Hallie: Hello and welcome to One to Grow On. A show where we dig into questions about agriculture and try to understand how food production impacts us and our world. I’m Hallie Casey and I studied and currently work in agriculture.
Chris: My name is Chris Casey. I’m Hallie’s dad. Each episode we pick an area of agriculture or food production to discuss. This week we are talking about, I don’t know, what are we talking about?
Chris: Local food and supply chains. Something that I don’t understand.
Hallie: Today on the show, we have two awesome folks from the Chicago Good Food non-profit FamilyFarmed. We have Anna Crofts who is a program manager and Bob Benenson the communications manager.
Anna: Hi. Great to be here.
Anna: Thanks for having us.
Bob: Yes, thanks a lot. It’s good to be here.
Hallie: Anna, you and I have chatted before, but Bob, you and I actually have never met. Neither of you guys have met dad. I was wondering if you guys could give a little introduction about you and what you do for FamilyFarmed and maybe a little background on FamilyFarmed as an organization.
Chris: Okay. Just for the record, we met 10 minutes ago.
Chris: I don’t know where you were or what you were doing, but we were chatting it up.
Hallie: Well, then just for the listeners at home.
Bob: We are old friends by now.
Chris: That’s right.
Anna: Well, I can start and then I can let Bob give the history of FamilyFarmed since he’s been around for quite a while. My name’s Anna. I work on our farmer training and market development programs mainly with the farmer training working with our farmer trainer Atina Diffley to carry out trainings all across the country. We’ve done trainings that are about 48 of the 50 states by now. A lot of those focus heavily on farm food safety and trying to make sure that we’re preparing beginner farmers or even farmers who just want to revamp their operations so that they can practice proper food safety, understand things like the Food Modernization Act and get them prepared for the GAP certification, which is good agricultural practices in case they want to become certified. Our trainings are a mixture of that. Then we also focus on helping them to get into new markets, whether that’s direct marketing, things like CSAs and farmers markets, or wholesale marketing if they want to sell to restaurants or to bigger distributors. On the market development side of things, what we do is we try and partner to get farmers products into stores whether it’s wholesale distributors or smaller retailers. It works across the organization with our other programs, like the Good Food Accelerator, which is a program that focuses on local beginning food entrepreneurs. What a lot of our market development does is it helps them to get opportunities with retailers so we get their products onto the shelf. My job is to just coordinate those programs, to make connections, to help with grant deliverables, make sure that we’re staying on track. That’s majority of my work.
Hallie: Awesome. That is so interesting. Bob, do you want to tell us a little bit about your piece and the rest of FamilyFarmed?
Bob: Okay, sure. I came to this as a second career. I’m a career journalist. I spent 30 years in Washington, DC covering politics, covering elections. My wife grew up in a farm about 45 miles South of Chicago. So I kind of literally inherited the farm after her dad passed away in 2008.
Bob: I’ve always had a passion for food. When I moved out here in 2011 we just loved Chicago, I decided that I really wanted to work with people who were working at the grassroots community level to affect positive change, and it could have gone a lot of different directions. Unfortunately, I met Jim Slama, our CEO about eight years ago and I was able to build a career in good food advocacy. FamilyFarmed evolved out of an organization. It started earlier in 1996 called Sustain, which was an environmental advocacy and marketing company. They would run up media campaigns and supportive environmental issues. He started working on some campaigns like in 1998 to enforce strong organic standards. This was when they were first creating the USDA organic standards and there were some ridiculous things that agribusiness was trying to push through like you could grow in sewage sludge and still get certified as organic. They played a big role of blocking that. Over the next few years, Jim recognized that there were a lot of major organizations doing environmental advocacy, but practically nobody was doing good food and nobody was working to connect local farmers with buyers. This was before anybody ever heard of the Good Food Movement. Really, it was very embryonic. Then in 2004, they launched the Good Food EXPO, which remained the flagship of FamilyFarmed until last year. Then we discontinued it because we were doing other programming. It was actually called the Local Organic Trade Show. That was its purpose.
