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Hunger for sustainability

(page 1 of 3)

From the pages of In Business magazine.

If Bartlett Durand, business manager of The Conscious Carnivore Food & Grocery, is correct, all eyes are on southern Wisconsin when it comes to the still evolving farm-to-table movement. That’s because no region is better positioned to serve as a model for such integrated agricultural systems.

Several of the necessary components are in place to build the kind of partnerships that have long-term resilience, such as:

  • Educated consumers who prefer food produced in a sustainable, humane manner. Check.
  • Small, diverse farms that can supply a variety of products and are operated by farmers willing to adopt sustainable practices. Check.
  • A tradition of small-scale food processing, not just for meat but for vegetables. Check.
  • Growing connections between the people who grow the food and those who consume it. Check.
  • Innovation kitchens to lend more food-hub momentum. Check.
  • Home cooks and restaurant chefs who are willing to learn more about food utilization. Check.
  • An ample number of outlets for sustainably produced farm products and enough mid-sized farms to help meet consumer demand? Whoops.
“It’s almost like a franchise model, just trying to build my own supply chain.”   
— Bartlett Durand, business manager, The Conscious Carnivore Food & Grocery

While we’re ahead of the curve in local food, there is still some developmental work to be done if this aspect of sustainable agriculture is to really spread its wings here and elsewhere. Fortunately, plenty of people are hard at work building the necessary relationships. “Sometimes we think about the marketplace being all about competition,” notes Michael Bell, director of the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) at UW–Madison. “Yes, that’s part of it, but what’s so very crucial is relationships between actors, not just between customers and producers but all along the supply chain.”

In this look at agribusiness, we explore the “self-contained” supply chain being developed by Durand, who manages an old-fashioned butcher shop with a locally-sourced business model.

Rhyme and reason

A classic nursery rhyme helps explain the fundamental concept behind The Conscious Carnivore. As Durand notes, virtually every community once had a butcher, a baker, and a candlestick maker, all of whom provided a service that people couldn’t easily do at home. The butcher was entrusted with the difficult task of properly slaughtering farm animals to provide meat for families, a responsibility modern butchers still have.

“You start getting into the philosophical realm, almost the spiritual realm, of the butcher having the one occupation that takes life, which is a difficult thing to do,” Durand notes. “It’s got a certain reverance to it when done correctly because we’re entrusting this person, the butcher, not only to do the slaughter properly, but then to preserve it and teach us how to honor the animal, which is done in multiple ways.”

Honoring the animal, Durand explains, involves knowing where it comes from and the story behind it, ensuring the slaughter is done humanely and properly preparing the meat products so that nothing goes to waste. In his world, that translates into working with farmers who do a good job of pasture-raising animals that are grass-fed and well cared for. It also means collaborating with small slaughter facilities that have the aforementioned practices and, as a “whole-animal” butcher shop, it means offering alternative cuts of meat and educating consumers on proper cooking and meat-cutting techniques, even to the point of collaborating on recipes and menus.

“We’re really creating a sense of community,” Durand says, “around this sense of good meat.”

On the lamb

Bartlett Durand (left), Dave Gathy, and Rhonda Slinde of The Conscious Carnivore are building a farm-to-table supply chain emphasizing the utilization of entire animals.

That sense of community begins on the farm. The Conscious Carnivore partners with several Wisconsin farms, including the Double Ewe Farm in Arena, Wis., which is in the process of ramping up to supply The Conscious Carnivore year-round.

Operators Vince and Nancy Pope produce pasture-raised lamb and beef, but it’s the way they produce their products that make them worthy partners of carnivores with a conscience. In the Popes’ view, what separates sustainable-management farms from large factory farms is their attention to using natural resources more efficiently and effectively. They cite practices such as testing pasture soils, composting manure, and fertilizing only when necessary. The Double Ewe Farm also practices multi-species grazing in order to use the flora more efficiently and reduce parasite rates in its animals.

In complying with Animal Welfare Approved, an organization that audits and certifies family farms that use “high-welfare” farming methods, the farm must meet standards for humane treatment such as access to pasture, grass-feeding, and the provision of ample shelter, shade, and water. The farm must also have contingency plans for fire, flood, and snowstorms. “You can actually label through AWA, so we’re pretty excited about that,” says Vince Pope.

To rebuild the connection between farm and fork, the Popes encourage people to bring their children to the farm, see the animals, and gain more understanding about the importance of buying local. “I think some consumers have lost touch with where their food actually comes from,” says Nancy Pope, who is also a veterinarian. “They don’t know it’s anything other than something in a package.”

According to Vince Pope, the biggest challenge for sustainable small farmers is getting their product to market and getting a good price for it. Farmers can direct-market their products to individual customers, but it’s very time-consuming and costly, especially if they also have jobs outside the farm. So the partnership with The Conscious Carnivore, which will enable the Popes to grow their herd to 120 lambs, is critical. “I believe strongly in sustainable agriculture and purchasing local, but we need more people like Bartlett,” Vince says. “We need more outlets for our products.”

In time, Vince hopes most consumers will demand that meat be produced in a more sustainable fashion, but the pessimist in him says Americans are accustomed to cheap food sources, and that might place limits on the farm-to-table movement.

“Like any business, you have consumers who want quality, care about environment, care about how that animal is raised, and are maybe more willing to pay a little bit extra for that,” he notes. “Quite honestly, sustainable agriculture is not always cheap.”

In establishing partnerships with farmers, Durand and the farmer have to make an arrangement that works economically for both parties and the customer. “We have a rule at our shop,” Durand notes. “Anytime someone comes in and says, ‘I grow animals; can I sell them to you?’ the answer is yes, but that comes with a lot of caveats.” In addition to practicing the preferred type of agriculture, they have to get a fair price. “Now it’s going to generally be above market, but they can’t say, ‘Private individuals pay me $10 a pound.’ That’s never going to happen.”

Durand insists that his farm partners come to the butcher shop and meet his customers so that everyone understands the challenges of each partner. There is plenty of collaborative incentive to go around because without a partnership that works for everyone, “you’ve got to find a whole new person to fill that role,” Durand explains.


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