Successful sales: so many hurdles, so little time

, osheas pork sandwich
Just yesterday, I received a request from a wholesale distributor, who was working with a foodservice contractor on proposal for a new account. The distributer, I’ll call him Mike, sent me this list, and asked what I could do to secure these products.

Angus Ground Beef

Ground Beef

The company also asked Mike to find medium, large and extra large eggs, and also liquid eggs, including “scramble mix,” scramble mix “breakfast blend,” and scramble mix “BNB.”

Two days ago, most food service contractors had no interest in local. Now, in Kentucky, the pressure is on and the food service contractors feel it. The University of Louisville and Berea College both serve local beef and some produce. Others are following suit. Everyone is stepping up their game.

So in hot pursuit of some RFP, a large contractor wants quotes for 3.2 ounce angus patties seasoned, unseasoned, homestyle or whatever. They want them now.

It can’t happen. Food service contractors cannot buy local food right now exactly the way they have historically bought food. Changing the system means changing the system, it doesn’t mean substituting the exact product from a local farmer as you can find on the open, industrial market.

Boneless, skinless chicken breast, my favorite love-to-hate product, is a case in point. Foster Farms frozen chicken breast is available from Costco retail for $2.50 per pound. At Marksbury Farm, BSCB is $4.70 a pound, if you buy by the case. We’ve seen in another post here a few reasons for that.

Marksbury pays its meatcutters almost twice what Perdue pays, something referred to as a “living wage.” Marksbury doesn’t have the efficiencies of the chicken factories (it could be more efficient), its chickens have constant access to grass and are not fed grain with arsenic in it (controls parasites, increases growth).

In Kentucky, great strides are made elsewhere. Jefferson County Public Schools orders locally-raised drumsticks. The University of Louisville, after 2 years of trying to serve local meat, has finally determined that buying a whole animal is the way to go. They now buy a beef a week.

Until yesterday, I hadn’t seen a request for ground beef patties with a list with precise weights and seasoning differences. But it is typical for food service contractors to order what they’re accustomed to, right off the Tyson list. Fine so far. But be willing to listen to the questions that will come. This isn’t about turning the fork lift down a different aisle in the refrigerated warehouse. It’s about asking farmers to grow more cattle in a way that keeps cattle, people and farmland healthy.

If you’re hired to solve the problem of building a local food system, like I am, you’re charged with finding the Middle Path. Does it have to be angus? Does it have to be 3.2 ounces? How many do you need? When? With what guarantees to the processor who may invest $200K in new machinary, or to the farmer who has invested in raising 200 new head of cattle?

Large-volume buyers, now under pressure to buy local food, will learn that they can’t snap their fingers today and have someone step up to the plate tomorrow. Meanwhile, farmers must learn that “local” carries connotations that consumers assume are included: standards of quality and consistency and, yes, price.

Turning this aircraft carrier takes time, it takes finding partners willing to work on the changes, willing to serve brisket instead of ribeye, willing to post a sign that says this is our farmer and we’re proud of him, willing to make an extra delivery or buy a machine that makes a 3.2 ounce patty.

Establishing a local food system requires people with stamina who can sit around a table and hash out the differences and learn to compromise. Laundry lists without communication won’t work.

The good news? In Kentucky, the communication is happening.

Posted in Barriers to buying local | 2 Comments

Feeding the world

Today, on a personal Facebook page, I received a message forwarded from Food Democracy Now. “We regret to inform you, but late last week Congress succeeded in passing Section 735, aka the Monsanto Protection Act . . . Once again, Monsanto and the biotech industry have used their lobbying power to undermine your basic rights.” The note came with a petition to sign against the provision.

It’s probably a good time to take a look at GMO, biotech, and other tools of industrial agriculture, which many, many people say are the only solution to feeding a world of 9 billion people. “Feeding the world” is a phrase that one hears often among groups of farmers, particularly conventional farmers. In Kentucky, farmers repeat this phrase with the conviction that the responsibility is all theirs.

It is a compelling argument, that American farmers wielding the latest, greatest agricultural biotechnology and farming “efficiently” with thousands of animals in huge barn factories will be the ones who will feed the great throngs expected by 2050. But it is a specious argument all the same.

First of all, American farmers aren’t feeding the world now and there are plenty of hungry people.

According to the FAO
, the world already produces more than 2700 calories per person, yet more than 1 billion people are starving. To rephrase: the world produces enough food; hungry people can’t access those calories because they can’t afford it, or because people prevent them from getting the food.