It was to connect farmers with buyers. The name was changed to FamilyFarmed officially in 2006. Again, very farmer oriented. The farmer training program that Anna was describing became a reality in 2008. It has been based on a series of manuals that Anna will get into more detail. The first was Wholesale Success, which was aimed at helping farmers who are a little bit more advanced and mature to get into wholesale markets. Then Direct Market Success, which we published in 2016. I was already on board and I played a role in that. That was aimed at early stage farmers get their feet wet and build market by direct marketing, farmers markets and CSAs and direct restaurant, things like that. Then food safety has always been a premier issue and so the On-Farm Food Safety manual and website was created. FamilyFarmed has changed a little bit over the years because the market has changed. Now, there is the Good Food Movement. There’s a massive population that is concerned about health and wellness environmental sustainability. There are a lot of producers and investors involved in it. Other programs like our Good Food Financing & Innovation Conference, Good Food Accelerator, Naturally Chicago, which we started last year. I really engaged a lot in that. But I’ll turn it back over to Anna to tell you what we’re still doing for farmers.
Hallie: Bob, you mentioned the farmer success manuals. I got to say, I’ve used these manuals. They’re good manuals. The other day, like two days ago, I was talking to a farmer and he’s like, “Have you seen this manual? I saw it once. It looked like really good content and I just can’t seem to find it.” I was like, “Oh, do you mean this manual? It’s a great manual.” [Laughs].
Bob: Yeah, so many of the farmers who have used it have told us that it’s dog eared. [Laughs].
Bob: It’s in their workspace. They use it every day. It’s been a real mainstay.
Chris: I was going to say you talking about the Good Food Movement, I had never heard of the Good Food Movement. I think you described it pretty well, but I had never heard it called that.
Hallie: I was wondering if either of you guys could maybe give a more expanded definition of Good Food, because we’ve never actually talked about it on the show and I know it goes beyond just organic and local and those more commonly heard labels. I was wondering if either of you guys were able to give a more expanded definition of that.
Bob: I’ll jump in because I’ve actually done a lot of work on our mission and vision. We define it as accessible and delicious food that is produced as locally as possible using sustainable humane and fair practices. It covers a lot of ground, it covers environmental issues, it covers labor issues, it covers health and wellness issues and it covers food accessibility. The vision statement that FamilyFarmed has had for a long time is good food on every table. I would underline it all caps every because that’s the intention. Too many people are excluded from this. We’re expanding our programming to reach people in under resourced communities, lower income people to make sure that they have equitable access to the same good, healthy food, sustainable food for everybody and that people get a lot of financial means already have accessible to them. Anna.
Anna: Oh yeah. I agree with all of that.
I think that’s a pretty succinct definition of the Good Food Movement. It’s definitely like an intersectional approach to just providing from the environment to labor, to people, making sure everyone has access to good food and so I think you described it perfectly, Bob.
Bob: Thanks. [Laughs].
Hallie: This interview is going to be part of a larger series. We’re talking about local food. As a part of that, we talked to an urban farmer and we talked to a farmer’s market manager and I wanted to bring you guys on to get that more broader view of what it really looks like to incorporate local food into the food system and into the supply chain. I was wondering, Anna, if you could talk a little bit about your work, but also your views on what drew you to this work. One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed in these interviews is learning how people got to the Good Food Movement and the local food movement because I feel like people just often take the really interesting paths I guess to get here because it’s something that really draws you in.
Anna: After I graduated college, I went to school in New York and then I graduated and I moved down to Buenos Aires, Argentina and I was working for a software company. One thing that really struck me was one of my first grocery shopping experiences in the city. I went and my partner at the time wanted me to pick up some chicken and I went to the store and I realized they had run out of chicken. I asked them at the store. I was like, “Oh, do you have any more chicken left?” They were like, “No, you got to get in early for that.” It was like a big chain grocery store and I was just like, “How do you run out of chicken?” Coming from the United States, this is the land of abundance. There’s restocking the shelves all the time. It was really shocking to me.
