July, 2011

Fruits of Thought

Mindshift Needed In Production Agriculture

A great challenge for the produce industry is that our culture’s current locally grown focus is pushing for a deconstruction of the existing food system. Oddly enough, the local movement will probably lead to more produce consumption, but whether it leads to a larger produce industry depends on the extent to which the industry at large is able to surf this wave of consumer and activist interest. It will also depend on whether the industry can integrate the consumer desire for a less homogenized but more socially and environmentally friendly food supply with an intimate relationship between producers and consumers.

Much of the initiative behind this culture-shift is coming from foodservice. Local and sustainable products offer chefs a new opportunity to add value. Few consumers are going to visit farmers or other food producers, and even fewer have the skills to vet these producers. If a chef can vouch that these items are local and that the producers act in sustainable ways, etc., the chef is doing things for patrons that they can’t easily do for themselves.

There are loads of problems with this approach. Few chefs have the time to roam the countryside identifying fantastic local suppliers; even fewer have the skills and systems required to vet these producers. Plus verification isn’t a one-time thing, it is a perpetual challenge. Indeed fraud is rampant, and many a chef who thinks he is getting product from some specific local acreage is actually getting something else entirely. He also may be getting local and sustainable, but perhaps the product has not been properly vetted for food safety issues. It is also highly likely to be much more expensive than mainstream product and that poses challenges all of its own.

Still, the chefs have tapped into a current in the zeitgeist and the industry ignores it at its peril. The challenge is how the mainstream production sector can engage with the foodie uprising. To date, much has been marketing, with regional producers emphasizing geography.

That is appropriate, but the whole foodie/locavore/sustainable/artisanal/terroir movement is best understood as a kind of rebellion against a world where everything is so similar everywhere. Farmer’s markets and CSAs are not popular because so many consumers have suddenly developed deep moral commitments to supporting the local foodshed. It is because they are fun, variable and entertaining in a way few supermarkets are anymore.

A whole new category of restaurant — Farm to Table — has started to spring up not because so many consumers really know or understand the purposes of the founders of the movement, but because it is interesting and fun.

However, all this is a challenge for the produce industry as these producers and restaurants are rarely involved in the trade’s associations or industry food safety or traceability initiatives.

They may not realize it, but the true believers desperately need the mainstream produce industry if their ideas are ever to be more than a curiosity on the food scene or an indulgence for the rich and trendy.

The answer may just lie in a reinvigoration of the wholesale sector. This is symbolized most obviously in the stunning new Philadelphia Market, which serves as the perfect regional foodshed hub, but with all the modern bells and whistles related to food safety and quality. We also see it in a changed attitude at the ownership level of these facilities. Hunts Point, for example, has teamed up with the American Cancer Society and Star Boxing Inc. to host its First Knock Out Cancer event at the terminal market. This integrates the market with its region and elevates its purpose in a way exactly in alignment with those seeking more purpose in the supply chain.

The big foodservice distributors such as Sysco and US Foodservice all have local procurement programs, and it is going to be in some combination of localization by national distributors and reinvigoration of local wholesaling that smaller scale restaurants will wind up being served.

Regional producers can’t begin to meet the need for food, so the final link in the chain has to be national and international shippers ready to take advantage of the opportunity. We already have seen lots of fresh-cut operators opening regional facilities. The next step has to be the large national and international shippers emphasizing their own authentic place in the food supply.

With the big growth in private label, one also begins to imagine a hybrid at retail and foodservice. In retail, we have a frontside package that reflects a supermarket brand or a national brand and a reverse side that tells the story of the actual farm and farmer. At restaurants, the menus have the name of the restaurant, of course, thus rooting things locally, but they celebrate the handiwork of the chefs in selecting ingredients from around the world by rotating highlights of farms and artisan producers.

Much depends on getting the economy right. Mass production is cheapest, but food is very inexpensive when judged as a percentage of personal income. If the economy starts to grow robustly and incomes start to rise, more and more people will be willing to pay a little more to have something less homogenous and more interesting. Meeting that challenge and seizing this opportunity will require a mind-shift in production agriculture.             pb