Caitlin Elberson and her husband Jason run Sobremesa, a farm to ferment business specializing in kimchi and sauerkraut.
Based at their home, Wild Rhythms Farm in Marshfield, VT, they sell their ferments at farmers markets, farm stands, and through two wholesale accounts. With more demand than they can meet, Caitlin and Jason are expanding their production this year.
It didn’t start out this way, though. Born and raised in NYC, Caitlin never imagined she’d be a farmer and food producer.
If you’re wondering how to make your farm dreams a reality, you’ll love this interview.
And if you’re already in the midst of farming, listen in—Caitlin’s insights left me inspired and energized for a new season of farming.
Listen to the entire interview, or read the edited version below to find out how one NYC girl made her way from the city to running an organic farm and ferment business in Vermont.
*AND stay to the end for a chance to win a jar of Sobremesa’s Gateway Kimchi.*
From NYC to VT : Caitlin Elberson on Food, Farming, and Taking the Risk to Follow Your Dreams
K: Can you tell me the story behind Sobremesa’s name?
C: Sobremesa is a Spanish word and it refers to the time spent lingering around the table after a meal sharing food-induced conversations. It’s not a word that exists in English, but it’s something I think we can all relate to. Whenever we share that definition with people, they’re like, “Oh my goodness! There should be a word for this in English!”
K: When I read that on your website it totally struck my heart. In the CSA that we run, we don’t get to see the after dinner table conversations, but we do get to have conversations when people are getting their food.
I just love the connections that happen through conversations around food. It feels like an easy entry point for learning about someone. I love that that’s part of what you are out to create.
I also want to read everyone your mission statement, which really resonated with me:
Our mission is to nourish the body, mind and soul throughout the seasons. We hope that after you’re done eating, you’ll choose to sit with your loved ones for just a little bit longer, for a “sobremesa” and to savor the conversations and connections that happen after a satisfying meal.
I’d love to hear you talk more about the interplay between land, food and relationships, and why those three things together are important.
C: We can start with the land. When the land is healthy and the soil is healthy, the farm is a living organism, and the food grown in that soil is healthy. This land that we’re stewarding is the the foundation of a healthy community and society. So if we’re eating this food and we’re taking mealtime as this special, sacred time, it’s this natural gathering point. Like you said, it’s such an easy way to connect with people, talking over food.
We’re paying attention to how food is grown, we’re getting together and savoring that time to really connect over it.
It’s such a busy time culturally right now, and we’re always rushing from thing to thing, but if we can sit down at meal time and make that our time to be present, and just be lingering to connect with each other—it’s just such a wonderful, natural way to do that.
We’re also tapped in electronically all the time, but to be face to face with someone and connect is so valuable. It’s the foundation of how we’ll move forward right now—clinging on to those human connections.
So it’s really all tied together for us.
K: How did you grow up around food? Is the sense of lingering after dinner something that’s always been with you, or has it developed as you’ve grown?
C: My parents made a huge effort to make sure we always had dinner together every night. I would get home from school, my mom would get home from work, my father was the one who stayed home and cooked, and he had dinner together every night.
On the weekends we had every meal together, so it was clear from a young age that mealtime was this special time for us all to be together after we had been separate all day. We didn’t rush, we really talked. My father’s from the Dominican Republic, so that’s how the Spanish of “Sobremesa” came in, but it’s something we’ve always cared about.
I actually grew up in New York City, so we weren’t eating the farm fresh foods that we’re getting in Vermont, but we were always eating very nutritious, homemade meals, so it was definitely something that I learned the importance of at a young age.
K: How did you go from growing up in NYC to farming in VT?
C: It’s kind of an interesting story. I never thought I’d leave New York. I imagined myself working there at this age, being really into business, whatever I chose to go into. But when I was in college I took a number of environmental ethics classes. I went to school at Villanova in Pennsylvania, where I met Jason, and in these classes I started learning about all sorts of things in the food system that I had never considered.
Things like what slaughterhouse conditions were like, and learning about GMO crops, and all these issues that, even though I cared about food I just hadn’t ever thought of. The more I learned, the more I thought “oh my goodness, I’ve got to become a conscious eater. I can’t be part of this larger system that I really don’t believe in.”
So Jason and I started going to farmers markets locally. This was about 10 years ago. We became conscious shoppers, is how I like to think about it. But then it escalated and we became more and more passionate, and after a number of years, food grown in this conscious way became an underlying part of our value system.
We decided we wanted to be more involved in the growing, and be more connected and surrounded by people who cared about growing food responsibly and were passionate about it.
So that’s when we decided to move up to Vermont.
K: And before you came to VT, you and Jason were working in jobs that weren’t in the food system?
C: Yeah. Jason has a degree in mechanical engineering, so he did that for about 4 years. I worked at a Waldorf School, and I’m still very passionate about that form of education, and I did fundraising and admissions.
K: What was the thing that drew you to Vermont specifically?
C: I had a friend who was living here, and she encouraged us to visit.
We were curious about the possibility of shifting our lives, so we came during the winter NOFA conference. We went to the conference, and visited Sterling College and UVM’s Farmer Training Program. We felt like we were on the brink of change, but we weren’t quite sure how we were going to facilitate that.
