Blog #25 – Sauerkraut + Information-based Agriculture

Cabbage is really good for you, but naturally fermented sauerkraut is even better. According to a new Finnish study, published in The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, “we are finding that fermented cabbage could be healthier than raw or cooked cabbage especially for fighting cancer.”

Sauerkraut is the German name. The French call it choucroute. It probably came to Europe from China via the nomadic Tartars, on one of their rampages through Europe. It’s the Germans who settled in Pennsylvania who brought it to the United States, earning the nickname “Sauerkraut Yankees.”

The fermentation isn’t the work of a single microorganism. As Sandor Katz puts it in his fabulous book Wild Fermentation, “sauerkraut, like most fermentation processes, involves a succession of several different microbial species, not unlike the life of a forest, in which a series of different trees follow each other as the dominant species, each altering conditions to favor the next.”

Ingredients for sauerkraut

  • 5 pounds of cabbage
  • 3 tablespoons salt
  • (Optional additions)
  • Grated carrots, onions, garlic, seaweed, greens, Brussels sprouts, apples (a classic) and seasonings such as caraway seeds, dill seeds, celery seeds, juniper berries (another classic).

Preparation of sauerkraut

  • Grate, chop or slice the cabbage. I like to use a kitchen tool called a mandolin. You can adjust the blade to any thickness you like, and it makes an easy job of the slicing.
  • As you go along, put the sliced cabbage into a large bowl and sprinkle with a little of the salt. Keep adding cabbage and salt until they are both used up. Mix it up a bit to get the salt evenly distributed.
  • Pack the salted cabbage into a 1 gallon glass jar or pottery crock. Packet down tightly with your fist layer by layer. Put a plate or some other flat object on top of the cabbage. Add some kind of a clean weight. I use a smaller jar filled with clay pellets that I use for making pie crusts.
  • Press down on the weight. Salty cabbage water will rise above the top of the cabbage.
  • For the first day or so continue to press down on the weight every few hours if you think about it. The cabbage water level will continue to rise and the cabbage will become more compact.
  • Try it for the first time in about four days. It will be very crisp and probably a little salty. Keep trying it daily after that. At some point it will peak and the cabbage will begin to soften. My last batch went almost three weeks before that happened.  It all depends on the temperature in your kitchen.
  • When the cabbage achieves the texture and flavor you like, move it to the refrigerator to slow down the fermentation process.

You’ll be amazed at how easy this is and how delicious.  And the price savings over prepared sauerkraut are enormous. Sauerkraut has become a favorite snack of mine.

Blog Rant

“I have seen the future and it works,” Lincoln Steffens famously wrote when he returned from Russia after the Communist revolution in 1917. Steffens was an astute journalist, and his words remind me that predicting the future of social movements can be a hazardous undertaking. However, I do believe that at the Polyface Farm ( at the southern end of the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, I have seen a future for agriculture that could, in fact, create a revolution by providing a way to feed the world’s people and challenge the multinational corporations over their control of our food supply.

That is a huge statement and many would say absurd. It is common wisdom even among members of the local food movement, that the only way to feed the vast masses of the world’s people is with commercial, industrial agriculture and it’s dependence on chemicals and petroleum.  We doubt the alternative, in part, because we imagine that today’s organic farms are like the family farms of the past, “the farms of grandpa and grandma” Joel Salatin calls them.  Joel is now farming his father’s land at Polyface Farm and he calls his method  “information-based agriculture.” New space age technologies and the access to new information make modern, small farms viable.

Polyface Farm is five times more productive per acre than neighboring farms in Augusta County. The farm’s strategy to achieve this astounding productivity gain without chemicals is based on watching nature and replicating, as closely as possible, nature’s dynamics.  For example, East Coast forests were relatively open when the first Europeans arrived in the 17th century. Native Americans kept them free of undergrowth and brush with controlled fires.  Roaming herds of herbivores did the rest. Today our East Coast forests are dense and almost impenetrable, useless really.

