Guest Blogger: Carrie Oliver is the CEO & Founder of The Oliver Ranch Company and founded The Artisan Beef Institute. Carrie is dedicated to helping people learn more about what’s on their plate and discovering that, like a fine wine, a lot goes into raising better cattle. She blogs at Discover the World of Artisan Beef and Twitters under @OliverRanch.
What better way to shake off a bad case of writer’s block than to meet the origin of your last meal face-to-face? Earlier this summer a fellow food entrepreneur, Rob Smart, had written a post on his Every Kitchen Table blog about Pro Food, a burgeoning post-organic food movement, to which I’d been trying to respond for weeks. Casting around for a distraction I turned to Twitter only to see a post from one pastured pork farmer, Heather Walters (@Rosemont_Farm) to another, Neal Foley (@PodChef):
Heather: @Podchef &^%$!! that was a horrid link!
Who can resist clicking through a link like that? Much to my surprise, I was met with an image of three heads in a wheelbarrow, two pigs and one cattle, the latter with shaggy black hair and horns. Horrid perhaps to Heather, but even more haunting to me since Neal had so graciously served me some mouth-watering rib-eye steaks for dinner a few weeks before.
Me: @Podchef Hmm, re: horrid links & chicken carcasses… is that the beef I tasted?
Neal: @OliverRanch Re, the heads in the barrow? Yes, that bottom one was Torino the steer & some of his piggie friends.
I had just met my meat. And my writer’s block was cured.
What does all this have to do with Rob’s original post, and its follow up, The Five Stones of Pro Food? Rob outlined a set of principles on which food entrepreneurs could draw to create and support a new, pro-consumer, pro-farmer food system. The five stones are decentralization, triple bottom line, sustainable food, transparency, and accessibility.
I relate to Rob’s five principles; I founded my own company in part on principles like these. But while these are great business and moral guidelines, they didn’t quite capture my heart or frankly, my stomach. At the end of the day, to truly drive change, I believe that food still has to be about food. My heartstrings need a tug and my stomach has to yearn for this food. My stomach is all about “food appeal” (flavor, texture, and other functional benefits) and my heart is all about community (emotional and experiential benefits).
As a fellow food entrepreneur, Rob has graciously allowed me to use the story of Torino the Steer to cast a couple more stones.
Consumer Feedback Results in Better Food
In a more decentralized, transparent food system we have the chance to create and celebrate feedback loops between farmers and consumers, so that producers can incorporate consumer appeal into their decision criteria. With Torino the Steer, we have the ideal, you might even argue utopian scenario: the person who most influenced the flavor and texture of that beef ate at the same table as I, and the other main influencer, the butcher, was just one phone call away.
I gave feedback to Neal, “This beef is just delicious! It has a great chew, straightforward personality and medium impression. It has a sweet almost delicate start and is a bit herbal. It’s an ideal steak for someone just embarking on a journey of artisan beef discovery (what I call Gateway Beef™).” Neal’s response? “Well that’s interesting, there are actually 11 herbs growing on that pasture; they were planted there in the 1950s and have thrived ever since.” Now Neal has his first confirmation that the herbs are a good thing, not just a random thing.
Imagine if every farmer could access that kind of feedback. OK, granted we cannot all sit down with our farmers and share a meal together, but greater transparency should result in the consumer knowing who made their food and give them the ability, one way or another, to tell the producer what they find most appealing.
The value? I can buy beef from Neal and know that I’ll enjoy it. I also discovered that I like beef that is finished on herby pastures. We both can tell others what the beef tastes like so they have an idea if they might like it, too. And Neal can consider what he might do next time – stay the course or work to make his beef even better.
Of course this extreme case isn’t easily scalable and the next most proximate – farmers markets and CSA programs — also serve a limited market. However, I think entrepreneurs should be excited by the possibilities of using the Internet and new retail formats to take these types of experiences to larger market segments. As long as we create and maintain transparency, even at scale we can create or enable a continuous, self-reinforcing feedback loop between farm and fork, thus improving the flavor, texture, and overall quality of the food we eat.
Advantage: Pro Food
Sitting down to share a meal with friends, family, and strangers has long been a communal activity. Together with knowing more about what is on my plate, I think we need to start reversing the disturbing trend towards depersonalizing our cooking and eating experiences. It wasn’t that long ago that a natural part of the dinner conversation was about where the butcher sourced the turkey and how we simply must tell Mr. Jones that the milk from his Jersey cows is the only milk we buy.
Shopping in today’s big box stores, including conventional supermarkets, warehouse stores and so on is, comparatively speaking, a complete disconnect. From a food-community point of view, we’ve become detached. An unseen stock person stacks pre-wrapped consumables on the shelf at midnight. Not that this impacts the food itself in any way, but this is about as far from an intimate food experience as one can get.
By way of contrast, eating Torino the Steer with Neal and his family was a supremely communal act. Having seen first hand the way this family loves their land, livestock, and the other food they raise, I enjoyed that meal and came to appreciate my food at a deeper level than had I purchased the salad, berry pie or rib-eye steaks anonymously at a supermarket.
Indeed, ask anyone who’s been to a dinner on a farm or met a producer at an in-store demonstration, farmers market, or CSA pick up: there is something about knowing the source of one’s food that creates a certain sense of community, if not bonding, with the people in who make our food.
While knowing everyone who had a hand in bringing every food item to our plates is impractical, we can begin to restore a sense of community around food simply by letting our customers know where it came from in the first place. Who knows where that first baby step might take us?
In a Pro Food system we’ll also probably see each other a lot more. Some entrepreneurs might create small footprint, neighborhood stores in which we will recognize and befriend other patrons and store employees over time. I still remember shopping with my mom at Robert’s Market in Oakland. Half the time spent shopping seemed to be chatting it up with the butcher or friends she ran into in the aisles.
This is not a clarion call for a return to the past. For better or worse, big box supermarkets beat out mom & pop stores for a reason, namely price. To their credit, Wild Oats and Whole Foods reintroduced the concept of knowledgeable employees and presented food artistically, taking some of the commodity out along the way. How can today’s entrepreneurs challenge the current retail business model to extend the reach of such community based shopping experiences beyond high-income urban centers?
Other entrepreneurs, including myself, might create online or other communities outside of brick and mortar to achieve similar goals. Social media tools offer the opportunity to build personal relationships and create rich discussions across political, geographical, professional, or personal boundaries. A case in point: a recent Twitter-based #AgChat discussion on antibiotic use in livestock included sustainable food advocates, farmers, ranchers, public relations managers, trade associations, veterinarians, journalists, food bloggers, butchers, and lawyers. Just about the most inclusive community you could imagine, with a total contribution much greater than the sum of the parts.
Advantage: Pro Food
The opportunity to rethink our food system is not by nature limited to entrepreneurs. In fact, I would argue that our successes will fall short of expectations if we try to innovate without taking advantage of the two big constituents that I have talked about here, namely the consumer, and the food community in its broadest sense. Decentralization, triple bottom line, sustainable food, transparency, and accessibility are important pillars, but I’ll bet our future will be brightest if we engage the consumer and encourage community at every juncture along our path.