A Magical Food System

Here’s a fun thought experiment: imagine you had a machine in your home that could synthesize a few cheap, easily available ingredients into any food item you might want. You could have an app on your phone from which you could select a full menu, and this machine would perfectly execute each dish to your particular specifications. It could synthesize a steak directly from vegetable proteins with no need for a cow or pig or other pesky intermediary, and it could then bake a tray of cookies for dessert. Imagine there was no discernible nutritional difference between the products of this machine and even the best farmed food. If you had such a machine would you still cook?

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I was in Albany yesterday and, as is my habit when I’m in the neighborhood and have a few extra minutes, I took a walk through Whole Foods to check out the the meat department. At first I was heartened to see that our prices were lower than theirs almost across the board, and then I was depressed that I needed to go so high up the socioeconomic ladder to find competition I could beat on this metric. For the agricultural system to shift in a fundamental way, farms like mine will need to produce food for everybody.

I was in Albany to explore a possible solution to this very problem. At least for me, the farmer/buyer mix and mingle had the awkward social dynamic of speed dating. I had a beer, chatted for a few minutes with a guy from down in the Catskills about soil mineralization, and then ventured into the main room, where representatives of various organizations were seated at rows of tables.

I talked to as many people as I could. Since we've sold very little wholesale, I was mostly interested in learning about the particulars of what products might be in demand, how they should be packaged, and how to arrange distribution. The most heartening discovery I made was the growing institutional interest in local, high quality food. Schools, both public and private, are increasingly concerned about the provenance of the cafeteria fare, as are conference centers and retirement communities.

There are some advantages to the wholesale approach: institutions can make a commitment to buying good food, and budget accordingly. The farmer can count on regular purchases, and packaging in bulk and selling in large lots can reduce price a bit. By changing how they purchase rather than demanding farms change to accommodate them these buyers help shift the agricultural landscape towards a smaller, more diversified, and local agriculture.

As I returned to the farm I decided I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that even larger organizations are showing interest in the sort of food we raise. After all, we ask a lot of our customers. Our meat is more expensive than what’s available in most supermarkets, we only deliver every six weeks, and it’s hard to keep a perfectly consistent supply of all the items people are interested in. Obviously, we believe that the way we farm has immeasurable benefits to the health of the animals, the land, and the ecosystem as a whole, and starting this business required faith that many other people would not just share these values, but would do so enthusiastically enough to deal with the inconveniences they entail. Why shouldn’t this awareness and enthusiasm extend to institutions?

Also, thank you to everyone who makes the effort to buy from us. Writing it out like that makes me realize the effort it must take on your end.

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If the thought experiment I describe at the start of this post ever did come to pass, I suspect it would end most farms. But I still like thinking of it, because it encourages me to aim higher. So often small and local farms are framed as good in comparison to conventional practices. That is, they are a relative good. I aspire to farm in a way that is holistically beneficial, meaning I want animals to have lives that are better than if they hadn’t existed, and I want the land to be healthier than if it wasn’t being used for agriculture. Even more difficult to attain than goals like these is my desire for the food produced by these methods to be so widely available that no one would ever dream of replacing my farm, and tens of thousands like it, with a mere machine.

Garth Brown

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