Polyface Farm can’t use controlled fires nor manage herbs of herbivores, but their pigs do much the same job by rooting through the forest undergrowth and digging up the low brush. The rich diet of nuts and other goodies available on the forest floor vastly reduces the farm’s need to provide pig feed and improves the taste of the meat.  In the process, the forest floor is cleared and the native hardwoods flourish, to be harvested by Joel’s grandchildren, he pointed out.

Joel calls this “stacking.”  Use the land for more than one purpose, and constantly improve it by doing so. Dan Solberg runs the kitchen garden and cooks for the 25 people living on the farm this summer. He has a limited amount of time to garden and he uses the principle of “stacking” to make his job easier. In the asparagus bed he has laid down a deep mulch with the top layer of wood chips and introduced mycelium  (mushroom roots) into the beds. Dan expects the mycelium to create a dense web which will keep weed growth down and provide a crop of mushrooms at the same time.  If it works, he’ll spread the idea to other crops..

Polyface Farm uses animals to manage its fields as well as provide meat.  Mimicking the effects of migrating herbivores who used to roam our land, the farm uses pigs to root up the soil and start a process of soil regeneration.  The farm also uses birds to clean up after the cows.  As nature shows in herds across the world, herbivores and birds go together.  Birds do the clean up and are an essential part of a healthy animal cycle.  Here’s how it works on Polyface Farm.  In the spring the cows are moved on to the pastureland when the vegetation is at its most nutrient. After a day or so they’re moved to a new quarter acre of pasture. Chickens and turkeys are brought in behind them to peck through the cow pies and through the soil, eliminating a lot of parasites, spreading seeds, adding their own rich fertilizer and generally performing a good housekeeping job while getting fat. I can testify to the quality of the chickens.  They are delicious and have the plumpest breasts I have ever seen on a chicken.  The pasture is feeding the cows, feeding the chickens and being enriched at the same time.

Key to this strategy is high-tech space age technology: “computerized, dependable, 1-amp, 10,000 volt electric fence energizers; PTO powered manure spreaders; hoop houses with UV stabilized, laminated 15 year plastic; magnetically charged foliar sprays with biologically enhanced nutrients; PTO powered, hydraulically fed three point hitch mounted chippers that can handle an inch of wood per 10 hp; a real biomass accumulator,” Joel wrote in a recent issue of Acres Magazine.

Success depends on intervening at the right time. The farmer is not sitting in an air-conditioned tractor listening to music on his iPod as he rumbles for hour after hour through chemical cornfields. The farmer has to be an active participant in the natural processes going on around him, watching for what Joel calls the sweet point between extremes.

Today’s organic farming offers an exciting alternative to a corporate lifestyle. Keeping in touch with the land, experimenting with different approaches, looking for new equipment, researching new ideas, farming can offer young people a connection to the land that embraces technology and information.

Another advantage of the local, organic farm movement is that there is a place for young people in the farming cycle. I spent most of last Saturday at a field day at the Salatin farm. Every three years Joel opens his farm to the public. This year 1600 people showed up. I didn’t interview everyone, but from those I talked to and from the questions I heard, I would say that somewhere between half and two thirds of those attending were farmers or potential young farmers.   That’s not true in industrial farming where the average age of an American cattlemen is 70 and of an American farmer 50. The modern industrial farm works at such a close margin that it can only support one family. And the cost of entering the industrial farm system is enormous; cash for equipment, large amounts of land, as well as the pesticides and chemicals and GMO seeds needed to grow and sell crops in the commercial market.  Young farmers simply can’t afford it.  The Salatin model of farming is labor-intensive and cash light, so it’s ideal for young farmers starting out.

Joel argues that there is no reason why this method of farming cannot prosper in Kenya, Brazil, China or anywhere in the world.

The big problem is that in Joel’s system of farming most of the profit goes to the farmer. Think about it.  The huge agricultural conglomerates selling chemicals and genetically modified seeds become irrelevant. The huge feedlots and the giant slaughterhouses become unnecessary. The trucking and shipping of food long distances is greatly diminished.  Massive corporate involvement in our food chain becomes a thing of the past.  If this isn’t revolutionary, I don’t know what is.  It’s the beginning of a process to bring the farmer, the baker and candle-stick maker back into the community.

