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barbecue tempeh and sliced lemon fruit

We are a family business. To understand how much that means to us, you have to go back 50 years, to the time of bell-bottoms, flower children and Woodstock. Cynthia Winkler hitchhiked from San Francisco to The Farm, a several hundred person, several hundred acre experiment in communal living in the rolling hills of Tennessee south of Nashville.

Caring for the horses on the Farm, she met Albert Bates in 1972, they married in 1973, and that year Cynthia started working with fermented soy foods. Another Farm resident, Dr. Alexander Lyon, was a biochemist exploring vegan foods for weaning babies. With Dianne Darling, Laurie Sythe Praskin and Suzi Jenkins Viavant, Cynthia began making experimental batches of tempeh. By November 1974, she had built a tempeh incubator from an old refrigerator and was making 20- to 30 pound batches two or three times per week. By then the Farm had grown to more than 1000 residents, and, along with several hundred daily visitors, craved all the tempeh she could make. She decided to teach people to make it themselves, at home.

The Tempeh Lab began limited commercial sales of starter kits in 1975. Along with The Farm’s Soy Dairy, it became a part of Farm Foods, one of the Farm collective’s largest businesses. By 1976, Farm Foods tempeh starter was being sold by mail order all over the world. Albert and Cynthia composed and illustrated “Fermentation Funnies,” a flyer and cartoon strip describing how to make five pounds of tempeh and giving four recipes, including one for the world’s first Tempeh burger. At The Farm Flour Mill, Albert started packaging split, hulled soybeans for home tempeh kits and designing labels, including the logo you see on our masthead today. America’s first soy deli, set up in August 1976 at the Farm Foods storefront restaurant in San Rafael, California, featured Tempeh Burgers, Deep-fried Tempeh Cutlets, and Tempeh with Creamy Tofu Topping, the first tempeh selections ever sold in an American-style restaurant. Soon Tempeh Works in Massachusetts and Surata Soyfoods in Oregon were begun by people who learned the process at The Farm.

At that time, tempeh was Indonesia’s most popular soyfood, consuming 64 percent of the country’s soy. More than 40,000 small, family-run enterprises, with average production of about one ton per week, added $85.5 million to that country’s economy annually and employed 128,000 people. Tempeh was an important source of high-quality, low-cost protein and vitamins in diet of low-income families.

In 1977, Cynthia was invited to present her paper, “Utilization of Tempeh in North America,” at the World Symposium on Indigenous Fermented Foods in Bangkok. Recipes by Albert and Cynthia appeared in The Farm Vegetarian Cookbook, a classic of the period, and earned feature articles in Organic Gardening, Vegetarian Times, EastWest Journal, and Mother Earth News.

This led to a surge of orders for both starter and split soy beans. In less than 18 months, over 25,000 people requested starter to began making tempeh at home. The USDA extension service, which in 1959 had isolated the only pure commercial culture used in the West, forwarded all its requests to The Tempeh Lab. As The Book of Tempeh author William Shurtleff later wrote, “This early media coverage for tempeh was a veritable blitz for a largely unknown food.” In late 1976, during a two-week visit to the Bates home at The Farm, Shurtleff, a former Tassajara Zen Center chef, and his partner, Akiko Aoyagi, composed, with Albert and Cynthia, a 4-page pamphlet titled “What is Tempeh?” that the
Soy Information Center published in early 1977.

According to Shurtleff, by 1984 Farm Foods had acquired about 60 percent of the US tempeh starter market, Turtle Island 35 percent, and GEM Cultures 5 percent. The “tempeh burger,” introduced in 1975 by The Farm, began appearing in stores and restaurants in late 1980 and early 1981. Burgers came precooked and preseasoned, fried or non-fried, typically weighing 3 ounces and packed two to a vacuum pack. By early 1984, at least eight brands were available nationwide.

Just at the peak of their early success, The Farm communal society threw ownership of the Tempeh Lab into uncertainty. Farm Foods was spun off and sold to soon-to-be-defunct Barricini Loft Candy Company in New York, who wanted its soy ice cream recipe. To prevent the loss of their family business, in May 1984, Albert and Cynthia took a loan from Albert’s mother to buy the Tempeh Lab from Farm Foods. After paying off the loan, The Lab incorporated in 1989 and continues today as a third-generation family-owned business. Gretchen Bates, born on The Farm the year tempeh-making began, took over operation in 2017.

All of The Tempeh Lab’s ingredients are organic, non-GMO, wheat- and gluten-free, soy-free and suitable for a vegan diet.