You know, leaving jobs and the life you’ve built is pretty risky. But after visiting we said, “oh my goodness, this is the epicenter of what we’re interested in. If we want to learn more about growing food, if we want to meet people who are doing it really well, this is where we need to be.”
It felt pretty clear after that first trip that we were going to go for it.
K: I think at some point we all face the risk of “there’s something that’s pulling me in this direction, but I have to leave what feels more known or more comfortable.”
C: Totally. And it’s like, what’s the pay off of that risk? You know, it’s like you have the safety, the comfort of what you’ve known, but when you’re yearning for something deeper, it’s just that much more rewarding when you pursue it.
K: So you came to Vermont in 2014. Did you jump right into the Farmer Training Program at UVM?
C: Yes. It was an incredible transition for us. Like I said, we didn’t really have farming experience. Jason did spend one season interning on a biodynamic vegetable farm, which was actually a really large part of what was inspiring us. After he did that, we entered the program.
The program was so wonderful, because we met a lot of people who were farming in Vermont. We were exposed to so many different styles and approaches and scales all over the state. It also helped give us business skills—because we hadn’t gone to business school—that we’re now able to put into practice when running our own business.
K: Oh gosh, those business skills—same with us. We didn’t go to business school, and every year we’re learning more about the actual business side.
You and I first met through my old blog. Others may not know, I had more of a personal blog before I started The Good Heart Life, and you had reached out to me through email and it was one of the nicest emails I’ve ever gotten.
C: You were so gracious to respond!
K: Well thank you for reaching out, too. I want to read a little snippet of that email, and then ask you a question after that.
By the time you wrote that email you had finished the farmer training program and were working and living on a farm where you had a little plot of land where you could grow some food and were starting to do the fermenting.
You had written saying that by that point you knew you wanted to dedicate a lot more time and energy to Sobremesa, and you felt ready to do that. You went to that farm where you were living originally to get more experience with livestock, but you always knew that after a year you’d decide if you wanted to stay or move on.
By that point you said “we’re really ready to commit to working 100% to our dream. Our hope is that in a few years we will find land of our own to purchase on which to raise a family, farm and build a home.”
When I was writing out questions to ask you, I read that and was like, oh my gosh! You totally did this!
You wrote that in spring of 2014 and by the end of 2015 you had bought your land?
C: It was actually the end of 2014 that we ended up coming here. It happened really really fast.
K: That’s amazing. Can you take us back to when you knew that you wanted to devote yourself to the fermentation business, get your own place and really jump 100% into this next phase, but you were still in that hope phase? What were frustrations and challenges that you faced, and how did you keep moving to get to the point you are now?
C: We had been in Vermont for 2 seasons. One through the farmer training program and one year we were interning up on Stonypond Farm up in Fairfield. We kind of felt like “okay, we’ve been here for 2 years, we’ve met a lot of people, we know what we want to focus on.”
Jason and I had always known we wanted to run a business together, but hadn’t really known what we wanted to pursue. We really wanted to see what a lot of other Vermonters were doing before committing to one idea. There’s so many people doing good food projects here, but there’s not a lot of people to buy those things, so we wanted to make sure what we were doing was complementary to the food system.
After we landed on the idea of fermentation, we felt like, “okay, we made this big move to Vermont and now we have to go after what we came here for.”
So we just talked and talked and talked every day for hours about what we thought we needed in the land base, and how we were going to make all of this work. We started making a few batches of kimchi for sale at the farmers market, and we just felt like we were ready for it.
We were a little older, and we had already worked once we moved here. It didn’t feel like we had all the time to wait and see, so we were really aggressive in our housing search.
We looked all over the state. We tried to be really open. And we came across this little property in Marshfield that had a little house, 7 1/2 acres, and it had a really big barn. We saw a lot of potential in this space, because we have a commercial kitchen right on our property, which really was exactly what we were looking for.
We were really lucky that there weren’t really challenges in that it didn’t take us very long. On the other hand, finding a piece of property that quickly also can be difficult.
I’d say the main challenges were getting through that communication stage with your business partner and life partner, and just trying to figure out what it is that you really want. Just putting all your effort to being dialed in towards that was the focus at the time.
K: Edge and I are trying constantly to make sure we’re on the same page. It is a different relationship when your business partner and life partner is the same— I love that you brought that up.
And now you also have a little baby! How old is he?
C: He’s 4 months today, and it’s just flying! I knew it would go fast, but more than ever I’m being taught to be very present every single day.
K: Alongside making all the ferments, you also have lots of other stuff going on on your homestead. Can you tell us about the other ventures you’re doing?
C: We chose ferments to pursue as the business venture, but we also have a lot of other passions. We have a pretty big garden that we’re trying to double in size this year. It’s always a balance of taking on too much and still doing things well, so we do try to hold ourselves back. We’re finally expanding the garden and we grow lots of different veggies in there. We don’t have any hoop houses yet, so that’s a dream for the future.
