price says. “Mostly it’s striped bass. Sometimes we’ll get lucky and go out a little deeper and try to get some cod or something like that.” Whatever they catch, when it’s time to dig into a fresh fillet, odds are there will be some tangy Lactobacillus-rich kraut or kimchi on the side.
About the author: Sonja Heyck-Merlin is a regular feature writer for The MOF&G. She and her family own and operate an organic farm in Charleston, Maine.
This article was originally published in the winter 2023-24 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.