Finding passion in a pickle jar
A climate scientist branches off the academic path and finds satisfaction - and opportunities to make a difference - running a pickle factory.
Mon, Nov 05, 2012 at 04:14 PM
Dan Rosenberg and Addie Rose Holland after accepting Real Pickles' 2nd Good Food Award in January 2012. (Real Pickles/Facebook)
By Lindsey Konkel for The Daily Climate
GREENFIELD, Mass. – Over the top of her computer screen, Addie Rose Holland eyes a stainless steel assembly line, where shredded pickled carrots get scooped from buckets and packed tightly into 15-ounce Mason jars.
Three years ago, Holland looked out on a vastly different view – the frozen surface of Siberia's Lake El'gygytgyn. She was there as a paleoclimatologist, probing lake sediment for clues on how past climate changes impacted the Arctic.
The research and panoramas were eye-opening. But the world of science ultimately proved too remote and abstract. Driven by a desire to spur change in her own backyard, Holland swapped her parka for a hairnet: She's incorporating her world of science into her world of pickles.
"We're not solving global warming by making pickles," said Holland, 33, who today co-owns Real Pickles, a Greenfield-based organic food company.
But her company can, she hopes, help nudge the corporate world toward a more sustainable, healthier, less energy-intensive model. "We're contributing to a global warming solution by helping to reorient our food system," she said.
Off the academic track
Holland isn't done with science. She holds a part-time position as interim program manager for the Interior Department's Northeast Climate Science Center, based at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she organizes a speaker series on climate impacts and solutions. The center provides tools and information to help land managers plan for and adapt to climate impacts.
While Holland's career path may be unique, her attempt to balance a life of research science with a desire for more concrete impact is not.
At virtually every stage in the geosciences, women drop out of the academic track faster than men. One 2008 study found that, while approximately 45 percent of all students in geoscience masters degree programs are female, the percentage drops to 34 percent in doctoral programs.
Subtle gender biases, grueling hours and a paucity of female role models play a role, according to Mary Anne Holmes, a mineralogist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and former president for the Association for Women Geoscientists. "These small, almost imperceptible hurdles add up," she said.
Holland didn't perceive a gender bias. What frustrated her, however, was how quickly chats about her research could go sour. Holland thrives on the positive vibes she gets as customers make the connections among her pickles, local farms and benefits to their community. Talks about the implications of climate change proved far more frustrating.
"Conversations about climate change often turn either to denial or guilt or depression," she said. "But pickle conversations are full of laughter and hope."
Those climate conversations, she added, are extremely important, and the challenge of connecting that information to the public is a big part of what keeps her in science. If she can get to climate through pickles, she said, the conversations are "invariably much lighter."
"But you can't always get to climate conversations through pickles." And the desire to bridge that gap is why her work communicating climate science remains a big part of her life.
Someone else's mess
Holland's path into science started at a Connecticut state prison where she used soil microbes to help clean up groundwater contamination from dry-cleaning solvents.
She took a job with a Connecticut-based engineering company, Fuss & O'Neill, that focused on cleaning up environmental messes created by industry. The work required a lot of soil and groundwater testing, which she enjoyed. But she found it hard always being the one showing up to clean someone else's mess. "The relationship with the client was always negative. I wanted my life to be full of positives," she said.
Holland was mulling options for graduate school in the sciences when she started working at her boyfriend's fledgling pickle company. "I was pretty thrilled by the idea of working in a pickle factory – who gets to say they work in a pickle factory?"
Yet as she worked the assembly line over the next four years, one thing became clear: Climate change was impacting her work and world.
"We were trying to run a business with as little impact on the environment as possible," said Holland, who admits being skeptical at first that humans could influence something as big as Earth's long-term climate cycles. "I first needed to gain a deeper, more personal understanding of Earth's climate and how it worked."
Passion and focus
In 2008, Holland entered a master's degree program in geosciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. But she came to the realization early on that she lacked the passion and focus that she saw in her advisor, Julie Brigham-Grette, a geosciences professor, to pursue a doctoral degree and an academic post in climate science.
"Research wasn't the only thing that motivated and inspired me and got me up in the morning," said Holland. There was the pickle company, and the "irresistible chance" it offered to make an immediate difference in her community.
Today that former boyfriend is her husband and Real Pickles co-owner, Dan Rosenberg. Their startup now grosses $600,000 a year. From the company's 6,500-square-foot warehouse, Holland, Rosenberg and 10 other employees pickle cucumbers, carrots, cabbage and beets with a natural fermentation process that leaves the final product raw, full of active cultures and enzymes.
They buy organic vegetables from farmers within 40 miles of the factory and distribute their pickles only to grocers in the Northeast. Both steps, Holland and Rosenberg believe, reduce the climate impact of food while helping to sustain vibrant, small-scale agriculture in New England.
"Real Pickles is hands-on success on a daily basis," Holland said. "We made a difference because we bought local cabbage today."
The company has the requisite green-business built-ins – roof-top solar, energy-efficient fixtures. But the business plan is counterintuitive: limit growth. The company sells to about 300 stores in nine Northeast states but won't ship outside the region.
And while Real Pickles is growing at 25 percent a year, Holland and Rosenberg don't want to be pressured to "sell out" to a larger company to sustain growth. So they are in the process of transitioning the business into a worker cooperative.
Climate benefits from the local-food approach remain unclear, said Michael Hamm, professor of sustainable agriculture at the University of Michigan. There's no conclusive or easy way to show that the carbon footprint of, say, a jar of locally picked and processed pickles is less than a mass-produced package shipped from several states over.
But a local approach does build resiliency into a food system facing an uncertain future, where climate change and population growth could strain land and water resources in today's agricultural hubs, he said.
Companies like Real Pickles support a diverse, regional food network that makes communities less dependent on distant agricultural centers, such as California. As the climate changes, he said, the benefits of the local approach will become clearer.
"Creating strong regional food systems increases options for an uncertain future," said Hamm.
Not done with science
Holland still has much work to do in science. She's writing up her Arctic research for publication in a scientific journal. And her job at the Climate Science Center, she says, is to make conversations about climate change feel more like conversations about pickles.
"It's a bit of a joke that I split my life between climate science and pickles," said Holland, as she closes her laptop on the label she has been creating for a new pickled product and prepares to spend the afternoon analyzing her Lake El'gygytgyn data.
"But more and more, the two parts of my life inform each other."
Lindsey Konkel, a Massachusetts-based freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to The Daily Climate's sister site Environmental Health News.