Dr. Daryll Ray pointed out in a 2011 “Policy Pennings” that because hungry people are often poor, “they cannot afford to import grain, and many of (them) cannot afford to buy it, especially at today’s prices. This situation is what economists call the lack of effective demand.” Ray also pointed out that the U.S. share of exported grains and soybeans has dropped more than 20% from the 1980s. Even if we have the technology to produce food, we are less relevant than ever as world feeders.

As for sustainable agriculture not providing enough food, there are a) countless studies that say it can and b) reminders by many that it’s going to need to.

Kentucky farmer Todd Clark absolutely believes that sustainable agriculture can feed a lot more people than it’s feeding now. Clark rents acreage to grow tobacco and hay, but on the 83 acres he owns (not all of it suitable for livestock), he is building his capacity to produce sustainably by adding layers of multiple species who use the same forage land. Clark is increasing the amount of food he produces and his income, and he believes all farmers in Kentucky and elsewhere can do the same.

Last year during pastured poultry season he produced about 10 cows and 750 broiler chickens per acre on his Fayette Co. farm. The number of cattle will increase to 11 or 12 per acre, he says, as the fertility of the soil improves with the grazing and manure production. “My place is greening up faster than my neighbors’,” he says, of the slow start to the 2013 spring, even though he applies no fertilizer.

Clark moves his cattle to new grazing space once a day, so moving the broilers wasn’t onerous. Last year he finished 75 beef cattle, taking them from 500-pound heifers to 1050 pounds on grass alone, saving a bundle on feed costs, and selling them to a Central Kentucky processing plant that sells grass-fed beef to Chipotle and Whole Foods; he raised 7500 broilers and kept 700 laying hens along with 42 ewes and their offspring. The effort yielded 100 pounds/acre of lamb (live weight), 400 pounds per chicken (finished), and 100 pounds of turkey (finished), in addition to eggs. “I am not maxed out,” he says.

In fact, if all goes well, this growing season Clark may grow 11,000 additional broiler chickens in order to provide Jefferson County Public Schools (in Louisville) with 40,000 servings of drumsticks and wing pieces. Even that will be maximum production for only half of the 30 weeks he could raise broilers on pasture. Adding sheep is also possible as he improves his fencing.

Clark has no doubt that the perennial grasses capturing solar energy in Kentucky could produce much more livestock than it does, and much more income to Kentucky farmers. “As I travel around” rural Kentucky, Clark says, “you see chicken tractors where you’ve never seen them before.” People are beginning to try this low-capital way of earning extra money, a technology that is easily transferable to poor farmers in any country.

Will raising multiple species on the same land feed 9 billion people in 2050? Clark thinks maybe it can, while at the same time reducing erosion and harmful nitrogen runoff, and improving the condition of topsoil. This sustainable system sounds like promising technology to me, offering young farmers a quick cash flow with layer and broiler flocks while building long-term income from slower growers, like pork, beef and lamb. Meanwhile, it replaces some of the fertility Kentucky has lost through years of plowing fencepost to fencepost. Sustainable, but still profitable.

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What “local” means

Mac Stone, chair of the National Organic Standards Board, spoke yesterday at the annual conference of the Organic Association of Kentucky, making a case for what “organic” means these days, that the consumer can trust the term even as it becomes difficult for the farmer to comply with the rules. But because there are rules, the term means something.

As a professional advocate for local food, I often find myself wondering if I’m deceiving my friends and community, extolling the virtues of eating food produced by farmers in Kentucky and leaving them to bring their own understanding to the definition of local.

Because I am paid with a portion of Kentucky’s Tobacco Master Settlement funds, I know exactly what local is — its food raised within the boundaries of Kentucky. I’m paid to promote Kentucky-grown and that’s what I do.

And many consumers understand that “local” is a fungible term based on where you are. Really local food in Louisville has to include produce from Southern Indiana. Schools in Bowling Green, in the south-central part of the state nearer Nashville than Louisville, should be able to buy from Tennessee farmers. Ashland is on the border of West Virginia. Northern Kentucky is bordered by Ohio.

But when I really begin to squirm is with the connotations of “local” — what the term means to most people. People choose to eat local food for a variety of reasons, not all of which are necessarily applicable at this moment in the transition.

“Freshness” is the first reason cited. Will Allen, the great genius composter at Growing Power in Milwaukee, often references the long travel time conventional produce endures to get to its final destination. Weeks on the road rob vegetables of whatever valuable compounds they had when they were picked, which are way less than something grown close to home which is picked closer to ripe and has less travel time factored in.

