Chefs with Issues is a platform for chefs and farmers we love, fired up for causes about which they're passionate. Craig Rogers is the shepherd and owner of Border Spring Farms in Patrick Springs, Virginia, where he raises and sells “Certified Naturally Grown" and "Animal Welfare Approved" lamb and sheep to acclaimed chefs and natural food stores.
Over the years, I have heard farmers speak of their "sustainable" farms, only to wonder what they actually meant by that term.
Perhaps it is the engineer in me that desires precise definition, but I have not yet grasped the fidelity of sustainable land-based farming. I understand sustainable fishing and marine-based harvest, but on the East coast of the United States, most farmers are working on land that either wishes to return to its natural forest state, or is forced into nutrition alien to its heritage.
So although I wonder about the subtleties of terminology, I have been clear on one fundamental issue all farmers face: there is nothing sustainable about losing money.
A couple of weeks ago, I heard through the grapevine that one of the South’s most noted pork purveyors, Fudge Family Farms, was going out of business. On one hand it was a shock as Henry Fudge had created a fine reputation with many of the South’s most noted chefs. He had grown his operation from simply supplying the hogs he personally raised on his farm in Alabama, to aggregating the efforts of some 30 other family farms from six surrounding states. Not only did his closure affect 30 small family farms, it left many chefs in the South scrambling to find new sources of pork.
On the other hand, a farmer in financial difficulty is hardly breaking news. So what went wrong?
Henry Fudge is the sort of gentleman with whom any chef would want to do business. He is a preacher who has a soft voice and temperament that just barely veils the passion of a farmer with great pride in the livestock he produces. Any first conversation with Henry about his pigs is certain to become a lesson in genetics and the virtues of various heritage breeds. He has passion for farming, the breeding of animals great chefs admire, interest in old world feeding protocols of hogs, and he has a heart that wants to help others of like mind.
But business is not easy, and farming enterprises are even more challenging than most. Mr. Fudge is very open about what went wrong and why he had to close his doors - or least change course.
His lessons are fundamental and important to anyone considering the direct marketing of meat to restaurants.
1. There is nothing sustainable about losing money.
"Sustainable" agriculture has been all the vogue, but it is not just about how the land is cared for. A farmer must be able to pay the bills at the very least, and try to make a decent living. Providing protein to a restaurant and a great chef is no more noble a pursuit requiring charity than the chef feeding their patrons. It’s all business.
Small family farms are not able to compete with commodity protein on price or in delivery charges. Chefs who visit the farm where they are considering sourcing from understand that better than most.
How many lambs must my farm kill to buy a tractor? I need to kill and sell approximately 30 lambs in order to pay the annual audit fees for my be “certified organic.”
As a shepherd, I have decided the certification route is not how I wish to honor the lives of my lambs. I will use my lambs to buy a tractor, build a barn, purchase hay - all things that I believe advance the farm and life of our animals. That is my choice and that is how I wish to farm. Each farmer has their own unique set of values that guide their business decisions.
Some producers get caught up in who is buying their product and some of the “big names” simply don’t understand how to work with small family farms. They push the farmer to compete with commodity pricing. Many large restaurant groups provide incentives through cash bonuses to chefs to keep their food cost down, thereby discouraging the use of more expensive local products. Family farms do not need to feed everyone, or sell to every restaurant, but one of the hard lessons is figuring out who not to sell to – when it is best to just walk away and deal with a chef who "gets it."
Perhaps one of the most important lessons in growing a business is learning how to say “no” to a sale. No chef or restaurant is worth losing money for the small producer. Loss leaders and other such marketing approaches are a part of business for those who can afford it – generally not the small farm producer.
2. The farmer relies on a good abattoir and butcher.
Many have lamented the lack of USDA slaughter facilities, and indeed that is a challenge. However, the greater challenge is to find a slaughter facility where they can do quality custom butchery instead of commodity packing. Mr. Fudge was handcuffed by not being able to find a quality butcher who could cut the quality of hams that country curing required. That resulted in excess inventory of product that could not realize it true market potential.