After that realization, I met a woman who became a good friend of mine down there. She was really focused on intersectional veganism, and a lot of that had a huge food justice focus and so I just started to learn about all of this. It’s happening in Argentina, but it was definitely happening in the US just like food disparity, “food deserts.” These are things that I never had to think about growing up because I grew up in a privileged background and so we never had to struggle to find food. We had a grocery store less than a mile away from our house. I just started to think like, wow, food is such a fundamental human right. The fact that there are structures in place to prevent people from having access to something that is just so basic, and so really easy or should be easy to provide. It became something I care deeply about. I left the software marketing world and I moved back to the US and became an AmeriCorps VISTA for an organization called the Regional Environmental Council. The name is a bit misleading. They had more of a focus on urban farming and food justice practices. Working with them, I was able to learn a lot about the importance of local food. We did a lot of work around supplemental nutrition benefits, like SNAP, making sure that farmers markets are getting grants that would allow the local farmers markets to accept SNAP. Then doing a lot of advocacy for information outreach. People knew that if they shop at this farmers market their benefits would be doubled. You’re essentially getting $20 extra dollars in free produce. When we think about the importance of local food, it’s important for so many reasons. I think one thing that’s been really illuminating about COVID in this age that we’re living in is that it has really laid bare all of the structural flaws that big ag has caused, like having to ship to all these big grocery stores across the country. Not only is there like a lot of environmental degradation, but it’s just not sustainable. I think that’s what we’re really seeing right now.
There’s the environmental issue, but also like with what Bob said when thinking of labor, when you shop locally, if you go to a farmers market, you’re able to meet the farmer. Usually, the farmer or the people working on the farm are also the ones, I know this because I worked on a farm as well, and they’re the ones at the market selling you the products that they grow. There’s a transparency there. I think that where you spend your money it’s a lot of power and so you can make the choice like I’m going to give my money to this farm and to this farmer, because I know, or I can figure out if they’re using good labor practices whereas with big agriculture, you don’t know. A lot of the time it’s very predatory on migrant farmers and they’re making really low wages in very poor working conditions and our government allows that. There’s the human aspect. But then I think when we shop locally, we also realize like tomatoes aren’t in season in December. I think that seasonality and education around seasonality becomes really important because it can help people. It has all these residual benefits too. It’s like, okay, what’s in season? Like I have to learn how to cook it. I think it can help people to just really deepen their relationship with food. It’s all of these beautiful things coming together that makes shopping locally, so powerful and so important. I do want to add that it’s not always easy, right? I think that sometimes dropping at a farmers market you’re privileged enough if you live near one and sometimes prices are really high. That’s why I think it’s really important for benefits like SNAP and a lot of different farmers markets have double food boxes being able to get these grants so that people who are on supplemental nutrition benefits can get more bang for their buck because local food is great, but it can be expensive for a lot of people. I just think we all need to be mindful about never stopping to push for that fight for access. Sorry, that’s a tangent.
Hallie: No, it’s so true though. I feel like accesses can be left out of the Good Food discussions. Edwin Marty, actually, I remember one time told me he’s the sustainability manager for the city of Austin. One time he told me, “Yeah, you can buy something organic, but technically something organic could be certified organic and it could still have been grown with slave labor.” That’s true, right? Having this more holistic view of what does it really mean for us as consumers to have these poor labor standards on the food that we’re consuming and how is it considered ethical to basically force poorer folks to have to buy food that can be grown with forced labor or slave labor or other manipulative or other terrible labor practices? How is that ethical? We need to be talking more holistically about how we can all vote with our dollars and eat food ethically and conscionably. Obviously, it’s a human need. Everyone has to eat, but also why do we think it’s okay that if you can’t go to the farmers market, then you just have to buy this food that is unethically produced?
