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    Farming in Flux

  • Family farms are disappearing, even as restaurants look to source better ingredients. Can agriculture and foodservice help save each other?

    mad greens
    For fast-casual leaders like Mad Greens’ Dan Long, a successful restaurant-farm partnership begins with trust.

    In the last five years, food-sourcing issues like traceability, sustainability, and quality have moved from the periphery of foodservice operations to the white-hot center. Fast-food titans like McDonald’s have pledged to source better ingredients, while emerging fast casuals have grown around the mission to serve fresh, and often local, fare.

    Consumers are more educated about what they eat, and their involvement is apparent in how restaurants build their menus and market their concepts. Less visible to the average consumer, however, is the agriculture side of the relationship between foodservice and food producers.

    For better or worse, their fates are intertwined: Both are faced with mounting costs, food safety concerns, and higher demands on the quality of their food. But while young entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are flocking to restaurants, other Millennials are leaving their multi-generational farms in favor of greener pastures with more economic certainty.

    Building stronger relationships and working through these problems together, foodservice and agriculture stand to emerge even stronger.

    Equal partners

    The first thing one needs to know about the state of agriculture today and its importance to the restaurant industry is that the two are no longer begrudging partners. These days, they play for the same team.

    “I don’t call them a customer, and they don’t call me a vendor. We’re partners,” says Jeff Tripician, general manager of Niman Ranch, in discussing the company’s foodservice clients. A natural meat processor comprised of small, family-owned livestock producers, Niman Ranch counts the likes of Shake Shack, Panera Bread, Au Bon Pain, and Burgerville as partners, as well as Chipotle, which has sourced pork from it since 2001.

    Rancher Bill Niman founded Niman Ranch, a network of more than 725 farms, in Oakland, California, in 1969 (he left in 2007, a year after Chicago-based Natural Food Holdings bought a majority stake). Niman’s protocols for all farms within the system pull from traditional husbandry practices (animal feed is vegetarian, no antibiotics are used, pens must be a certain size, etc.), but when he founded Niman Ranch, he was decades ahead of the curve.

    “In the past, there were a few very progressive partners—Chipotle, people like that. They were way out there in their thinking, and now other people are paying attention to that and saying we want that, too,” Tripician says. “We’re seeing this interest at a level that is unprecedented.”

    Indeed, while Chipotle has been under intense scrutiny after a spate of food-borne illnesses, farmers and restaurants alike praise the brand for its trailblazing approach to sourcing higher-quality, fresh foods.

    Bob Benenson manages communications for FamilyFarmed, a nonprofit that started as an environmental advocacy group but soon adjusted its mission to promote local, organic foods and provide support and training to farmers. He says that although some critics might blame the “fresh” food for Chipotle’s woes, the brand and other fast casuals shouldn’t try to put the genie back in the bottle.

    “[Chipotle] set a pattern. They also put a big target on their back by confronting conventional agriculture and saying local and small is better,” Benenson says. He adds that the tide is changing when it comes to sourcing local, high-quality ingredients—although not as rapidly as he and others at FamilyFarmed would prefer—and restaurants are helping move the needle.

    In 1987, when Rick Bayless opened his first restaurant, Frontera Grill, in Chicago, he wanted to replicate the system he had studied in Mexico, in which restaurants went to the local market for fresh ingredients. Back then, Bayless could find nothing—at least not in the quantities he needed—within the state of Illinois. As Benenson tells it, this led Bayless to do outreach within the agriculture community and find pioneering farmers who were producing superior products. Other Chicago chefs also carried the mantle, including Paul Kahan, Sarah Stegner, Carrie Nahabedian, and the late Charlie Trotter.

    “In the Chicago area, it was actually restaurants and chefs who played a huge role,” Benenson says. “Farm to table went from a little niche … to a trend to a way of cooking, a way of doing business that has become so common that if you talk to some of the original farm-to-table chefs … they’ll say they don’t even use [the term] anymore because it would be cliché. It’s just the way we do our business.”

    In those early days, Bayless would lend local farmers money to help make ends meet, and eventually this practice evolved into the Frontera Farmer Foundation. Since 2003, this nonprofit has raised money and awarded development grants of about $10,000–$12,000 to small, sustainable farms in the Midwest.

    Casey Cora, media director for Bayless’ Frontera Grill, XOCO, and Topolobampo, says that after this summer’s round, the Frontera Farmer Foundation will have raised about $2 million in its 13 years of operation. The five-person board that reviews the grant applications is diverse—composed of a chef, a farmer, a social entrepreneur, a former grant winner, and a nonprofit expert—to ensure the farmers’ proposed projects actually become a reality.