3. Whole animal usage is essential.
In general, most livestock producers who are selling directly to chefs work on a margin that is so slim, it corresponds to essentially one cut of the animal. I must sell the entire animal, minus one of the prime parts simply to cover the cost of the animal and the slaughter and processing bill. If I keep any legs, racks or loins in inventory, my operating revenue is sitting in a walk-in cooler or freezer and not paying the bills.
Chefs who use whole animals are saviors to small family livestock producers. It is interesting to me to see how many of the most lauded Southern chefs - like my customers Sean Brock, Linton Hopkins, Bryan Voltaggio and Dan Guisti - are the ones who use whole animals.
What has made my growth possible, however, are the chefs who use only parts of the animals but have an appreciation for the use of the whole animal. As an example, Adam Sobel of Bourbon Steak in Washington, DC recently switched from using whole animals to parts. But he did it in way that was financially sustainable for me.
He wanted to use more lamb loins, which along with racks, are the hottest sellers in the lamb world. In order to kill more animals to provide the loins, I can easily sell the rest of the animal - except for the legs. He agreed to buy two legs of lamb for every lamb saddle/loin he purchased. This turned it into a win-win. He got the loins he wanted, it provided more racks, shanks, and necks for which I always have a high demand, and I was not left with any inventory.
Likewise, I have many chefs who are willing to purchase and use whatever cut of lamb I am accumulating to help maintain my whole animal usage and limit my inventory. The chef who is willing to be adaptive is every bit as important to my business as the whole animal chef.
4. Beware of wholesalers who do not purchase whole animals.
Mr. Fudge is honest about his successes and failures. One of the mistakes he admits to is growing through the use of a wholesaler who could sell all the prime cuts of his hogs but was not purchasing many of the “off cuts.” Although total revenue went up when he started working with a distributor, so did his inventory. His cash flow went south.
I have been approached by major distributors and I find their methods remarkably out of touch with the realities of farming. Every major protein distributor wants a piece of the "local" pie. As soon as they see a significant number of the customers ending their purchases of commodity protein in favor of locally-farmed meat, they want in - but only on their terms.
They want to purchase parts based on customer orders, not whole animals. As Mr. Fudge soon learned, that only hurts the local farmer. Anyone can sell racks of lamb, but each animal only has two, and that constitutes only about seven percent of the whole animal carcass.
I started my business by cold-calling chefs and knocking on doors. I sell to fewer than 100 chefs in ten states. Any of the big truck grocers call on more than 100 restaurants in any medium size city. If a farmer can sell whole animals by knocking on doors, surely a big truck grocer can make a commitment to a farmer to buy whole animals and find a way to sell all the parts.
The lesson for small family protein farmers is not to get caught up with wholesalers who don’t have a commitment to whole animal usage. And wholesalers, if you don’t have a sales force capable of moving all the parts of an animal and making a whole animal commitment to a farmer, then don’t try to entice farmers to work with you in the name of sustainability.
How many small farmers need to find the fate of Mr. Fudge before the importance of sustainable business is appreciated?
5. Use your own money.
Mr. Fudge and so many farmers have found their demise at the hands of creditors. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, farming is the only profession where you buy everything at retail, sell everything at wholesale, and pay the the shipping costs both ways.
That is compounded by the dual realities that farms are perhaps second only to restaurants as credit risks, and small family farms must generally pay for everything in cash. I don’t know of a slaughterhouse that would not require the farmer to pay the slaughter and processing bill when they pick up the product. If farmers decide to sell directly, they must sell their product to restaurant groups on 30 day terms or worse.
It is also remarkable that essentially all of my whole animal customers also pay cash on delivery. They understand the reality of small farms and are willing to work with farmers.