All true, but in Kentucky, and I suspect other fledgling local food economies, many — probably most — farmers don’t have adequate chill, holding and transport facilities. They may pick lettuce in the cool of the morning, but packing, loading and transporting it without the benefit of hydro-cooling and chilled air storage will result in a steep decline in both aesthetic and nutritional quality. They might chill watermelons at the farm, only to sell them in the heat of a farmers market — and changing temperatures is what causes the decline in watermelon texture. You end up with mush. (Watermelon held at ambient temperature won’t be mushy.)

There’s a litany of expectations about local: it has a lower carbon footprint; it was raised humanely, or, in the case of plants, responsibly, with fewer petro-chemical inputs; that local farmers take better care of their water sources; that they prevent erosion; that livestock is raised without antibiotics and added steroids always with access to grazing; that the food is fresher and better quality.

Unfortunately, none of those things is automatically true. Through county extension offices and traveling experts representing corporate products, farmers have been taught “best practices” that include using all sorts of petro-chemical herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers. Round-Up ready GMO seed is ubiquitous.

I am currently in a discussion with local cattle farmers from a rural county who are investigating selling beef in quantity to consumers. I’m thrilled. Kentucky has more beef than any other state east of the Mississippi and the collective beef industry has worked hard on its genetics and production methods so the beef quality is far superior to even 15 years ago. The group has no interest, however, in selling an antibiotic-free product. Most members are just flat against the idea, no discussion. One of the specialists argues that if a cow gets pink-eye, she needs an antibiotic. I certainly don’t disagree with that. (Mac Stone says it’s particularly rough for dairy farmers, because that dairy cow is still in the herd. With a beef cow, you tag her ear with a different color and sell her at the auction.)

I am hopeful that soon Kentucky might have a processing plant that handles cull animals to make affordable hamburger for school lunch programs, ground laid by the New England Beef-to-Insitution study. Will we be able to determine that those animals are antibiotic free? Not any time soon. Should we feed them to school kids anyway? Why not? They are eating beef now raised with antibiotics. And besides, the beef in food supply doesn’t (or shouldn’t) have residual antibiotics in the actual meat. The reason the Centers for Disease Control worries about antibiotics in cattle rearing is the legions of superbugs they leave in their wake.

Kentucky cattle growers need to differentiate their product somehow if they want the higher prices for the meat that local food at this point must command and that consumers are often willing to pay. In the current climate, when “local” carries a generally positive connotation, they might get a higher price for a while. But the minute another aggregation group comes along with “Local, antibiotic-free” meat, and charges the same for its beef, consumers will not only understand it has a greater value, they will also understand that “local” doesn’t mean what they thought it meant, and may become disillusioned in general. .

In any case, the road, as Wendell Berry reminds us, is long. Good work and results are not things that come instantly. Nor should they, says Berry. We must guard against the work being dismantled or dismissed because it doesn’t instantly meet a list of preconceived expectations. Still, I try to work as quickly as I can in order to move the food closer to consumer expectations before the muddy work of commerce makes it look as if some of us have exploited an ignorance built on trust.

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How cheap is that chicken?

perdue chickenOn February 4, Spartan Staffing, a company known “For Great Jobs in Manufacturing and Logistics,” posted that they were seeking 30 people to fill jobs at a chicken processing plant in Beaver Dam, Ky., population 3,409.

Job duties would include loading products onto a conveyor, lifting totes of chicken that weigh 50 pounds or more, and counting product. Candidates should be able to work 8 to 12-hour shifts, lift 35 to 75 pounds continuously, and be willing to work in a cold environment.

Starting salary is $9.36 an hour. $19,468.80 gross yearly pay.

Those 30 people will be well under the federal poverty line for a family of four. A worker’s salary could DOUBLE and taxpayers would still be on the hook for his children’s KCHIP health insurance. She can get a $3/hour raise and taxpayers still would pay for her family’s food. In addition, we will pay for the children’s preschool, lunch and breakfast at school, supplemental food for children under 6 and pregnant moms, and summer meals. The families will qualify for home energy assistance and home weatherization, in addition to Medicaid.

I can’t believe the community in Western Kentucky is thrilled to have a factory paying adult workers a mere $2 more per hour than a fast food clerk. Scores of people making $19,400 a year can hardly contribute to a thriving community.

