Top Story, Oct. 15, 2014
From IT to fermentation, Brukhman pursues passion
By RICHARD SKELLY
EAST BRUNSWICK — After years of working in the information technology field, Vitaly Brukhman was able to purchase a century-old farmhouse and adjoining several acres of property in a designated rural zone.
Brukhman said he decided about four years ago he’d had enough of working with computers and networks all day long, huddled over a desk in a cube and chose to pursue his real passions.
He had long been interested in cooking, organic farming and natural fermentation.
And after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer, Brukhman realized life can be short, so for the last three years, he’s been working six and seven days a week to get Bubbly Jen’s Farm, named for his daughter, up and running.
“It came to a point where I realized, I’m living in a beautiful area of New Jersey, I’m living in a farmhouse. I had always enjoyed cooking. I started looking into where ingredients for my cooking came from, and the more I looked into it, the more I was drawn to the idea of organic farming, growing the food and cooking the food myself,” Brukhman said on a tour of his several-acre backyard farm and his kitchen.
Brukhman, who was raised in Moldova, a landlocked region of Russia near Ukraine and Romania, plans to concentrate on fruits and fermented vegetables, and he said he’s already perfected his naturally fermented pickles using no vinegar.
There are jars of other vegetables sitting on his dining room table, including one filled with ripened red tomatoes.
“Usually in the U.S., we ferment green tomatoes, but in Europe, people ferment red, ripened tomatoes, and I’ve developed contacts with Japanese-American folks here to learn more about growing mushrooms. My focus is on naturally fermented food and drinks with a deep interest in Eastern European and Japanese cultures,” he said, offering up samples of naturally fermented salsa, hummus and various juices, like stinging nettle ale and fresh kombucha. The end result of drinking kombucha and stinging nettle ale is stronger digestion, better energy and a boosted immune system.
An early part of getting the operation going was putting up deer fencing around the property.
“This is all a work in progress here in the backyard,” he cautioned as he entered his specially composted vegetable garden, which included four blueberry bushes as well as tomatoes and herbs.
Brukhman has various fermentation projects going on outdoors, including growing mameko mushrooms on decaying cherry wood, which he says is popular in Japan and Russia.
“I started out small with everything. This was my first growing season and last season was the beginning of my experiments,” he said, noting his main cost to retrofit his backyard into a farm involved the deer fencing.
“I’m an IT professional, used to typing up things, working with computers, it’s really quickly done. I knew what I needed to do with the fencing but I was surprised how much time it takes to put up the fence, and I had nice friends who helped me put up the fence,” he said crediting the students at Ziran Martial Arts on Raritan Avenue in Highland Park with helping him with putting deer fencing around his various gardens. Over winter, he’ll be working with cold frames, growing various herbs, vegetables and working further with mushrooms.
He’s only been at it for three years, but clearly, Brukhman is confident he can eventually find niche markets for his products.
“Each year now I’ve learned a bit more about growing things naturally and fermentation processes,” he said sampling some of his stinging nettle ale, a healthy elixir. “An interesting part of working with this stuff is you realize, it’s all alive, it’s not production. You cannot control every little variable, it reacts to temperature outside and it reacts to air and the end result is sometimes unpredictable.”
Brukhman said his dreams of growing and selling his own products began to take shape after he attended a conference on the subject in Massachusetts in 2012.
Then came a lot of research, different experiments and consultation with fermentation expert and author, Sandor Ellix Katz.
“He rediscovered for the general public how fermentation could be done in the modern age,” he said of Katz. For a few dozen years we’ve forgotten what humanity has done for thousands of years. Humans have been fermenting their food for thousands of years. It not only preserves the food, it also delivers beneficial bacteria that we actually need.
“Thanks to the Internet and all this work, I’ve been able to pack decades of learning into two years.”
Brukhman also gave a nod to his farming neighbor, Giamarese Farm and Orchards for setting an example of operating a successful farm. “That farm down the street is something to look up to, a successful farm and how they have run operations at their store,” he said.
While Brukhman said he doesn’t have the ability to sell his prototype products just yet, he is working with the state to find a certified kitchen he can use for commercial production.
“I am not allowed to sell these things but I can offer them to people,” he said, noting his various drinks and foods have been a hit with neighbors and friends, students at the martial arts studio where his wife works and at his synagogue in Montgomery Township.
By next spring, he hopes to be selling some of his organic produce at farmers’ markets, or perhaps a small stand in front of his property.
Three to four years from now, Brukhman said he expects Bubbly Jen’s Farm to offer a range of products including teas, kombucha ginger ale, pickled tomatoes, salsa, pickles, mushrooms and sauerkraut among other things, with vegetable spreads and various fruit jams down the line.
“I also envision us offering services to help people interested in fermentation to set up little production gardens.”