Many who have decided to grow their direct protein sales have done so by buying other farmers' animals. On one hand, that is a noble gesture. If they are paying more than the auction price, it is helping more farmers in rural areas who most likely do not have the skills to sell directly to high-end consumers or chefs.
On the other hand, farmers want to get paid. So, if the farmer is paid when the animals are delivered, it creates a need for capital to handle the cash flow.
Mr. Fudge and others have done this with “investors” or friends who lend them money. The margins are simply not great enough to assume much risk. A butcher who does not cut a customers animal correctly, or a delivery truck that breaks down on the road, or a drought that reduces the hay crop and increases feed costs all can equal up to negative cash flow and negative margins. Debt is not a farmer’s friend.
Thus, Mr. Fudge’s recommendation to others is to sell what you can grow, grow what you can pay for, and pay for it all using your own money. If you can afford to do more, then please think of helping another family farmer by buying their animals, cash up front, for a fair price.
Most importantly, thank any chef who appreciates the work of a farmer enough to use a whole animal or will be adaptive to the whole animal needs of the farmer.
The story of Mr. Fudge and Fudge Family Farms continues as many good farmer stories do, and there are many chapters ahead waiting to be written. Mr. Fudge is moving back to his roots as a hands-on hog farmer selling only his own animals to chefs who are willing to take a whole animal. As he said, “You may be able to knock me down but I am going to get up and dust myself off again and move on.”
Many of the fine chefs of the South will be looking forward to continuing their relationship with Mr. Fudge on a far smaller scale than in the past. It may be harder to find a true Henry Fudge hog but those who do will have something Henry put his heart into. A farmer’s pride is hard to beat.
As someone who falls below the poverty line – while I would love t be able to support local small farmers, realistically, I just can't afford it. I'm sorry. I know farmers need to live but so do I. When it is a choice between buying local or having a roof over my head, I am going to pick the roof. I can eat cheap ramen or peanut butter snadwiches for food if I have too, but you really can't substitute a locally grown animal for a home.
Find NC pasture based meat producers and small processors here http://www.ncchoices.com
farmer should be more respest....:)
This is a good read, and more people should consider this method, or the method Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and our Ancestors before him used: Eat only what we've caught, and only what we need to survive...
~ Dimitri Snowden (www.dimitrisnowden.com)
I tend to only buy my meat from Trader Joe's or Whole Foods, but I know I could use an improvement in my methods. I also don't eat as much meat as I used to...
To me, this piece is another reminder about how expensive it really is to humanely raise animals and turn them into high-quality meat. I was especially interested to read through the third point about whole animal usage. I'm the program director for chefscollaborative.org, a network of chefs and culinary professionals working on sustainable food issues as they relate to the restaurant industry. So many chefs are interested in buying meat outside of the commodity system but face logistical hurdles to doing so. Price is one, storage space another, skilled labor to do the butchering another.
But take the example of the chef in DC who switched from buying whole animals to buying parts–he did it by working closely with Rogers and developing a plan that worked for both of them. To increase the volume of local meat served in restaurants, it's important for more chefs to take this flexible and adaptive approach. In many restaurants now, especially owner-operated spots where the chef has more leeway, this is happening, and it's exciting for everyone–farmers, chefs, and the lucky folks who get to eat the food.
I think the big takeaway for home cooks is similar–the more you're buying your groceries from local farms, the more creative and adaptive you need to be with your meal planning–there are no guarantees at the farmers market. But it's less overwhelming than exciting!
@Amayda @Jerv @Ermintrude I have eaten Kobe Beef from MO and Wisconsin organic lamb both purchased from farms through Home Grown Cow. They were delicious!
What is the deal with so instances of the word "protein" used in place of "meat" in the article and comments? Do people find the word "meat" offensive or something? Honestly, the term "protein farmer" used above creeps me out a little in a Soylent Green sort of way. There is much more to eating naturally raised animals than a simple macronutrient: healthy fat, organs, bone marrow, and all of the important vitamins and minerals within. "Protein" could just as well be tofu, but not it wouldn't be nearly as nourishing.