    “People say it’s been life-changing for their business. Just by virtue of what they do, it’s hard to sock away money, and so if you get a $10,000–$12,000 shot in the arm for this project, that sets them ahead a couple of years in doing what they want to do,” Cora says. “There have been a number of farms—I guess you could call ‘success stories’—that have been put in touch with new opportunities and restaurants.”

    The new face of farming

    Whether in the form of grants or business partnerships, restaurant support is vital to the future of agriculture. Not only have changing weather patterns wreaked havoc on crop and livestock yields, but farmers must also contend with diseases like last year’s avian flu. Combine these challenges with the unpredictable nature of agriculture and the hard manual labor required, and it’s no wonder the average age of farmers in the U.S. is 57.

    According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that figure is up from 55 five years ago. In that same five-year period, the number of farmers under age 25 has decreased by 20 percent while farmers 75 or older have increased 30 percent in their ranks.

    “If you’re a 20-something-year-old and you just got your ag degree from Iowa State, … would you like to take loans from the bank, work really hard, and then bring your livestock to market, and maybe lose a lot of money? Maybe make a little?” Tripician says. “You don’t really know because that’s determined on the day you come to market. Or you could go to the city and get a job doing something else. Most people were saying they’d go to the city, unfortunately.”

    Niman Ranch is working to reinvigorate its farming base so that prospective farmers can earn good livelihoods. Whether through a contract or a handshake, farmers who follow Niman Ranch’s guidelines are guaranteed they will fetch the premium price for their animals. If feed or field prices skyrocket, Niman Ranch has the funds to make up the price difference so the farmers don’t take a hit.

    “We want those farmers to do it the right way—to not cut any corners or break any rules. We don’t want them to worry about being paid,” Tripician says. “We want them to worry about quality.” A decade ago, the average age of a Niman rancher was 67; now, Tripician says, it’s down to 47.

    As counterintuitive as it may sound, the last recession might have helped infuse agriculture with some much-needed young blood. Although much of the economy has improved, the altered landscape has led the Millennial generation (ages 20–36) to rethink their future plans.

    “I really think the Great Recession reordered a lot of things in our society,” FamilyFarmed’s Benenson says. “Bad times create a lot of innovative and entrepreneurial energy; people have to fend for themselves. … What you see is a lot of young people going into food entrepreneurship.”

    Benenson says Jim Slama, FamilyFarmed’s founder and president, had an epiphany years ago when he was driving through Illinois and saw all the “gorgeous black soil” being used for corn. Most of it was going into either cars or cows, with only 5 percent reserved for actual human consumption in Illinois. The new generation of farmers, Benenson says, don’t want to grow corn and soy; they’re interested in growing food.

    Entrepreneurial, socially minded Millennials may be attracted to farming, but many lack the capital to buy land and equipment. At the same time, young people from farming families who understand the full commitment of such an endeavor are choosing not to continue the family business, even though they have the means and materials.

    Labor—both in terms of cost and the physicality of farming—is another major concern. “There are few ways to automate farming until you get to the very large scale, and even there, it’s still very labor intensive. I think that’s the biggest challenge for most farmers,” says Dan Long, cofounder and chief culinary innovator of Mad Greens, as well as board member with the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. “A lot of people get into it without really thinking about how hard the work actually is. And then, obviously, the pay is another big issue.”

    Menu shoutouts

    Despite these difficulties, emerging fast-casual and Fast Casual 2.0 brands, as well as established quick-service mainstays, are doing more to reach across the supply chain to farms and ranches than in decades past. Across the board, foodservice is interested in boosting the quality of its offerings, a shift that has been largely driven by more educated consumers.

    “You can’t take the guest out of the equation. At the end of the day, the guest is the one that actually supports the local farm, not the restaurant,” says Mario Del Pero, cofounder and CEO of Fast Casual 2.0 Mendocino Farms. “We want people to understand that better ingredients do cost a little bit more, but actually taste better and, for that matter, are far better for you. But that education is secondary to taste.”

    Since Del Pero and his wife, Ellen Chen, opened the first location, Mendocino Farms has worked with small and medium-size purveyors like Scarborough Farms, which supplies produce, and Drake Family Farms, which supplies goat cheese. Compared with 2003, when the concept opened its first location, more small fine-dining establishments and fast casuals are committing to buying local, sustainable ingredients. Del Pero says the taste discrepancy has been a giant leap forward for the movement; customers are starting to notice the difference in the quality of the food they can get at limited-service restaurants. At the same time, guests are also more interested in transparency and curious about the origins of their food.