Anna: Right. I think that obviously organic is super important and organic practices are fantastic, but certification is something that can be really complicated and the paperwork is hard. It takes a pretty long time, especially if you bought land that you then have to convert. That can take like three years. A lot of farms, especially if you’re just starting out and you don’t have a ton of capital or you don’t have a lot of money to put into it, the USDA organic certification process can be lengthy and costly and time consuming. What a lot of farms do is, in the farm that I worked on in Massachusetts did this, we followed organic practices. We did not use any pesticides. It was like totally old school, like organic farming, but we would go to the farmers market and people would come up to our table and be is this organic?
We would explain we don’t have the certification, but it’s organic. A lot of people would walk away because they wanted us to have that stamp. It was unfortunate. I’m empathetic because I understand you want to make sure that your food is coming from a place that is using organic pesticides. But I think that more people are becoming aware that USDA organic doesn’t necessarily mean all of these great, wonderful things. I think things like certified naturally grown, which is an alternative to certified organic is really great. It’s a lot less costly. It’s a lot less time consuming and it’s basically like a peer review. Like farmers in your area coming to your farm to ensure that you are in fact using organic practices and I think it’s a great alternative for a lot of farming folks.
Hallie: Right. For sure.
Chris: Wow. This is awesome.
Hallie: Wait, what’s awesome?
Chris: This episode that we’re recording right now with Bob and Anna.
Hallie: You know what else is awesome?
Chris: What is awesome?
Hallie: All of our patrons on this episode. [Laughs]. We just wanted to take a minute to go through and we’re going to be thanking all of our patrons by name. In this episode, we’ve really loved doing the series on local food and these patrons made it possible and they made all of our series possible and they make it possible for us to continue making the show. We wanted to go through and thank them all. If you’re interested in joining our Patreon family and supporting the show, you can find it at patreon.com/onetogrowonpod.
Chris: So thank you to.
Hallie: Leah, Nicole.
Chris: And Andrew.
Hallie: You guys totally rock our worlds. You make all of this possible and we are so, so, so grateful for you every day and especially today.
Chris: Thank you so much. Back to the episode.
Hallie: I guess it’s a pretty linear line to knowing where your food comes from and shopping at the farmers market. But I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what that looks like when you start to scale up and try to get into retail or institutional purchasing.
Anna: With wholesale, I think the reason that our farmer training program focuses so heavily on food safety is because when you start selling to institutions or selling into wholesale market streams, you need to be able to track everything you’re doing and have a record for everything you’re doing, because if say something like an outbreak happens that can shut your farm down forever. A lot of things that farmers aren’t thinking about when they’re just doing like direct to consumer marketing really becomes a liability and something they have to think about in a very serious way. I think another thing that we talk about when it comes to breaking into wholesale markets is your farm may not be in terms of like the produce that you’re growing or the products that you’re growing, it may not be as diversified as if you were doing direct to consumer marketing, because you might want to figure out what grows really well in your soil and focus on those crops. Because the thing about wholesale markets is that you need to be able to give them the product they want.
It needs to look really great because grocery stores don’t like to have what we call ugly produce. A lot of the focus is about food safety. It’s about figuring out what you grow really well, and then maybe growing more of that, and less of something else. I think the reason in the beginning that they’re resistant towards breaking into the wholesale market is because they have to lower their prices. If you’re selling a bundle of Swiss chard at the farmers market for $4 to $5 a bundle, at wholesale you’re not going to be able to sell it that high because you’re selling it at larger quantities, so you will get the return you want. But I think if you’ve been doing direct marketing for so long and you see those prices cut in half, or sometimes even sliced further, I think it scares a lot of farmers away from moving into wholesale streams because it’s like, oh, well, I’m not going to make any money on this. But the great thing about wholesale is that it usually is a bit more secure. That’s what we try and tell farmers in the long-term, if you can build these relationships and that’s sort of what these workshops will try and help them do and that’s definitely what the manual does. I think that’s why a lot of farmers refer back to it so often. We help them with figuring out a pricing structure. I don’t know if that answers your question.
Chris: My head has gone down a little bit of a path of doom because I’ve heard you all mention food safety several times. The first time you mentioned it I’m like, oh yeah, people need to wash their vegetables. But then you said outbreak and I’m like, oh, it sounds much more complicated and in depth than that.