There is no easy way to find a local farm that has kosher meat. When it comes to that, I have little choice but to buy the stuff that I see in the supermarket. I haven't heard of a local farmer that has kosher meat in NJ.
Maybe these two sites can help.
I prefer to hunt and fish my own meat as much as possible...... If not I get it from a local butcher who gets his meat from local farmers/ranchers....... a rare find now a days i know
Death leads to death. As folks wake-up and refuse to eat a being that is nearly equivalent in intelligence, pork farms, foie-gras torturers and the rest of the cruelty culture will fade away. Farmers should "grow things" not kill them. This will result in sustainable and kind prosperity for all and better health for us and the planet.
Anyone reading this who lives in the middle-South and loves pork should know about Newman Farm, in Missouri. They raise the juiciest, most flavorful pork I've ever tasted. From their website (and no, I don't work there :)
At Newman Farm it means our Berkshire pork is raised 100% outdoors the old-fashioned way using sustainable and humane production standards with all animals bred, farrowed and reared outdoors on pasture with plenty of fresh air, sunshine, water and high quality feeds using corn-soybean meal based rations with vitamin mineral supplements. Animal protein by-products, growth or synthetic growth promotants or the use of sub therapeutic antibiotics are never allowed.
Then you must own the place because you use the term OUR in the farm's description.
Mij, I clearly indicated that the quote was from FROM THEIR WEBSITE. What part of FROM THEIR WEBSITE do you not understand?
(jesus, the reading comprehension level in this country must be in the single digits by now.)
One Sentence. I only Eat Meat in mainland Europe where NONE of it is from genetically modified cattle
Why? Is genetic a scary word for you? I know Hollywood has made you fear but it is really unsubstantiated.
Genetic engineering of farm animals or anything used for human cionsumption is a great cause for concern. For instance inserting a snippet of DNA from a mouse into a cow so it's hormone production is unregulated, which causing the animal to "self medicate" itself with massive doses hormones, saving the farmer from paying for hormone shots for his cattle, the same ones that people are trying to avoid. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with that for mass production, but food items from genetically modified strains should be properly labeled so consumers can avoid things that they believe are potentially harmful to them.
"... consumers can avoid things that they believe are potentially harmful to them..." instead of finding out what is truly harmful and avoid that instead.
Why would mass production of of genetic engineered foods be any less harmful than genetically engineering animals on a small scale?
I live in an apartment and can't afford to store large portions of an animal. Still, I'm often terribly bored by the limited variety of cuts available if you want to buy portions of a few pounds or less. I would love to be able to experiment with more of the "off cuts". I just don't know where to find them.
Often you can find a meat locker that will rent storage space for a reasonable price. Another option is to look for a custom processor and call to see what they have since sometimes people decide not to take all the cuts from thier carcass.
I would prefer to buy some grass and feed my mind, one toke at a time
One toke over the line sweet Jesus,
One toke over the line ...
We buy a half of beef once a year from a local, sustainable farmer. I would like to buy chicken from a local source, but cannot reconcile the cost – $5 for a broiler chicken from any grocery store vs. $15-$20 for a broiler chicken from a local, free range farm!
We raise our own beef and sell to family members. This year we will do two or three cattle, five pigs 100 meat chickens and 12 laying hens for eggs. We sell at almost cost but will actually have to add a 'handling fee' this year as we lost a calf due to late extreme cold in March and far too much mud. We enjoy raising the animals and keep it hormone and antibiotics free. Typically we sell the animal delivered to the slaughter facility and sell by the pound of 'hanging weight.' The relative then pays for processing and gives the cut out to the processor and picks up the frozen meat a few weeks later. We have done this for the last four years and the beef, pork and chicken (and lamb a couple times) have been wonderful. The work is sometimes a challenge but overall worth it.
