Thursday, January 20, 2011

Trying to Re-Inaugurate Tempeh into Sandhill's Life

There's a guy I know named Ron Morris who grew up in Gorin, a wide spot in the road just one town up the line along the Santa Fe Railroad tracks from Rutledge. I first met Ron right after moving to Scotland County, about 35 years ago. He's a songwriter, guitar player, and general odd duck (he has a killer recipe for habañero wine that he's trying to market to a commercial winery—how odd is that?). In one of our first conversations, he looked us in the eye and said, with great solemnity, "You know, tornadoes are real to me." How do you respond to that? For decades afterwards, he was referred to in the community as Real-to-Me-Ron.

For years, he drove around in this tricked out Subaru he styled the Tricentennial Express
(after his Bicentennial Bus blew a head gasket back in '76) which was uniquely styled with portions of the US Constitution hand-painted along the sides. Ron has always been a little different.

The reason Ron popped into my head is that I'm making tempeh today. In one of his songs about cultural commentary, he wrote the refrain, "a bean, a bean, a human bean" and I always found that kinda cute (being the word play connoisseur that I am). Since tempeh is essentially a cultured bean product for humans, it wasn't hard to connect the dots.

• • •
Today is the first time I've attempted a batch of tempeh since last summer, and it's an experiment to see if we can revive what had once been a thriving minor industry for Sandhill. The August batch yielded a promising 90% salable pieces and that encouraged me to attempt a more rigorous trial this winter (ostensibly when I have more time). Today is the start of that trial.

Our tempeh adventures began about 25 years ago when Craig Green (currently living at Shannon Farm) lived with us for a time and brought the idea (and the incubator) with him from California. Though Craig didn't stay with us long, the tempeh business did.

Over the years we gradually built it up from something we did occasionally for ourselves (to augment the non-meat protein options in our diet), into a steady business with $8000 in annual sales. We had no problem marketing all of our tempeh regionally as frozen 8-oz pieces, where our hand-crafted product would out-compete the industrial competition from Lightlife (Greenfield MA) and White Wave (Broomfield CO).

We had worked our way up to a regular routine of cranking out two batches of about 70 pieces each per week. If pressed, we could do three. While every piece wasn't salable, most were. It was a great example of applying the value-added principle to food production. Instead of selling soybeans—where an acre of 30 bushels of organic soybeans might gross $450, after turning it into tempeh those same 30 bushels would blossom into $9000. Of course, there was a lot of labor devoted to tempeh making, so this was not a get-rich-quick operation. Still, we were in control of the price of the finished product (which is not the case when you sell raw products) and we could produce the same dollars on one acre that a traditional farmer needed 20 acres to generate—which translates into needing less land to make a living from agriculture.

After two decades of steady market development, we hit a major glitch about three years ago, when an unknown contaminant started disrupting the quality of our finished product. Though we wracked our brains, tested our soybeans,
changed our inoculant, consulted with William Shurtleff (author of The Book of Tempeh), and bleached & cleaned all of our equipment within an inch of its life, nothing solved the problem. We began to suspect that there was an air-borne yeast that was infecting every batch, interrupting the mold pattern enough to render most pieces unsalable. In frustration, we suspended operations two years ago.

Now, after that respite, I'm trying a few batches to see if things are better. Maybe that which mysteriously appeared, will have mysteriously departed. The worst we are out is two gallons of soybeans, and a day's worth of my time.
• • •
As a closing aside, I note that today is hump day for President Obama. That is, he's completed exactly as many days in office as there are remaining in his current term. Do you reckon he's tired of drinking from the fire hose yet?

Whenever I think about having too many balls in the air (which is something I pause to reflect on every so often), I take solace from the knowledge that there are some—Obama being an excellent example—who have it much harder than I do. It's a challenge to understand why anyone would seek out that pressure and that pace.

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