This is the first installment of a periodic series that will try to answer the question: Can good food scale? It will do so by examining each of the links in today's food production chain and discussing how an increasing number of dedicated people are rethinking the way food production in America works.
By 2012, Brandon Chonko's chicken business was doing so well it was about to kill him. He had started off almost on a whim, raising quail in his backyard. He found a few chefs in Atlanta who wanted to buy his birds, so he leased an old pasture from a woman down the road and started raising chickens, too.
"It felt great seeing GrassRoots Farms on a menu," Chonko says. "I was making no money, but I felt like I was doing something." He was pasture-raising his birds on an all-natural diet, and he believed he was producing the healthiest and best-tasting meat on the market.
So, he ramped up. "I was doing these chickens for restaurants. I would kill them in the morning — a couple of hundred of them — starting at three in the morning. I'd be finished by nine or 10 in the morning, bag them up, and go deliver," he says.
The more customers he added, the later he got home at night. "I'm delivering all this stuff to Atlanta and Savannah," Chonko recalls, "but I'm never at home, never doing anything with the animals.
"I wasn't stopping because I never really thought, 'How can I stop?' There was no way I could just stop."
Then one day one of Chonko's customers, Robert Phalen, the chef and owner of the One Eared Stag in Atlanta, made a suggestion: why didn't the farmer go talk to Phalen's food distributor, Inland Seafood. Chonko was skeptical at first, but eventually he went to Inland's headquarters in Atlanta and met with Joel Knox, founder and CEO. It turned out that Knox had eaten GrassRoots Farms chicken at the One Eared Stag, and he thought it was the best he'd ever tasted. Knox agreed to carry GrassRoots Farms poultry, even though he had to pay a premium price for it.
"They made it possible for me to keep going," Chonko says. "There would have been no way I could continue."
Chonko had come to realize what many others who have gone into small-scale, high-quality farming — what many call "sustainable food" — have learned the hard way. There are many steps in the chain from the farmer to consumer, and one sure-fire way to go broke is to try to go it alone.
Last fall, a gaggle of fine-dining chefs and other culinary professionals descended upon Charleston for the Chefs Collaborative's 2013 Sustainable Food Summit. At its core, the organization is a network of chefs working to "fix our broken food system," which includes promoting local, seasonal foods and advancing a sustainable food supply.
In part, the gathering was a celebration, for over the course of 20 years since the organization was founded, huge strides had been made. Locally grown fruits and vegetables, fresh-caught fish, and locally and humanely raised meats are now available in sufficient quantities to be used in commercial restaurant kitchens across the country. Heirloom vegetables and grains and heritage breeds of pigs and chickens that were almost lost to history have been revived and a new generation of eaters support a growing number of farmers markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, making possible a network of small-scale producers.
The Summit was held at the Francis Marion Hotel, and had it been a Saturday the attendees could have seen these results right across the street, beneath the colorful tents of the farmers market in Marion Square.
Last weekend I strolled through that market on a lovely morning. The place was thronged, vendor tents jammed thickly together, stretching up one side of the park and down another. I snagged some lovely pink French breakfast radishes, a bag of stone-ground Carolina Gourd Seed grits, and a two-pound pastured pork shank. A basket of okra, a bag of pristine mesclun, and a clamshell box of bright yellow, orange, and red cherry tomatoes all caught my eye, and I added them to my bag, too.
As I paid for the tomatoes, I realized I was handing over the last of the five $20 I had withdrawn from the ATM on the way downtown. In fairness, a Nutella-filled crepe, jasmine iced tea, and a delicious from-scratch version of an Egg McMuffin (including homemade English muffin and runny fresh-poached farm egg) had siphoned off some of the funds. But that cash could have paid to fill an entire grocery cart at the supermarket where I stopped off on the way home to pick up a few essentials like milk not available in Marion Square.
The price of sustainable food has been on a lot of people's minds lately. At the Chef's Collaborative Summit, even while they celebrated their successes, the speakers and attendees were almost universally aware that their movement was at a crossroads. The kind of locally grown, top-quality foods they wanted to serve in their restaurants was now easier to find, but it was still quite expensive.
