The Organic Bounty of Angelica’s Garden in Elmwood, WI
Nestled in a bucolic, quiet landscape of rolling corn fields and stately barns, Angelica’s Garden seems like just another cozy, sweet farm house with a huge stack of wood for the stove inside, a trio of furry Highland cows, and a couple of dogs who pretend to be tough but turn into fast friends when you lean down to pet them. The farm is just one of several organic vegetable growers within driving distance of the Twin Cities, but farmer Angelica Hollstadt stands apart by making some of the most kickass kimchi, sauerkraut, and pickled beets in the Upper Midwest, maybe even on the planet.
If that sounds like hyperbole, you probably haven’t tried any yet. Hollstadt laughs affectionately as she describes some of her slightly obsessed, addicted customers, like the trucker who believes the kimchi keeps his cancer in remission, or the co-op shoppers who strip the shelves of her sauerkraut. Hollstadt herself has become zealous about drinking the kimchi juice that comes as a by-product of her production. She sets a large jar of it on her kitchen table, and the liquid’s reddish tint and murky consistency make it seem like a strange, wicked brew that could cure just about anything.
“Maybe this will be my next product, who knows?” she says, opening the jar so its pungent, fermented aroma can be fully appreciated. “Would people really drink kimchi juice? Personally, I think they should.”
Hollstadt wasn’t always such a fierce advocate of the fermented life, but she did feel a pull to live off the land. In 1996, she began renting farmland near Stillwater while she lived in St. Paul with her future husband, Mike. She grew vegetables that could be made into two initial products, pizza and zucchini relish. As the operation grew, she and Mike eventually settled in Elmwood, WI on a 44-acre spread. Her husband works on the farm part-time when he’s not doing construction, but it’s mainly a one-woman, one-dream type of operation.
Although Hollstadt worked at some community supported agriculture (CSA) farms, she didn’t feel that the set-up was quite right for how she wanted to farm. “It’s a different mindset, in my opinion,” she says. “With a CSA, you have to work pretty hard at pleasing customers and interacting with them through events like ‘field days’ when they come to the farm. That’s great if that’s the kind of person you are, but we’re somewhat reserved and it just didn’t feel like a good fit. So, I began thinking about providing something for customers in another way.”
She noticed that as CSAs were booming, farm-made products like salsas, relish, and other canned goods were scarce in the marketplace. Called “value-added products” in farmer parlance, these types of items are sometimes part of a farm’s strategy, but rarely its sole focus. Hollstadt felt that by whipping up some goods based on her mother’s recipes, she could provide locally made, organic, wholesome foods that fell in line with her larger philosophies about health and wellness.
“Food really does matter,” she says. “The longer I do this, the more I see that eating in a healthy way is so integral to everything. It’s about finding food that sustains us, that nourishes us, and that’s what drives me to make what I make.”
Fermented foods, she points out, have health benefits galore, thanks to their mix of good bacteria and enzymes. They can help reduce high cholesterol levels, boost immunity, and create a stellar digestive system. The sharp tastes of kimchi and sauerkraut may not be for everyone, but those who love them will certainly appreciate the freshness of Hollstadt’s offerings. She’s meticulous about using only organic ingredients, getting the products from field to store in a timely manner, and chucking out whole batches if they don’t meet her approval. Just a few weeks ago, she rejected nearly 1,000 pounds of sauerkraut because she felt the batches were too mushy (the farm’s pigs, cattle, and chickens didn’t complain, though, since they love to eat the stuff).
“People will occasionally tell me my stuff is too expensive, and I’ll just shake my head,” she says. “This is an art form, not a production line.”
In her diminutive commercial kitchen in the farmhouse’s basement, Hollstadt makes the kimchi and sauerkraut in large crocks that still retain a slight vinegar smell even after she’s scrubbed them. Garlic from her land is heaped to one side and a huge bag of ginger has to be shuffled aside so she can reach another best-selling product, pickled beets. Hollstadt also makes a distinctive blend of cabbage and ginger that’s popular at the co-ops that feature her items, and she’s continually thinking of potential new products.
Don’t look for that kimchi juice in the near future, but next summer, customers may find her Angelica’s Garden line expanded with fridge pickles, new combinations of fermented vegetables, and, most likely, plenty of cabbage options.
“The focus will continue to be on what’s best for my health, but also what’s fun to make,” she says, joking that she has no problem plunging her hands into crocks full of pungent, fermenting vegetables and smelling of garlic and onions most days. “Everything here is part of my wellness program.”