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Farmented Foods Helps You Get More Value From Your Imperfect Produce

Farmented Foods Co-Founders Vanessa Waltsen (left) and Vanessa Williamson (right)

Farmented Foods uses imperfect produce from local farmers to create sustainable, gut-healthy fermented food products sold direct-to-consumer and via retail. The company repurposes produce that might otherwise be discarded, giving it new life through fermentation. In 2022, Farmented Foods sold 3,645 jars of their products. They have developed or are in the process of developing retail relationships with Natural Grocers, Whole Foods, and Town & Country. among others. I sat down with Farmented Foods’ CEO and Co-Founder Vanessa Williamson to learn more about the company’s humble beginning, their production processes, their experience with the generator program, and more!

Q&A with CEO Vanesssa Williamson

Can you start by telling me about yourself and your company?

My name is Vanessa Williamson. I’m the CEO and co-founder of Farmented Foods. We lovingly refer to ourselves as an “ugly vegetable fermentation company,” and we create products like dill sauerkraut, radish kimchi, spicy carrots, and more. Essentially, what we do is pretty simple. We work with farmers to help eliminate unnecessary food loss on their farms in the form of the “ugly” or excess crops that they can’t traditionally sell. Then, we ferment them into our products and distribute them to stores and restaurants, as well as sell them at farmer’s markets and online. We have two fermentation locations. One is in Montana, where we started the company. My co-founder, whose name is also Vanessa, runs that space. That’s where we do the bulk of our production currently, and we distribute from there. We also opened up a second fermentation location here in Fargo about a year ago. We’re ramping up to build a production facility here, as well, to be able to distribute across the Midwest.

From what I’m hearing, you’ve had a little bit of success so far, especially in that Montana area market. How would the FargoMoorhead area and beyond be impacted, and how would the industry change, if your company were to be even more successful?

I was actually a student at Montana State University in Bozeman, MT, and so was my business partner. I was studying business and marketing, while she was a sustainable food system and bioenergy student. We both decided to take this interdisciplinary course called “Farm to Market.” The premise of the course was to use design thinking to create products and help solve problems for farmers. We were randomly paired up at the end of the semester—we hadn’t worked together yet.

We were partnered with a local farmer and tasked with creating a value-added product out of what he grew. After talking with him for just a few minutes, we realized we could actually help him solve a problem, which that year happened to be an overabundance of daikon radishes. He didn’t know what to do with them. They were just in cold storage. He had all this green cabbage that was slightly damaged—perfectly fine to eat, but just a little bruised, or maybe a pest took out a chunk. He had all these funky-looking carrots, too, and Vanessa was super interested in fermentation. She had done it personally. After researching the market around fermentation, we realized it was really on an upswing.

So, we decided to ferment all of these different vegetables, and that’s what made our original three products, radish kimchi, dill sauerkraut, and spicy carrot chips. When we presented it to the community for our final, we had such an overwhelmingly positive response—especially from the farmers. So many producers approached us afterwards saying that this is actually a real problem and they were facing it on their farm as well. We thought that this could actually be a solution, because fermentation not only adds a lot of health benefits for consumers, but it also extends the shelf life of the produce. We took about a year’s time, and then we started selling our first jars at a winter farmer’s market and grew from there.

From what I’m hearing, you’ve had a little bit of success so far, especially in that Montana area market. How would the FargoMoorhead area and beyond be impacted, and how would the industry change, if your company were to be even more successful?

A way that Farmented Foods is industry-changing is that on each of our products, we have an “ugly vegetable certified” badge that we’ve made and we have our story on there. It says we love vegetables, whatever shape or size they are. We’re really putting that at the forefront of our brand positioning. Because, yes, there could be other ways to use these vegetables. Yes, other companies could be using these. But we want to make it clear that these vegetables have value. Farmers shouldn’t have to sacrifice their profitability because a vegetable turned out a little twisted, when nutritionally it’s exactly the same. We’re really pushing that idea that we should be utilizing all of these vegetables, and we don’t want to be the only company utilizing them. We want other companies to embrace it.

As far as growing beyond Fargo, we recently became an approved brand for Natural Grocers. In the next four to five months we’ll be getting into as many of those stores as we can, which is really exciting. Getting to promote these local products that help local farmers on a national scale is really exciting for us.