Even with a network of likeminded colleagues to share ideas and collaborate, chefs in high-end restaurants struggled to make it work financially. It's one thing to incorporate a few locally grown veggies and a pastured pork chop onto a menu. It's quite another to extend the philosophy to every ingredient that passes through the back door — the butter, onions, the garlic. It's what keynote speaker chef Rick Bayless termed having sustainable food "all the way to the bottom of the plate."
When you get outside the high-end restaurant market, the challenges are even more daunting. "Sustainable food" is still very much an elitist cause, appealing mostly to those wealthy enough (or, at least, idealistic enough) to spend two or three times as much on premium food than they would on its conventional counterparts.
Meanwhile, the diet of the typical American family is loaded with inexpensive fats and sugars, and two-thirds of American adults and a third of school-age children are overweight. Grocery store shelves are dominated by soft drinks, commodity produce, and highly processed convenience foods, and once you get away from East Bay Street and Upper King, the fast food chains that dominate the market seem on a perpetual race to the bottom to serve ever-cheaper, ever-larger "value" meals.
We're facing the specter of a two-tier food system, with a small few at the top eating very well and treating food as a status-conferring luxury good while the rest fill their bellies with mass-marketed, commodity dreck.
Even within the niche markets, not everything is rosy. Two months ago, Bren Smith, a shellfish and seaweed farmer on Long Island Sound, wrote a New York Times op-ed with the bleak title "Don't Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers." In it, Smith declared, "The dirty secret of the [farm-to-table] food movement is that the much-celebrated small-scale farmer isn't making a living." Smith's list of challenges is long: the inability to afford land, chefs' gimlet-eyed food cost metrics capping the farmer's take, and increased pressure to drop prices as more growers start selling through CSAs and at farmers markets."
Some have decided it's just not worth it. Last fall, after a 10 year run, Emile DeFelice shut down Caw Caw Creek Pastured Pork, which raised heritage breed pigs near St. Matthews and supplied pork to some of Charleston's most noted restaurants. "The last two years have been rather hellish," he told the Free Times in October 2013. Feed prices had risen more than 400 percent over the course of a decade and "processing has been a real obstacle, too. It's become more and more unreliable," he wrote.
There's little consensus on what, if anything, to do about it. Bren Smith advocates a list of government initiatives to support aspiring farmers. DeFelice, who is running for S.C. Commissioner of Agriculture on the American Party ticket, wants to get the Department of Agriculture out of the way and let the free market go to work on the problems.
In A Greedy Man in a Hungry World (2013), the British restaurant critic and food writer Jay Rayner argues, "Big Agriculture, Big Food — call it what you like — is here to stay." In a world of seven billion people (and counting), he posits, large-scale commodity agriculture is necessary to feed everyone while avoiding ecological and environmental catastrophe.
Admittedly, I'm oversimplifying his argument. Rayner's main focus is on puncturing the romantic notion that small-scale local producers, farmers markets, and people growing their own food in their backyards is a viable way to feed the planet, and he does that quite effectively. But he's no apologist for Big Food, either. He calls out the industry's many flaws and excesses while urging a more pragmatic approach, one that blends "aesthetics — the greedy business of how it all tastes — with the issues around cost, production, and environmental impact."
How might such a pragmatic approach look in practice? As Chonko learned, a bunch of small-scale farmers selling directly to chefs and to consumers at farmers markets is not likely to do the trick. Instead, moving forward requires addressing a complex, multi-step food chain — a chain that over the past 50 years has been almost completely dismantled and reconfigured by large corporations, government regulators, and the relentless price pressure of market economics. The issues are profoundly structural, and the solutions — if, indeed, there are solutions — must be structural as well.
I first started thinking about the food production chain after talking with Nick Pihakis of the Birmingham, Ala.-based barbecue chain Jim 'N Nick's. Almost a decade ago, Pihakis decided he wanted to serve local pasture-raised pork in his restaurants, and he set out to find a few farmers who could supply him with pigs.