So although I am a local farmer (not for a living or actually any profit up to now), I can't raise enough to even supply my relatives. The only recent issue we have run into is finding people to feed the animals IF we need to take a short (weekend) vacation.
I was raised on a "sustainable farm", and can do everything from raise/slaughter/process my own chickens to shoot/process/butcher my own deer. I have tasted raw milk that was still warm from the cow (sounds disgusting, until you try it). I loved when my grandfather would take cattle we'd raised, have it slaughtered and brought home in neat, wax paper-wrapped packages because it meant we didn't spend hours over a butcher's block and doing it ourselves. It wasn't until I was an adult and (foolishly) moved to the city that I realized that meat quality, and flavor, was disgusting once you got away from the practice of raising/eating your own meats. We've become a generation of wusses where our meats are concerned. If we took the time to pay attention to where we get our foods, and take care of our farmers, prices of the "organic" meats would come down as demand rises. For myself? I inherited part of the farm last year. I'm going home & killing my own meat again.
Americans in general don't know what to do with anything but prime cuts anymore. Most Americans don't buy meat from or even know a butcher. Local farmers who want to sell whole animals might benefit from educating the public.
"Some products are just not worth the price (like some organic, farm raised, grass fed, hormone free stuff)."
That may be the STUPIDEST, most irresponsible sentance I have read in a long time. God, Americans are ignorant.
1/3 of all oil imported goes to industrial food production in this country and corporate backed corn subsidies are the reason for manipulating food prices down to deceptively low levels. If you factor in all those things plus pollution cleanup among other pollutants like fertilizer run-off killing the gulf of Mexico, local and sustainable food is MUCH cheaper.
Even though technically you are correct, most people only care about what they have to pay out of pocket. Are you suggesting getting rid of corn and big agro subsidies, or are you suggesting subsidizing local farms? Also it seems to get "certified" as organic, is a huge cost and some may question the truthfulness of that label and even the benefit. Local food is cheaper for society but not individuals and until our govt. cares that will not change. Most people would spend differently if they had a choice but unfortunately few do.
Take out the "God, Americans are ignorant" part and you just might get a whole lot more folks to listen to your argument.
We buy 1/4 of a steer from a woman locally. Depending on the size of the steer, it will usually yield about 120 lbs of meat and it comes to us in several different forms from ground beef to roasts. It averages about $3.99lb which is a lot for ground beef but cheap for steaks, of which we get several. The fat ratio is about 93/7 and it's fantastic!
Meat nomnom shut up and eat.
I try to harvest all of my own meat and fish. I don't always succeed, but it is a goal I have. When I can't, I look for what is good quality, but inexpensive. Remember, the consumers are looking for value in the short term as well as for something they can feel good about. Some products are just not worth the price (like some organic, farm raised, grass fed, hormone free stuff).
There is a new web site called Home Grown Cow. It is solely for protein farmers like Mr. Fudge. It lets farmers list whatever inventory they have and even when they will have it for pre-orders. The farmer sets the price and is under no pressure of any kind. It lets people like Amayda purchase direct from any farmer listed. The saddest part about this story is so many people want to purchase meat directly from a wonderful farm like chefs do, but like Amayda, have no idea how to go about it. The demand is there, and now Home Grown Cow brings Eaters and Farmers together.
Is this the correct link?
Yes. Unlike some of the other directories, Home Grown Cow handles the payment between the Eater and Farmer so both parties have a mediator should something go wrong. Also Home Grown Cow facilitates the shipping for farmers. As Mr. Rogers points out, farmers are faced with a number of challenges when selling directly to consumers and Home Grown Cow has attempted to identify and address them so more farmers can benefit from this growing consumer base.
Wonderful, thank you for the info.
Grateful for the opportunity to expand a bit and spread the word.
"No, Rally!" And I got dat gold!
I prefer to buy local grass fed animals. However, sometimes it is difficult to find what we are looking for or be able to get the volume we would really like.
