We get a lot of questions about what is in the food we provide. “Is it antibiotic free?” “What about hormones?” “Do you add preservatives?” These are all good questions that people should be asking.
There is another question that nobody has ever asked me, but I think people are missing the most insidious and overlooked additive in the natural/organic/artisanal food market. Someone should ask me:
“Do your products contain any venture capital dollars?”
I’ve had a front row seat over the recent years observing our pasture/grass fed industry, and it is astounding to see how inevitably the addition of outside investors leads to a weakening of standards. (I’m not going to name names here. For one thing I don’t have libel insurance, and for another my point isn’t to single anyone out but rather to look at the overall context.) With clockwork regularity I’ve watched the cycle repeat. I’ve seen niche providers, just a single family farm or a group of like-minded farmers start something excellent. They struggle and persevere and grow to a scale that attracts attention. There’s the chance to become niche-mainstream, and then there’s the promise that an infusion of capital will allow them to reach the regional and national distribution networks. And money does the trick, but it works too well. Within a few years the abstracted brand becomes all-important but the principled approach that built the brand erodes. Local beef starts coming from Australia, but nobody notices. Pasture raised hens still have outdoor access, but only on dirt lots. Grass fed somehow allows for “seasonal grain feeding”. When the California figs get too expensive, the Turkish ones replace them even if the organic certification is suspect. Commitment to paying farmers fair prices degenerates, and contracts are abandoned without notice when global markets fluctuate.
I don’t believe that the capitalists are shifty-eyed villains. Granted, a few are unmitigated jerks. We have one guy making the rounds here in his luxury car, arriving at Amish farms and tightening the screws on cash-strapped farmers and telling them they can sue him if they don’t like the new terms, knowing full well that Amish can’t conscientiously take part in lawsuits. But I’m confident that most investors aren’t miserly grouches out of central casting. And their reasons for investing aren’t as crass or jaded as we’d expect from an episode of Shark Tank. By and large they get involved because they like the products and they like the story. They aren’t bad people, but their investment moves the brand into a system where perception is more important than authenticity. Once one dives into the commodity pool, one either sinks or swims according to commodity rules.
Perhaps the saddest part is that for all the lowering of standards necessary to reach mass markets, many of these brands still fail and end up bankrupt. Or worse, they are successful and fall prey to a more ironic fate whereby they are bought out by the largest industrial-scale conglomerates, the same ones against which the niche provider set out to differentiate themselves.
I don’t make any claim that our farm is the best farm or that we achieve all our ideals. If you know us, you know we stumble often. But as bona fide farmers, we can provide an authentic backstory for the products we sell. We’re doing this because we love it, and we believe in it, and every day we live it. That’s what makes real family farming special and utterly different from investor-owned farm brands.
So what’s next? Maybe I should redesign our carton labels to read “Venture Capital-Free Eggs”.