Product-wise, I know you talked about cabbage, radishes, and carrots so far. What’s the vision for utilizing other sorts of vegetables? Do you have any plans for adding new fermented products into your lineup?

Yes, we definitely do. We create products seasonally. Every summer, we usually do a round of fermented salsa, because a lot of farmers have tomatoes at the end of the summer. Last year, we did some fermented jalapenos. We’ve done a fermented Bloody Mary mix. We experiment with different things. We do focus on more vegetableoriented crops.

Something that we’re experimenting a lot with right now is fermented sauces.

We have excess brines when we ferment certain products, and we don’t want to waste those, because they have really good microbial cultures that are great for your gut health and we want to make sure that those are consumed and not wasted. We’re testing out some different sauces with that to make sure that we’re not wasting any product.

What are some of the most difficult barriers you have faced so far in your business journey, and how have you overcome them?

Expanding. Just having a food company isn’t easy. You’re competing for people’s attention and their palette, really. So expanding into new stores when we’re not physically there to do demos can be challenging, along with the challenge of making sure that there’s the marketing and support in place for those stores in order for the products to be successful. That’s been an important thing for us.

We are also currently trying to figure out how we expand our operations and make it less labor-intensive and more efficient per gallon of product that we produce. Here in North Dakota, we’re still currently fermenting in 3-gallon crocs, and we do about 10 at a time. That’s 30 gallons every two weeks, and about 60 gallons per month. But in Montana, we ferment in 55-gallon barrels. Just one barrel is almost equivalent to what we produce in a month here, and we have four going at a time—along with some crocs—in Montana. In a month’s time, we’ll do roughly 2,500 gallons of product. Making that process more efficient is one of the challenges we’re facing right now. We’re taking it day by day, thinking of how we solve that and what equipment we can get to make that easier, along with who we can bring on and so forth.

I’m assuming that in Montana you have a larger facility that you work from?

We do, and we’re expanding it currently. It’s still a pretty small, confined space, but it is our own space. We’re looking to grow that as we grow as a company. Here in Fargo, we produce out of Square One Kitchen, which is a commercial kitchen here in town, and it’s a shared space. Eventually we’ll move into our own space as well.

I was going to ask about that, because it seems odd to do something like that at that scale at home. And you’re probably not allowed to if you’re selling it broadly like that.

Yes, we have to operate in a commercial kitchen.

Also, that much fermentation probably smells… not good.

Yeah, I wouldn’t want that in my house.

Me neither. Switching gears a little—how did you get involved in the gener8tor program?

Lindsay (gener8tor managing director) actually reached out and invited us to apply. We looked into it, and it seemed like a really great program, so we applied. We went through the multi-step interview process and were selected.

What has your experience been like in the program? What are some important lessons you’ve learned so far?

The experience has been amazing. It’s been a whirlwind. I can’t believe three months are already up. It feels like we just started. And yet, in that three month period of time, so much has happened for us. We’ve become an approved brand for Natural Grocers, we’ve expanded into more stores, and we’ve been able to really work on the business versus working on day-to-day operations. As like small business owners and startups, you can get so focused on dayto-day things and not take the time to look at the big picture. That’s been really awesome for us—to really take the time and figure out where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. We’ve been so fortunate to meet incredible mentors, from the community and beyond. I think we met with over 70 different mentors at the beginning of the program, which was a whirlwind in itself. We’ve gained some really strong connections from that. Having people push you to look at your company as a whole and where you want to go is so beneficial, as well as getting insight from other people. You can take what you want from everyone. It’s been amazing to be able to connect with the community in that way as well.

As a follow up to that, do you have any specific mentors that you want to give a shoutout to?

Kris Poulson. He’s just been a huge advocate for Farmented Foods. He has started, sold, and currently owns different agriculture-based businesses, and he’s been able to derive so much insight for us and has really been a champion for Farmented. We’re incredibly grateful.

It’s great to hear you’ve had such great support. One last question: is there anything that we missed or anything important that I should know about Farmented Foods?

Well, you can find us at the Red River Market. You can also find our products locally at the Luna Market in Brewhalla and at Swanson Health off of 45th Street near SCHEELS. If people want to try it, definitely go support those places that support us and come check out the Red River

Keep up with Farmented Foods
LinkedIn | /company/farmented-foods
Facebook | /farmented
Instagram | @farmentedfoods

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