And then we have a few Icelandic sheep. We’re super excited about them, because we bought our first ram in the fall, so we’re expecting lambs sometime soon! We don’t know when because we
bought the ram a week before my due date, so we didn’t keep very good track of what happened in the fall.
We have a bunch of birds, too. Jason really loves the birds. We have chickens, and we’ve also raised ducks, turkeys, and guineas. Those are all on a relatively small scale. We do sell some eggs at the market, but basically all of those things are personal ventures now, with an eye on whether or not they’d ever be business ventures.
K: That’s so smart. We started out the opposite, with sheep, chickens, turkeys and pigs all as business ventures, and we ended up as just a vegetable farm. We’ve finally gotten to a point where we’re ready to have chickens for ourselves again.
C: I think you and I have both taken the holistic management course, right? You took it the year before me, and I remember my class coming to your farm for a visit.
K: Yes! UVM used to offer Whole Farm Planning for Beginning Women Farmers, which is an amazing business class, and I’m not sure if they’re still offering it, I know it was through a grant, but for anyone listening it’s based on Holistic Management International. It’s offers a framework for creating a business and that supports your holistic goals for business and life.
C: Holistic management has been so helpful to us. Whenever we have a big decision to make or are just thinking about the future of our business, that helps guide us in asking questions like: is this really where we’d like to put our resources right now? Is this something that will bring us closer to our goals?
K: Are there things now that you are looking at and you want to develop more into your business, or even if it’s not something in your business, things that you want to grow more of?
C: First of all we’re growing our business over all. We found there’s a lot of demand for our product and the last few years we’ve had to say no to a number of accounts, which doesn’t feel good. This is the first year that we’re really putting a lot of effort into building this inventory. We make all of our kimchi and kraut in the fall and winter, so we have to make enough to last through next harvest season, which is quite a while.
As we grow our sheep flock, we talk about whether we could ever be a lamb sausage seller. That would pair so perfectly with kraut, so that’s a little dream for down the road. There’s lots of logistics to figure out, like whether or not a lamb is really a good size and structure to make sausage out of. So we’ll see how everything fits together.
K: That’s exciting. There’s so many things I want to talk to you about, but just to close for now: what is your advice for people who have a dream of starting a farm, but they’re not sure where to start? What would you say to your former self or to someone who’s there right now?
C: I think what’s always been helpful to us is really verbalizing what our dreams are. We’ve always been really open to saying “imagine if we could be on our own farm, spinning our own wool, and knitting our own sweaters one day.”
I remember after college making this list of life skills I hope to acquire, and it was things like: raise chickens, learn to sew, have my own sheep.
I really think there’s something to be said for letting these dreams be real, writing them down and talking about them. If you really want your life to be a certain way, this is your chance to pursue that.
It’s not always easy, but with a plan and with a really strong heart I think we can go after what we want. So for us, it’s really keeping those dreams alive. It’s the key to success, I guess you could say.
K: Yes, I love what you said. Especially the part about having a strong heart. We do a lot of visualizing, writing out our goals, talking about where we want to be.
For us, there are times we find we’re not quite there, or some things are in place, and other things we really need to keep working on. I think what you said is so true: having that vision and knowing where we want to go is the thing that keeps the momentum.
C: Definitely, it’s such an evolution. To realize that it’s not that we’re always reaching for this one goal, but what does that journey look like? Because that journey is our life. Enjoying the whole process is what we try to be optimistic about.
K: That’s so beautiful. Your little boy is so lucky to be growing up with you and Jason.
C: Actually, I didn’t even mention this, but I remember when we were living in Pennsylvania, we looked at each other, and we said is this the environment we want to raise our child in—and we didn’t have a child, you know this was 5, 6 years ago—and we said if it’s not, we better make a change now. So it’s something we were thinking years back, about what does life look like for us? We just feel so grateful to be right here, right now in this moment.
K: I have one last question: what is your favorite ferment that you make?
C: Oh my goodness. That’s so tough! I would have to say, probably our gateway kimchi, which is like our Vermonty kimchi. We use our neighbor’s ginger, and it goes with everything. It’s super fresh, it’s a tiny bit spicy. We love it with pork sausage, with breakfast, lunch and dinner. We always go back to that one.
K: It sounds so yummy! And you ship, don’t you?
C: We do, yeah, you can check out sobremesavt.com. We have a little farm store set up on the website.
K: Thank you so much, Caitlin!
C: Yeah, thanks, Kate, for having me.
OH I hope you loved this interview as much as I did! We have two more goodies for you:
We’re giving away a jar of Sobremesa’s Gateway Kimchi!
To enter, leave a comment below and let us know your favorite takeaway from this interview.
Mine is Caitlin’s reminder that it’s not just about reaching our goals, but also about enjoying the journey. As she said, “this journey is our life.”
*Contest will close on Sunday, 2/18 at 9:00 am EST. Winner will be picked by Random Number Generator and will be announced here by 12:00. One entry per person, please. Contest open to US residents only.
Sobremesa is also offering a 10% off sale on ferments over on their website for Valentine’s Day.
Use coupon code “SPREADLOVE.” Coupon will expire on Sunday, 2/18, 11:59 EST.