Hunger for sustainability

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.



Harder to process

Nancy and Vince Pope, operators of Double Ewe Farm, are raising more lambs as part of the “self-contained” supply chain of The Conscious Carnivore. They are pictured here with border collies Tripp and Bel, who double as house pets and herding helpers.

The Popes met Durand through their mutual relationship with the now-defunct Black Earth Meats. The demise of Black Earth Meats sent Durand scrambling for a new meat-processing partner, preferably a small facility outside of a giant industrial chain. Enter Chris Johnson, of Johnson Sausage Shoppe & Catering in Rio, Wis., who was receptive to the required animal-handling practices.

Johnson’s niche in the sustainable supply chain is to ensure the animals are harvested by following state and federal meat inspection guidelines and returned to The Conscious Carnivore under the specifications requested. Her facility has similar arrangements with groups such as the Wisconsin Grass-Fed Beef Co-op.

“Bartlett approached me some time ago about an interesting business concept,” Johnson says, “and we worked out the details to make it work for both of our businesses.”

Johnson characterizes the partnership with The Conscious Carnivore as “extremely successful” for her company, and she believes such agribusiness relationships should be the way of the future. “The food we eat affects how we live, from our health to our surroundings,” she notes. “This cannot simply be part of the mix, this must be how we go forward and encourage other industries to follow the path of sustainability and high-quality foods.”

To expand into other communities, Durand suspects he’ll have to teach the required practices to smaller processing facilities. “If they don’t have the experience — either because they have no experience or they grew up this way and they just do what their fathers and uncles taught them — they don’t know to even ask the question,” he states.

Durand now views the closing of Black Earth Meats as an opportunity to spread the wealth to other shops and “jump further afield,” perhaps into neighboring states. “There are butchers out there, and we can train them, and we are training them,” Durand explains. “We have a training program and we have the management program. We have the marketing. It’s almost like a franchise model, just trying to build my own supply chain.”

Whatcha got cooking?

In addition to educating home cooks, Durand is working with local chefs like Nick Johnson, who just opened 1847 at The Stamm House Restaurant in Madison. Durand believes that locally-sourced food on the menu is a must-have for “any restaurant of any quality,” and Johnson is a willing disciple.

As Durand explains, restaurant chefs must also understand the full utilization of an animal, and beef is the classic example. In the past, he says, restaurants featured beef tenderloin as their “cheap steak,” but there only are about 12 pounds of tenderloin in a 1,500-pound animal. “If all they were doing is buying the tenderloins, what’s happening with the rest of the animal?” Durand asked. “The bigger places started having a lot of trouble when they were spending top dollar to get their tenderloin in and basically subsidizing other people to get the ground beef.”

That’s why he’s working with several chefs on utilizing a single animal across their menu. It means they can’t set a menu throughout the year, just as they can’t claim to have fresh asparagus throughout the year because it’s a seasonal vegetable.

“Everybody knows there are only certain times of the year you get these things,” Durand explains. “Well, the same is true, or should be true, with meat — not so much with the availablility but in the sense that there’s only so much of a certain thing if they run it in specials. When you have too much of something else, you can find creative ways to utilize it.”

Johnson says the concept behind 1847 at The Stamm House Restaurant is to build on the preparatory craftsmanship of farmers and butchers and to emphasize the full utilization of the animals in what he calls a modern American restaurant with French accents. Johnson believes farmers, foragers, and artisans are the restaurant’s building blocks, and “farm-to-table” should be an expectation, not merely a concept.

“Knowing the farmers who are raising the animal is the beginning,” Johnson says. “My plans are to use all of the animal, and Bartlett and his butcher have given me those capabilities. Rather than just cutting away a piece of meat that is new and trendy, I’m really working to highlight beef, pig, or lamb in many forms.”

Setting the table

Michelle Miller, associate director for CIAS, cites “agriculture in the middle” as one of the Center’s most important research directions that pertain to sustainable farming. Over the past 30 years, the number of mid-sized farms has declined dramatically, which is considered a limiting factor in the development of integrated agricultural systems. The Center, she notes, is looking to identify and breakdown barriers to reestablishing mid-sized farm operations.