It seems especially ironic to me that the 2010 company annual report states that

“in a country as rich in resources as
ours, no one should have to go hungry. That is why
Perdue partners with Feeding America (formerly known
as America’s Second Harvest) and its network of
community food banks and pantries to ensure the safe
and effective distribution of our product donations. We
are committed to making a minimum annual donation to
Feeding America of one million pounds or $1 million
worth of food.”

My guess is those donations are all dark meat that are clogging up the Perdue supply lines anyway. And the 30 workers that will fill the jobs with Spartan will no doubt be eligible to receive some of those leg quarters.

So before we dash to Costco to buy boneless, skinless chicken breast for $1.99 per pound, let’s consider the real cost of cheap food, and think about where we want to spend our money.

While I don’t begrudge paying taxes to support my neighbors in need, I feel a little less enthusiastic about buying “cheap chicken” from a company that leaves me supporting at least 30 employees’ families and allows Jim Perdue to purchase vacation homes. The 2010 Perdue annual report revealed the company had $4.76 billion in sales.

Instead, I will buy chicken that is raised on Kentucky pasture, not on a factory farm. It will cost more to process in a small plant than in a factory where people are paid poverty wages. But my chicken will have less fat and more flavor than that factory chicken. So there’s a bone. As far as I’m concerned, eating around a bone just slows me down. I’ll eat less. It’s all good.

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Large volume users create a robust food system

I recently came across one of the most sophisticated regional planning documentsI have ever seen, assembled by dozens of experts, depending on scores of stakeholders, and designed to reach far into greater Chicagoland’s future. I was delighted to see that it had a substantial section on local food systems. Louisville has set the bar pretty high when it comes to establishing local food systems in this country; finding CMAPs plan gave me hope that I could compare notes with someone.

The report noted that “Illinois residents spend $48 billion annually on food, nearly all of which (an estimated $46 billion) leaves our state. Purchasing food that is grown locally can keep much of that money in the region. Based on estimates from other regions, a 20-percent increase in local food production and purchasing could generate approximately $2.5 billion in economic activity within the region, according to GO TO 2040.”

There’s a beautiful graphic on the website showing the relationship between production, processing, access, consumption and waste reduction.

But drill down a layer and you’ll find why I, at least, think the local food movement is not moving forward the way it should. CMAP’s explanation of access, for instance, is “The point at which people purchase their food at places like farmstands, markets, or restaurants.

People tend to talk about local food systems in terms of farmstands, markets and restaurants. Yet these parts of the food system are the smallest players and move relatively insignificant amounts of food through the system. I once worked with a 150 seat bistro to introduce them to local producers of cheese, meat and vegetables. The owner enthusiastically embraced the concept, and immediately began order local ground beef for all their burgers. End result: a delivery of 50 pounds per week.

Anybody who raises/sells beef will be happy with any ground beef sales, no matter how large the order There’s always ground beef left over when the center cuts are sold and ground beef seems always to be the bottleneck in the system. But there are more beef cattle in Kentucky than any other state east of the Mississippi. We are 9th in cattle production in the country. If cattle producers are going to find local markets, all of us in the food-system business are going to have to get serious about identifying large-volume buyers, who buy, move and use food more efficiently than a farmstand or a CSA.

Take, for instance, Jefferson County Public Schools and Fayette County Schools. Between them, they are hoping to order more than 40,000 servings of chicken wing parts and drumsticks for lunch service on one day. This order will be production for an entire season (April to November) for one diversified farmer (who also sells beef and pork).

Jefferson County Public Schools has a $17 million food budget. If we can harness 10 percent of that budget for local food, we can begin to move the needle on the local food system in a much more significant way that if we concentrate on farmstands, CSAs and markets.

Meaningful work to change local food systems will have to include large-volume users, and will need to solve issues of large-volume distribution, aggregation and processing.

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Common barriers to changing the food system

chix pieces n summer veg

The Louisville Local Food Demand Analysis commissioned by Seed Capital Kentucky, has been released, quantifying the demand for local food in the Louisville area. It’s important work that will lend its weight to the welcome changes happening in Louisville under our forward-thinking mayor.

After scores of interviews, the report codifies the obstacles to buying local food. The report reveals that consumers, commercial and restaurant buyers indicate that cost, product consistency, distribution and volume are the issues that prevent them from buying local. Additionally, large-volume users cite inability to get food from their preferred “broadline” supplier (like Sysco).

In 2010, the Kentucky Farm to School Task Force enumerated the same barriers among school food service directors.

