A diverse panel of producers, chefs, distributors and advocates spoke on sustainable protein at the ninth annual RI Food Forum organized by Farm Fresh RI and hosted by Brown University. Meat ranchers, chefs, distributors and a representative from the seafood industry shared their business challenges. Each offered recommendations for long-term sustainability of their industry and local food systems. Speakers included their definition of sustainability and how local meat and seafood fit. The speakers recommended producers and chefs help shape consumer demand for sustainably raised and harvested protein. Producers, chefs and consumers welcome additional education and outreach efforts on the long-term benefits of sustainable protein.
Pat McNiff, farmer and owner of Pat’s Pastured, offers pasture-raised beef cattle, sheep, pigs, ducks, turkeys, broiling chickens, layers. He operates on 100 acres of leased land. McNiff owns and runs a mobile poultry processing facility. His large animals are slaughtered at Johnston Beef and processed at Westerly Packing. Good traceability systems are critical to every food system.
McNiff works to leave the land in better condition than when he received it. Much of his farm has agricultural conservation easements. “Animals should help the land.” He said. Multi-species rotational grazing improves the quality of the soils and forage as well as herd health. McNiff advocates using heritage breed that are adapted to outdoor conditions unlike modern breeds selected for CAFOs or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.
McNiff defines sustainability around fertile lands and viable business that can support farm families with a living wage. He commended the efforts of the RI Raised Livestock Association which helps aggregate processing services, aiding small producers.
McNiff reminded the audience that RI has the highest land costs in the nation. Land access is the largest barrier to beginning farmers.
On-farm tours help educate children and families about food. McNiff recalled one child who asked, “Why do you keep your eggs with your chickens?” He did not know that eggs came from chickens, not the grocery store. McNiff advocates offering customers “food with a face.” Farm visitors often become customers for life.
Mel Coleman,Jr., Vice President of Niman Ranch, has always raised natural, beef without added hormones. His family helped write the national standards for ‘natural meats’ 35 years ago. Coleman agreed with his grandfather, on the importance of leaving land and water resources in better condition for future generations. Niman Ranch protocols promote management practices like rotational grazing to improve soil quality and water retention ability as well as to develop wildlife habitat.
Coleman stressed the importance of capital gains and inheritance tax reform to minimize the financial burdens of passing farms to the next generation. Conservation easements are a great tool to help keep farmland in agriculture by offering cash infusions, income tax deductions and estate savings.
Coleman knows a number of farmers who moved their families into cities to avoid daily exposure to agricultural chemicals. As long as consumers demand cheap food, farmers face pressure to use chemical or antibiotic inputs to push yields. Consumer education is a vital part of expanding the demand for foods produced by family farmers, using less chemicals and sound conservation and animal welfare practices.
If all the costs of eating conventionally-grown food including health care and environmental damage are taken into account, then natural-raised, chemical-free meats and produce probably offers society a better value overall, suggested Coleman. Too many people do not consider the external costs of conventional growing in terms of soil and water pollution. Studies are needed to determine the real cost to society of poor human health and high health care costs due to exposure to poor diets of processed foods and chemically-supported food production.
Coleman reminded the audience that dollars spent with local farms and businesses rotate through communities up to seven times building economic resilience. Supporting local farm businesses also helps protect open space.
Education can come in small, simple steps. Niman Ranch invests in consumer education, college and university education as well as panel discussions. Media involvement helps spread the message. They host events that connect rancher partners with consumers. They also give college scholarships to rancher families.
Bill Idell, Chair of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University, teaches student chefs about wellness and sustainability through a program called “Conscious Cuisine”. Students take field trips to local farmers markets, producers and rooftop gardens. Farm Fresh RI staff help teach students about local food systems. Idell teaches “the craft of cooking” from tail to snout and using unusual fish species. He invites producers, chefs and eaters to contact him. “Our doors are open. Help us secure the local food system.”
Jared Auerbach, CEO of Red’s Best, runs seafood-processing centers in Boston, New Bedford, Chatham and Martha’s Vineyard, MA. He uses a web-based approach to reduce transaction costs. Auerbach meets fishermen at the piers where they land their catch. As an aggregator and distributor, Auerbach picks up as many as 20 species per trip. He would “prefer to unload a lot of little boats” rather than see the industry consolidated into a few large companies.
Auerbach stressed the importance of traceable products. He can tell customers who and where every fish was caught. Of common and uncommon species like skate, yellowtail flounder, scup, squid and fluke, Auerbach said, “Eat it. It’s all good.”
Europeans pay high prices for dogfish and skate wings. Auerbach urged us to shift our local demand so that more of our own seafood would be enjoyed here instead of being exported.
Sarah Schumann, Shellfisherwoman and Founder of Eating with the Ecosystem, offers six locally sourced dinners across RI and six in Boston as part of her advocacy efforts. She emcees the evenings, leading discussions by a scientist, fisherman and the host chef.
Increased biodiversity leads to increased resilience in a changing climate. Diversity in flavor and nutrition is important in our diets as it is to our regional economy. The overall strength of a fish species population matters as well as its numbers in a particular ecosystem.
Schumann spoke of the significant impacts of human activity, pollution, overfishing and climate change on our oceans and their habitats. “Sustainability is not a one-time choice, it’s a lifestyle,” she said Individual buying habits must be consistent to make a difference. We must work together to make changes.
Regulations still impede producers of sustainably raised and harvested protein in Southern New England according to Janet Coit, Director of RI’s Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM). She said, “Government needs to remove obstacles and let locally-based food producers grow our local markets.” She described regional and federal fishing regulations as “Byzantine” and admitted they were not working for the industry or for fishermen.
Acknowledging RI as the squid capital of North America, Coit encouraged everyone to eat more calamari. Fluke and summer flounder are sustainably harvested in nearby waters and taste delicious. Coit heads the RI Seafood Marketing Collaborative working to grow retail markets for the state’s fishermen and aquaculture operations. “We have a “Strategic Protein Reserve in our oceans,” said Coit.
For nearly a decade, the RI Food Forum has offered growers, producers, chefs and eaters a fascinating array of speakers and networking opportunities. The free, locally sourced lunch is always a big draw.
Nearly 250 attendees enjoyed the panel discussions, expanding their networks and made local food sourcing connections. Speaker presentations are available at here.
View the RI Food Forum presentations here. Learn more in edible Rhody’s articles about sustainable meat and sustainable seafood.
Farm Fresh RI’s 2013 RI Food Forum was sponsored by Farm Credit East, the New England Farmers Union, the RI Farm Bureau, edible Rhody magazine, the RI Seafood Marketing Collaborative and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
A similar story ran in the May 6, 2013 New England edition of Country Folks.