Anna: Your farm, the operation needs to be laid out in a certain way, and you need to even be washing your vegetables in a certain way.
So that when someone from the health department shows up, because there is an E coli outbreak in romaine and you’re in California and you sell romaine, you need to be able to show them day by day how you were harvesting, how you were washing, they need to come see where your washing stations are, where your compost pile is. All of that matters so much because you want to make sure you want to have a very detailed log that ensures that the outbreak was not from your farm. That’s what these food safety logs really help you do is to avoid any liability. It’s like, look, here’s my log. Our farm is good for this. We are following all of these practices. It’s really, really important especially for folks who want to go and get further certifications.
Hallie: Food safety is an issue for all farms, not just farms that are local and starting to sell into wholesale, but it’s one of those carrying costs that like the bigger you are, the less percentage of the money you’re spending it’s going to cost. It’s just one of those overhead costs. If you’re switching from direct marketing out to a farmers market into something like a wholesale market to a grocery store, then it’s going to be a much larger part of your costs because you’re one, starting all of these practices from scratch. They don’t exist and so you’re having all of this startup labor and then two also, because you’re often coming in with smaller production. It’s a lot of work and it just can freak out farmers sometimes. But because food grows in the world, there is always a risk that there will be some kind of bacteria or something that will start to grow on food at some point.
Chris: Men, farming’s complicated.
Bob: One of the interesting thing is that the [inaudible] series of studies over the year and they actually say that most food borne illnesses do not happen at the farm. It happens sometimes, and we’ve got all these regulations with our farmers have a really significant burden in making sure that the best practices are followed, but most of the problems that occur are because of food handling after it leaves the farm. The supply chain world, wholesalers, retailers, people at home not washing their vegetables correctly or not storing them correctly. It’s a conundrum that the farmers really face the heaviest regulatory load here and they may not be the people who are really very responsible for a lot of the food borne illnesses [inaudible] that occur.
Chris: What are some of the big challenges that you all face in your line of work?
Bob: Well, one is public awareness. Food has been so readily available and cheap in our society that a lot of people haven’t really given a second thought, especially people who are aware that food insecurity is never an issue. Getting people to understand the health and wellness consequences of what they eat, why they should eat better. The huge rise of food related illness in our society, it’s costing lives. It’s costing a lot of human suffering, it’s raising our healthcare costs enormously and getting that message through the people though is really hard. The high cost of cheap food. If your food is grown with pesticides that will poison the soil, and then the waters maybe get ingested into your system, or it’s grown by cheap labor practices that victimize lower income workers. Most people don’t realize that. They don’t realize that the long-term consequences what they are because they’re in separate buckets. You’ve got the healthcare bucket, you’ve got the labor bucket, you’ve got the equity bucket and all these things.
All they see is the price tag. This bag of apples is $0.99 and that one is $3. People still mostly buy food because they’re price conscious, so this is an educational effort that’s really challenging. The only thing is we’ve always seen a gradual rise in consumer awareness and then caveat it. I think this may be an inflection point. I hope I’m not being over-optimistic when I say that, but people are so much more focused on health and wellness because of the outbreaks, the hotspots that occurred in the factory production of meat, especially they’re are now more aware of factory farming and factory production practices. A lot of people are becoming uneasy about that. That’s a good thing because of the higher level of awareness that not everything is right about our food system and the seemingly infallible supply chain that gets you food to your table like that. There’s never been an issue before. Now, it’s got weaknesses. It’s got flaws. People may be are starting to recognize that buy from local farmers, know your farmer, know your food as the old Anthem is important. Then when you add in the multiplier effect for local anything, buy local. If your dollars stay at home, they actually have a bigger impact on economic health and economic by telling instead of sending your money away to Arkansas or someplace like that. Communication is a big challenge on this aspect, but I think we’re making progress.