The corporations involved in our food chain will not give up easily.  Despite all the evidence of MRSA and other superbugs bred by heavy overuse of antibiotics, despite deterioration of the soil through chemical pesticides and fertilizers, despite pollution of our waterways and oceans and an explosion of obesity and diabetes rates, the academic and information establishment is in the hands of the corporations.  What do we hear about in the news?  An outbreak of salmonella at a bean sprout farm in Germany.  There is little government support for local farming and a lot of actual opposition in the form of ridiculous regulations for slaughter houses or inherently biased “scientific studies.”

Here’s one example example of the chemical scientist’s mind at work.  In a recent study government agricultural experts looked at the productivity of organic rice and chemically produced rice. Comparing the two rice paddies, they proved that more rice came out of the chemically altered environment. They did not count the tilapia, the ducks or rich biological diversity of the organic paddy, let alone factor in the cost of the chemicals.  Joel argues that it’s not how much or how fast you get a crop out of a field, it’s how much that field produces overall in the course of a year and talapia and ducks should be part of the equation.

The organic farming idea isn’t new.  In Joel Salatin’s compelling article, “Can We Feed the World? In Acres USA (a complementary issue handed out at field day) he provides a little history to the chemical revolution. By the end of the 19th century the world’s new virgin soil was pretty well used up, and farmers needed to find a way to increase productivity. Solutions fell into two camps. One camp viewed plants as configurations of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. These chemicals were heavily used during World War I as ammunition and they were also proven to dramatically increase crop yields.  They seemed miraculous.

The organic camp looked at the enormous complexity of biological systems.  They argued that successful farming needed to support and enhance natural systems.  Composting was the answer to soil degradation. The idea was sound, but as Joel writes,” it would be several decades before efficient chippers, hydraulic front end loaders, shredders, PTO driven manure spreaders, and compact four-wheel-drive tractors” would make composting practical.

Farmers began to embrace chemicals in the 30s and 40s when labor was scarce (young men fled to cities during the Great Depression and then were sent off to war).  Chemicals seemed to make a lot of sense. In the 1950s and accelerating in the 1960s and 70s an aggressive worldwide campaign pushed chemical farming into almost every community across the world.  In the process agricultural corporations became extremely powerful.

The productivity gains made by chemical farming have come at a huge cost, problems now outweigh benefits and productivity overall is down.  At the same time, the organic movement is making dramatic productivity gains.  It doesn’t take much imagination to see where the future lies, even if that same future seems inconceivable.

Marie Antoinette, the young princess on the eve of French revolution, is suppose to have said, when told that the poor didn’t have bread, “let them eat cake.”  It’s probably apocryphal, but it makes a point.  Rulers rarely see the truth around them before their world shifts beneath them.  We know our current agricultural model is obsolete.  Will it be oil at $150 a barrel that brings it down or the deepening crisis of health costs and environmental degradation?  Will it be grinding poverty for the masses?  Two of every ten Americans now get their daily pay from the US government, many of them from benefit programs about to run out.  When the system stops working for most people, what will be the alternative to local agriculture?    Meantime, with massive unemployment and the alternative of low paying, meaningless jobs, maybe a shift the local agriculture is already underway..

About Christopher Koch

Christopher Koch is a journalist and filmmaker who is now teaching at Montgomery Community College
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4 Responses to Blog #25 – Sauerkraut + Information-based Agriculture

  1. Tammi Jonas says:

    Great post – thanks for sharing this. 🙂 We visited Polyface last month (I posted an account on my blog too if you’re interested) and were delighted to see Salatin’s philosophies at work. His ‘stacking’ practices, based on principles well known to permaculture of course, were inspirational. As soon-to-be-farmers ourselves (free range pigs in Australia), we joined the flock of so many like us who want to contribute to healing our food systems to make them truly democratic, sustainable and delicious.

  2. Pingback: From field to supermarket, things are amiss » Tammi Tasting Terroir

  3. Galen says:

    My sauerkraut is on day five. Good texture but still a little salty. Does this mellow out after a bit? Also, before storing do you drain and rinse it? Just drain it?

    • Christopher Koch says:

      I don’t drain and rinse, but if it’s too salty I’d try that. I just started pickles. I’ll let you know.

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