Holland was mulling options for graduate school in the sciences when she started working at her boyfriend's fledgling pickle company. "I was pretty thrilled by the idea of working in a pickle factory – who gets to say they work in a pickle factory?"
Yet as she worked the assembly line over the next four years, one thing became clear: Climate change was impacting her work and world.
"We were trying to run a business with as little impact on the environment as possible," said Holland, who admits being skeptical at first that humans could influence something as big
as Earth's long-term climate cycles. "I first needed to gain a deeper, more personal understanding of Earth's climate and how it worked."
Passion and focus
In 2008, Holland entered a master's degree program in geosciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. But she came to the realization early on that she lacked the passion and focus that she saw in her advisor, Julie Brigham-Grette, a geosciences professor, to pursue a doctoral degree and an academic post in climate science.
"Research wasn't the only thing that motivated and inspired me and got me up in the morning," said Holland. There was the pickle company, and the "irresistible chance" it offered to make an immediate difference in her community.
Today that former boyfriend is her husband and Real Pickles co-owner, Dan Rosenberg. Their startup now grosses $600,000 a year. From the company's 6,500-square-foot warehouse, Holland, Rosenberg and 10 other employees pickle cucumbers, carrots, cabbage and beets with a natural fermentation process that leaves the final product raw, full of active cultures and enzymes.
They buy organic vegetables from farmers within 40 miles of the factory and distribute their pickles only to grocers in the Northeast. Both steps, Holland and Rosenberg believe, reduce the climate impact of food while helping to sustain vibrant, small-scale agriculture in New England.
"Real Pickles is hands-on success on a daily basis," Holland said. "We made a difference because we bought local cabbage today."
The company has the requisite green-business built-ins – roof-top solar, energy-efficient fixtures. But the business plan is counterintuitive: limit growth. The company sells to about 300 stores in nine Northeast states but won't ship outside the region.
And while Real Pickles is growing at 25 percent a year, Holland and Rosenberg don't want to be pressured to "sell out" to a larger company to sustain growth. So they are in the process of transitioning the business into a worker cooperative.
Climate benefits from the local-food approach remain unclear, said Michael Hamm, professor of sustainable agriculture at the University of Michigan. There's no conclusive or easy way to show that the carbon footprint of, say, a jar of locally picked and processed pickles is less than a mass-produced package shipped from several states over.
But a local approach does build resiliency into a food system facing an uncertain future, where climate change and population growth could strain land and water resources in today's agricultural hubs, he said.
Companies like Real Pickles support a diverse, regional food network that makes communities less dependent on distant agricultural centers, such as California. As the climate changes, he said, the benefits of the local approach will become clearer."Creating strong regional food systems increases options for an uncertain future," said Hamm.
Not done with science
Holland still has much work to do in science. She's writing up her Arctic research for publication in a scientific journal. And her job at the Climate Science Center, she says, is to make conversations about climate change feel more like conversations about pickles.