Anyone who spends 20 minutes talking about local food with people will hear about those same barriers. As an earnest newbie moving Kentucky product into Louisville starting in 2009, I eagerly sought out the least expensive local product, or the ones grown in large quantities over long seasons. But after months of talking to buyers it dawned on me that they had no idea what the costs were, or what the volume was, or what the product looked like or where they could easily get it. They, nearly to a person, believed that the world of local food was represented by farmers markets, and that they had to buy products in the smallest amounts at the highest prices.

Let me pause here to say that there are real barriers to any local food system. Aggregation, distribution and processing are all huge challenges in Kentucky. Many good people are working on those challenges.

However, as to cost, consistency, supply, and distribution, it is time to start asking people to reveal their data.

For instance, if you approach a caterer — whether it’s Centerplate at the Convention Center or a small independent — and you request local food for your wedding reception, or Biology Department meeting, or family reunion, your likely first response will be “it will be very expensive.” It’s time we pushed back.

I once worked with a hospital whose food service contractor mentioned how peeved its board of directors would be if they found out he had spent money on local beef, and within one minute was telling me about the ahi tuna he served at the board meeting. I think he honestly believed that local beef was more expensive than ahi tuna. I’ve had local bar owners think nothing of upcharging for a bison burger, but find it inconceivable to offer a Kentucky Proud burger in a similar way, though the beef, like the bison, has been grown on grass, offered free grain, and grown without antibiotics, steroids and hormones.

The truth is, if you try to replace CAFO boneless skinless chicken breast with pasture-raised, antibiotic-free boneless skinless chicken breast, you will have to pay an astonishing premium. But there are other parts to a chicken, as the Jefferson County Public School food service folks have discovered. They — and Fayette County as well — are exploring how to feed their students drumsticks, thighs, and wing parts from animals raised on Kentucky pasture. For Derby week, they are exploring mixing pasture-raised beef with commodity chicken and vegetables to make burgoo.

In fact, there are plenty of ways to keep costs in check during a catered event and on menus. Consumers, chefs and food service operators can ask themselves the same question the schools ask, “how can we make this food affordable?” People who are out to change the food system should be vigilant to recognize a straw man disguised as a rationale.

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Affordability, accessibility, local food

Louisville has a great reputation for being food-centric, with lots of activists and enthusiasts in all imaginable areas — urban gardens, local food, a lively independently-owned restaurant scene and more. Often these communities co-exist amicably, but not always. The affordability of local, healthy food is a subject that tends to make passions run high.

Louisville has made strides, but many of us struggle with the morality of accessibility. I attended a dinner party one evening where one of the guests asserted she wouldn’t shop at a farmers’ market until the food was affordable for everyone. Really? And the logic behind that is. . . .?

Many shoppers and chefs blanch at the higher costs of local food. Indeed, cost is the first of a list of barriers that are commonly listed as reasons to avoid local products.

At the risk of sounding defensive, let me aver that fresh produce is costly everywhere, even at the supermarket. Studies show that the squash and broccoli in the produce aisle are more expensive per calorie than the Cheetos and Pepsi.

That’s because of subsidies. The government, through previous farm bills, has allocated money to the farmers who grow corn, soy and wheat. We spent $56.2 billion from 1995 to 2006 on corn subsidies alone, according to the Environmental Working Group, which used USDA figures and which can give you all the mind-boggling statistics you’d like at

Michael Pollan reported on the work of researcher Adam Drewnowski, who took a hypothetical dollar into the supermarket to see what it would buy, and found he could get 1,200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. Looking for something to wash down those chips, he discovered that his dollar bought 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice.

Farm subsidies allow corn and soy (and corn syrup and soy oil) to be extremely cheap. Subsidies make Cheetos and Pepsi and fast food dollar meals extremely affordable.

How much are fresh produce growers and organic growers subsidized?

Oops. Not so much.

So while the poor are shut out of nutritious eating, it really isn’t the fault of the farmer who is hand-planting and picking strawberries to sell for a premium at the farmers market to support his family.

How a new farm bill might change any of this is anyone’s guess. Congress’s inability to make decisions has currently thrown farmers in to Farm Bill Limbo.

The issue of affordability isn’t just produce vs. fast food. Local beef, milk and eggs are also pricey.

But striving to make robust local food systems should require more nuanced investigations into local-food affordability, and raise questions that may get answered in ways we don’t like and have to adjust to. What is affordable? People around the world spend much more of their income on food. Should subsidies change? Subsidies were invented to guarantee farmers an income, even in the bad years, so they would stay on the farm and keep farming. What is a fair price for food, when are we paying for the ineffieciencies of small farms and how efficient and large is the perfect farm?

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