Driving around the Alabama countryside with Bill Niman, the founder of sustainable meat producer Niman Ranch, Pihakis realized it wasn't that simple. All the pig farmers left in the business had signed on with commodity-breed, factory-farm contract systems created by the big processors like Smithfield and Hormel. Even if they wanted to raise heirloom breeds, they couldn't afford all-natural feed, and there were no local processing plants left to slaughter the animals.
Pihakis could have just thrown his hands up and lamented the sway of Big Agriculture, but that's not his style. "You've got to get into the system to fix it," he told me. "It isn't going to fix itself."
He realized that to get access to a reliable supply of good pork for his restaurants, he would have to address every link in the chain between farmer and end consumer. In the case of pigs, that meant the growers, the breeds of pigs, the feed, processing plants, distribution centers, and finally the customers in his restaurants.
In 2012, as part of what he's dubbed the Fatback Pig Project, Pihakis purchased a defunct emu-processing plant in Eva, Ala., and converted it to hog processing. He's creating a loose network of farmers in the region to supply a special cross-breed of Duroc, Berkshire, and Yorkshire pigs and ensure they're raised using humane standards and all-natural feed. Pihakis has also teamed up with partners like Donald Link of New Orlean's Cochon Butcher to create lines of end products like sausage and bacon for sale in retail outlets.
"We're still ramping up," Pihakis told me when I checked in over the summer on the progress of the Fatback Pig Project. "We're focused more on our value-added cuts out of the plant right now. We use four million pounds of pork a year, and it's real hard to start from scratch and get that level of volume, so we pick and choose our products."
"They're now making all of our bacon, all of our sausage, and our ribs. We're starting the processing with value-added and will move into shoulders and hams," he says.
This notion of the full food production chain seems a useful way to approach the question of whether sustainable food can scale.
Of course, that opens the Pandora's box of what "sustainable" means. Is it an economic term — discussing whether farmers can sustain their businesses and pay their bills for years if not decades to come? Or, is it an environmental thing — whether we can sustain this level of industrial food production without spinning both our ecology and economy into catastrophe? A thick web of theories and fears come together when you start talking about food: politics, environmentalism, economic justice, even quasi-religious romanticism.
But, I'm a food writer, and I lead with my belly. I maintain that there is a clear difference between the taste and texture of a cottony, commodity, cage-raised chicken and the pasture-raised ones Brandon Chonko sells at GrassRoots Farms. A crisp spear of Ambrose Family Farm asparagus in April is miles superior to the woody, tasteless stuff shipped in from Peru in October, as is a filet of pristine grouper line-caught the day before by Mark Marhefka compared with the soggy mush thawing under the fluorescent light of the supermarket seafood case.
Such high-quality food, though, seems increasingly like a luxury good, the equivalent of bespoke-tailored suits. The quality of such clothing is empirically and indisputably superior to its mass-produced counterparts — the buy-one-get-two-free, made-in-Bangladesh suits flogged in national menswear chains — and the price tag reflects it. Clothing is a human necessity, but few argue that it's unjust that the average person isn't strutting around in a custom-tailored suit, and only a crackpot would advocate that everyone should take up sewing their own clothes at home.'
But the choice may not be that stark. When explaining why he undertook the Fatback Pig Project, Nick Pihakis starts out by noting that when it comes to food today, "There's not really a mid-tier pricing," he told me. "Everything is super, super expensive or super, super cheap."
Is there a viable middle ground out there, a practical way to make food scale? This is the first installment of a periodic series that will try to answer that question, and it will do so by examining each of the links in today's food production chain and discussing how an increasing number of dedicated people are rethinking the way it works.
We'll start at the ground and work up — that is, with the dirt and the water, looking at farmers and fishermen trying to operate on a relatively small scale while producing high-quality produce and seafood. We'll look at the breeds of animals and varieties of plants they raise. We'll visit the processing facilities that transform the raw materials into usable forms, and the distributors, marketers, and retailers that serve as intermediaries to the end consumers. And, finally, we'll look at those consumers themselves — chefs, restaurant patrons, home cooks, and eaters of all stripes.
If we do it right, we'll get to enjoy a lot of really good food along the way.