I live in MD and I don't trust anything that comes from the eastern seaboard( to many chemicals in the air and water) All our meats and some vegetables( when in season) is from a farm in Wisconsin. We hook up the trailer and make our way to WI 4 times a year to load up on chemical free, range feed beef, pork and chickens or fresh killed venison. small hassle but worth the drive.
Sounds like a good excuse to do a little fishing too while you are up there.
The oil companies thank you... the rest of us condemn your pretentious show of pseudo-organic grooviness.
You have to be insane to eat pork...Its filthy and these poor animals are tortured to the bitter end. So you can stuff your face. Beef and Pork are loaded with manmade chemical.. You have to really be lazy not to care about your food source. Yo move your fat asses to the car then the store and buy all crap because its easy..............
Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed today, eh?
Despite the ugly attitude, you are right, it is way too easy.
I eat whatever I want and I'm not fat. Lots of 'filthy' meat especially. I can't believe the bad attitude some people have.
Not just easy but cheap. Mmmm....bacon.
Holly- I raise pork and i don't torture my animals. They live on pasture and have a good life. Pigs can't sweat they need a mud hole to stay cool in the heat. We don't feed them any chemicals either. The same for our beef, chickens and turkeys. They roam free. We are a small family farm.
I buy cage free chicken eggs. I would buy cage free chicken (but not organic) if I could find it. I have been buying more buffalo as opposed to "organic" beef and usually the buffalo is cheaper. I would buy local pork but have never seen it offered at Nashville's farmers market nor advertised anywhere. Both sets of grandparents had family farms and I sent many summers there. I pretty much believe that everything I ate in my childhood off of those farms was organic but just didn't have an official seal of approval. I think that a label of "Organic" in many cases is a license ot steal.
Steve you might want to look into http://www.peacefulpastures.com they do a meat csa with deliveries to the Nashville area. You can also order individual items too They have chicken, beef, lamb, pork, duck, and even goat as well eggs and some other items.
Wow, what an interesting article. It has taught me that I have a role to play here too. As a fine dining consumer, I need to choose those items on the menu that allow the chef to buy the whole animal. Fortunately, the loin is usually the leat interesting least tasty bit and I never order it but I had never thought about doing so from a sustainability standpoint. My CSA farm has also chosen to be sustainable rather than certified organic for economic reasons and we are all fine with that. I would love it if my CSA would partner with protein producers. I would be happy to commit and even prepay and pay along the way and commit to buying protein this way too. Leg of lamb with green olives and prunes...ummmm.
As long as it's good and there hasn't been a recall, I don't care where it comes from.
I am over 40, have a rock solid immune system and, for the sake of my health, I don't have to care where it comes from.
I would like it if more local farms advertised that you could buy meat from them. I would love to buy 1/4 of a cow or 1/2 of a pig, but I have no idea where to even start. I wanted to raise our own pigs this year, but my hubby wanted to wait until next year for that project (we couldn't agree on what structure to build for 2 piggies) Our local farmers market starts today and I am going to ask around there, but for where I live, my only grocery option is a Meijer.
here is a searchable directory of local, grass-fed farms: http://www.eatwild.com/products/index.html
Awesome, thanks Derrick!
Thanks I will being checking those out!
Farmer's Market should point you in the direction you need, but if you strike out, try your local craigslist under "farm and garden"
That's a great idea, Thank you!
The remarks about the 'East Coast' farms show a bias by the writer of this article. Also the economic ideas and and the science are called into question by this statement, '...land that either wishes to return to its natural forest state, or is forced into nutrition alien to its heritage.' When I am talking about finance and the environment I don't appreciate poetic language with nebulous meanings introducted into the discussion. This is an interesting article but sheep farming is invasive, destructive and this guy is capitalizing off his physically close locations to the patrons (restaurants) he serves. It looks like he might be earning more off his words than his farm and so, I can't take his points or criticisms seriously especiallyi in light of his lumping in pig farming into the mess. I can't believe these wide ranging articles get published. It's just insane.
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