- Associated Press - Sunday, December 13, 2015

ROSLYN, S.D. (AP) - Strong traditions can hamper livelihood.

Lawrence Diggs, the “Vinegar Man” from Roslyn, has been spreading his knowledge of vinegar processing the world over - from Kazakhstan to The Philippines.

His most recent trip, which happened last month, was his second journey to Lebanon. The purpose was to help farmers whose age-old process of making vinegar didn’t meet modern regulation standards. With the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East, there are openings in the vinegar market that previous suppliers can’t meet.

“The problem was, with the Syrian debacle, suddenly there was this market to export, but then their stuff was getting rejected because it wasn’t meeting quality specifications,” Diggs said. “So they approached a farmer-to-farmer program. They called around to vinegar places, and everyone kept saying to call me.”

The Aberdeen American News (https://bit.ly/1NXZUou ) reports the farmer-to-farmer program that helped coordinate Diggs’ trips is through the International Development Division of Land O’Lakes Inc. The division is funded primarily by the U.S. Agency for International Development and U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to the Land O’Lakes website.

In Lebanon, the method for making vinegar has been handed down through generations, which means little has changed. The reasons for each step have been lost as time has advanced, Diggs said. The current generation of processors lacks the fundamental basics to be able to make improvements on their own so that the vinegar can pass inspection.

“They have some people who have been making vinegar through millennia and had been making it the same way. It points to the problem of doing things by tradition,” Diggs said. “They only know one way, their parents’ way, and when things need to change, they get lost.”

The people Diggs met work on a small scale. He said that because of the turmoil in the area, it’s not worth the risk to build a big vinegar plant that could just get bombed.

The Lebanese people process vinegar as individuals or in cooperatives and collectives. Some are small manufacturers, who buy unmarketable whole fruits that they then process into vinegar. There are a variety of issues in their processes that are problematic, ranging from not using food-grade containers to having no way to test the vinegar on their own.

During his first visit last year, Diggs met with people one on one, but there just wasn’t enough time to help them turn things around. In October, he lined up workshops and plant visits. He then established a connection between the farmers and American University of Beirut.

“This time, it got more comprehensive,” Diggs said. “I told them, ‘You can keep bringing me over here, but you need to get your people to learn these things, so let’s get a university involved.’ They have a food science department (at American University), so I talked with them and developed some relationships. We started to look at where we could test and how farmers could benefit with the research at the facility. We are creating a model of how the farmers can interact with the university.”

Diggs feels fortunate to be able to break down some barriers. The farmers had been reluctant to seek out local, specialized help. They were too intimidated to talk with scientists on how to improve their processes.

“When scientists talk, the farmer may feel like (he or she is) stupid,” Diggs said. “We are creating a model where we can avoid some of that - create an interface between the university and the farmers. They need cultures, coaching and they need some tests that the farmers aren’t able to do.”

Exportation was the original goal for the farmers in Lebanon, but Diggs noticed that their own region has a strong vinegar demand. He also broadened their knowledge on how vinegar can be used outside culinary endeavors.

“They started out wanting to export, but hadn’t opened their own domestic market yet. You look in the marketplace and vinegar is coming in from other places. We need to provide for our local market,” Diggs said. “They have a vinegar-centric cuisine, but they didn’t know there were other uses. Now we talked about those uses - medicinal and cleaning.”

Vinegar in the area is made from unmarketable whole fruits like apples and grapes that would normally go to waste. Using that leftover fruit helps cut losses. An even further-reaching benefit is being able to supply the area with a way to affordably preserve food supplies.

“For the individual farmer, it offers them a return on an investment which basically now is garbage. They can get some return on those apples that would’ve otherwise been lost,” Diggs said. “Regionally, it provides a critical component to their food source. It provides a critical role in the low-tech processing of food. It could play some part in stabilization of the area, because stabilization of food is critical to stabilization of a culture.

“If you are always, as a culture, searching for food, you don’t have time to reflect on a deeper meaning of life or improve the infrastructure of the relationships. Food is your preoccupation,” Diggs said. “Any society we know of as a great society, they all use copious amounts of vinegar.”


Information from: Aberdeen American News, https://www.aberdeennews.com

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