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Celebrating America's Farmers

To celebrate Farm Credit’s 100 years of service to rural communities and agriculture is to celebrate the food produced by America’s farmers. So when Farm Credit took its centennial fete to Capitol Hill, it held a farmers’ market to showcase some of the nonperishable food products that add a unique flavor to each of the states and regions it serves.

Just as they do at their local farmers’ markets, lawmakers and other guests learned about where their food comes from and heard stories of the men and women who produce it. Here’s the backstory to George Paul Vinegars, provided by the Johnson family of Cody, Nebraska, for the Farm Credit market.

George Johnson is a Sandhills rancher who began experimenting with winemaking from local wild grapes and other fruits. The grapes grown in the Sandhills have a distinct flavor that a family friend suggested would be ideal for balsamic vinegar.

Intrigued, the Johnson family began to explore traditional vinegar making. But with only a few traditional-style vinegaries operating in the United States, it was tough to find resources. Fortunately, Lawrence Diggs, author of Vinegar, operates his vinegar museum in neighboring South Dakota and was happy to share his knowledge. Ed Swanson, who grows grapes and produces wine at Cuthills Winery in Pierce, Nebraska, also has proven an invaluable resource.

All traditionally made vinegars start the same way – as a “really clean, dry wine, with no faults because any faults in the wine will carry through to the vinegar,” George said.

George and his daughter, Emily, make the family’s wines with Nebraska-grown grapes and fruits; many of them harvested by a neighbor whose wine business, Niobrara Valley Vineyards, began with help from the Johnsons. To this, they add their vinegar containing acetobacter cultures, developed over years to work with each of their wines. Over the next 18 months to six years, depending on the variety, the vinegar sits in open tanks, barrels and buckets, covered with cheesecloth, until the flavors reach the depth and quality that food writers and some of the region’s top chefs have come to expect from George Paul Vinegars.

The Johnsons bottle and sell seven varieties of gourmet vinegar. The balsamic that launched the idea for the family vinegary turned out to be the most elusive to produce. Every time George began the balsamic production process, he met the same inexplicable chemical reaction at week 3 – lots of bubbles and an odor much like fingernail polish remover. George dumped every batch, until he put one aside for later disposal. A year later, Emily came across it. When George heard his daughter’s scream, he thought she had injured herself. “No”, an excited Emily told her father, “you’ve got to taste this.”

The Johnsons decided that George had finally hit the right ratios, and Emily used George’s written notes to replicate a second batch. Again, at week three, the bubbles and foul odor formed. Finally, George said, the Johnsons realized the chemical reaction was a necessary part of the production process and they had been making balsamic vinegar all along. It takes up to six years to produce a single batch of their Emilia balsamic. Commercial vinegars, by comparison, are made in a matter of hours.

Scaling up an enterprise like George Paul Vinegars takes patience and perseverance. The vinegary also benefitted from programs and grants offered through the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Food Processing Center and the USDA. George says his vinegary is a testament to how progressive government policies can support the growth of agriculture, making it a fitting contribution to the Farm Credit Farmers’ Market in Washington, D.C.

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