Anna: For the farmer’s trainings, the thing that has always been difficult is sometimes just being able to get farmers to come to our trainings. Farmers are really busy. They don’t have vacations, they don’t take breaks, their farm is their life. So we try and structure the trainings in the off season, like in the winter time. January is a pretty good month, but it can be really hard to get folks to get them to come out and that’s just because they have like a ton of work on their plate. I think one thing that I’m excited about and have been talking to Atina Diffley, our farmer trainer is this new opportunity of doing virtual sessions.
Hopefully, a lot of our trainings are grant funded and so we would have to go to specific regions, but I think now this opportunity to host a training and then just have a more national audience attend virtually, I think it’s going to be a really major opportunity. I’m excited about that because I do think the outreach has been a difficult aspect in the past.
Chris: I would just like to take a moment to say thank you, because I have found nothing positive about this COVID-19 outbreak and finding some bright spots is great. Let me tell you.
Bob: Definitely, if we learn from the experience and move in the direction of a [inaudible] society, because one of the things about COVID-19 it’s establishing those people. We’ve said that people with underlying health conditions who are the most likely to contract the disease and most likely suffer severe or fatal consequences. If we can get people to eat better and provide better food for all people, then we’re going to reduce the rise, or maybe even reduce the rate of diarrhea related disease and reduce this degree of vulnerability. There’s one positive takeaway.
Hallie: I just wanted to thank you guys so much for coming on. It’s been such a joy talking with you guys. Do you guys have anything else that you want to leave our listeners with or any calls to action, anywhere to connect with FamilyFarmed or anything like that?
Anna: I think that I just want to make a plug for Illinois, but also it’s a national coalition, but Buy Fresh Buy Local is a really great resource. It’s definitely not in all 50 states, but you can look it up and you can see if your state is participating.
It’s basically an online resource where you can find farmers in your area, farmers markets in your area, retailers that stock their shelves with products from local farms. We are a part of the steering committee for Buy Fresh Buy Local Illinois, and then a lot of amazing folks and organizations have put a lot of work into it. If you’re someone who has moved to a new area, or you’re just not even sure where your local farmers market is and especially if you’re in Illinois, definitely look up, Buy Fresh Buy Local, because that will point you in the right direction to whatever you need in terms of local farms and food.
Bob: If any of your listeners want to reach out to Anna and connect with her on farmer training and market development, just send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and put farmer training or market development in the subject line. If anybody just needs general information about FamilyFarmed, they can reach out to me on email@example.com.
Chris: If you were to say one thing, people should eat local because?
Bob: One word? Are you kidding me? [Inaudible].
Chris: Not one word. Sort of the most important reason why you should really eat local because.
Anna: I would say, because it really strengthens your community. I think that building a really strong regional food system, it’s supporting your farmers. That will just provide access to better food and more farmers will be able to flourish. I just think, like getting to know your farmer, going to the farmers markets, it’s these moments that when you’re alone in the aisle at a grocery store, you’re not able to have that exchange and so I think it really does build community. There are a ton of other reasons that we talked about, but I feel like the community building aspect is a really great part of buying and eating local food.
Bob: It’s better in so many ways. That’s the reason we’ve all been discussing, but let’s face it. You’re not going to definitely eat anything if it doesn’t taste good. I’ve often described food for farmers markets or local food as the starter drug for the Good Food Movement.
Bob: If all you’ve eaten at a supermarket through your whole life, it’s food that’s been shipped in, unless you’re living in the Southwest or the deep South it’s been shipped for thousands of miles. It’s probably been sitting in a warehouse for many years or even a couple of three weeks, it’s lost its freshness. It’s lost its vitality. When you go to a farmers market, you’re often eating food that was picked yesterday. When you taste that, you’re tasting that food the way it’s supposed to taste, maybe for the first time in your life and it’s a game changer. It really isn’t epiphany.
Chris: That’s awesome. Thank you so much.
Hallie: Thank you guys so much.
Anna: Yeah, of course.
Bob: Thanks. [Inaudible].
Chris: Thanks for listening to this episode of One to Grow On.
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