“We’re looking at the issues that are keeping mid-sized farms from being economically successful,” Miller says, “because we think they provide a number of really important services to rural Wisconsin.”

For Durand, the next step is to introduce the farm-to-table concept to other Wisconsin or Midwestern communities. That will require gaining acceptance, raising money in the community, and building new partnerships.

“It’s almost like a franchise, where they put up the money for the build-out, which greatly reduces our risk coming in, and we come in with our management, sourcing, and the ability to run the shop, which greatly reduces their risk,” says Durand, noting that about $500,000 in capital would be needed to launch a good butcher shop. “The new Wisconsin crowdfunding law gives us the mechanism, so the village elders, the lawyers and doctors, and the accredited investors can always form an LLC and create that, but the more we get the community itself invovled, with $500 or $1,000 stock shares, the more it really is a community-building event.”



The grain gain

Andrew Hutchison, co-owner and baker at Madison Sourdough, is eager to gain from the study of grain, and the smart money is on wheat grown in the winter.

Madison Sourdough, a popular local bakery, is in the process of studying which grains work best in Wisconsin for both growers and consumers. A key research collaborator is Lonesome Stone Milling in Lone Rock, Wis., through which the bakery now sources 30% of its flour. Lonesome Stone owner Gilbert Williams has been working with farmers to help find granular answers, which would contribute mightily to a sustainable agricultural cycle.

Andrew Hutchison, co-owner and baker, Madison Sourdough

In the limited field tests conducted so far, they’ve toyed with two types of grain: a spring grain and a winter grain. The latter is interesting in that it’s planted in the early fall and allowed to grow briefly before going dormant in winter and coming back up in the spring. As Hutchison explains, the different qualities of each variety have a significant affect on how they perform for baking. While the conventional wisdom is that spring wheats tend to be higher in protein and more suitable for bread-making, spring wheat in Wisconsin doesn’t seem to yield as well as winter wheat.

“What that leads us to assume is the direction we need to go is to find winter wheats that are even more suitable than what we are currently using,” Hutchison noted.

For a grain to work well, its yield must be high and its baking qualities and flavor must be very good. One way southern Wisconsin growers can distinguish themselves is by having grains that don’t reflect the kind of commodity wheats consumers can find anywhere. What Hutchison would like to do is develop grains that perform in the field, perform well for the miller, and present a unique flavor profile for bakers and consumers.

Hutchison, who prefers wheat that is slightly lower in protein (for better baking quality), admits it could take a decade to find all the answers, but some useful data could come in as few as three growing seasons. “In the field trials that we’ve done, you need at least three growing years to find the average yield and also the sensory data because the environmental factor is unpredictable,” he states, “and it has a dramatic affect on the overall quality, taste, and yield of the grain.”

There is additional adaptability in the many ways that Madison Sourdough can adjust its baking process. The bakery has invested in its own mill, an old-school machine that preserves more of the flavor of grain, but it doesn’t just rely on equipment. “We can do almost everything by hand, so we can react to the different qualities,” Hutchison notes. “We want more control over what flavors we can get from these different varieties [of wheat]. It’s different like tomatoes are different. One kind is more acidic, another has more sugar, and that’s the level of detail that we want to get into.”

Spokes of a food hub

More sustainable momentum could come to south central Wisconsin from a new federal initiative designed to help communities develop globally competitive economic development strategies.

Michael Gay, senior vice president of economic development for the Madison Region Economic Partnership, or MadREP, is awaiting word on a submission to the federal Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership (IMCP) program. Thirty local projects representing a total of $130 million in capital costs would move forward with funding if MadRep receives a program designation from IMCP.

But don’t let the word manufacturing fool you. According to Gay, the $130 million figure includes a 3-to-1 ratio of private-to-public financing, more than $1 billion in economic impact once implemented over a 10-year period, and an industry consortium for the entire agriculture, food, and beverage sector.

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.