Whole chicken started it all. The first product we sold from our farm was a whole chicken. A few months later we added half pigs, and the next fall we had half beef options. It was simple. We didn’t need to track complicated inventories. We had a nice, straightforward price list. All the chicken was in one place, and there was no need to search in the stacks of boxes to find a specific product.
But it didn’t work. The farm was a financial wreck. We couldn’t sell enough whole chickens, half pigs, and half cows to get the farm to cover its cash flow needs. And we were miles away from making a living from it. Something needed to change.
I read an article this week on what the authors called the “acorn squash problem.” Food pantries exist with the noble goal of providing food to those who need it. But food pantries can’t give away some foods like acorn squash. Very few people take it when offered. And when pantries try to distribute it by including it in pre-portioned bags, the squash ends up being tossed anyway.
Unfamiliar foods, like the eponymous acorn squash, become a liability. If a food is perceived as strange and unfamiliar, or if it is thought to be time-consuming or difficult to prepare, or if it requires specialized cooking, it sits on the shelf. According to the interviews with food bank managers, most root vegetables like turnips and beets fall into this category. Forget about even less familiar ingredients like rutabaga, kohlrabi, or mangelwurzel. It is easier to pass along canned soup stock than to give away mirepoix ingredients. Boxed mac and cheese would be welcomed, while there would be few takers for blocks of cheddar and gruyere, even though the real cheese is immeasurably superior to powdered “cheese.”
A Broader Issue
Now, this isn’t meant to blame a food pantry client who makes this choice. This isn’t some defect specific to poor people. How many well-heeled folks strolling through Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s fill their carts every week with bulky products that require extra steps of scrubbing, peeling, blanching, de-stemming or de-seeding? Let’s be honest. Most of these shoppers would cite the same rationales as those at the food pantry: “I’m too busy to do the prep work,” or “I don’t know if I’ll like this new food, and I’m sure the kids will whine about it,” or “I tried it once and it was a disaster.” It’s all understandable, though unfortunate.
Most shopping carts aren’t filled with piles of cassavas, rapini, and blue hubbards. Even if folks do get adventurous when preparing a special meal, most shopping choices repeatedly emphasize familiar, tried-and-true selections. A majority of purchased items, even among high-end organic consumers, are prepared food. Boxed, bagged, canned, or bottled into standardized, often ready-to-eat portions — that’s how most of us eat.
So I find it interesting that as a farm involved in direct-to-consumer sales, we faced a similar acorn squash problem. Back when our chicken offerings consisted of Hobson’s choice of a whole chicken, we could sell our chicken only to folks who (1) valued organic, pasture-raised, family-scale, local farming and (2) knew how to cook a whole chicken or knew how to cut up a whole chicken into parts. Unfortunately, both of these qualifications eliminated a significant part of the population. And the overlapping portion of the Venn diagram of these two sets was an infinitesimally small potential customer pool.
Making Food Approachable
We began to understand that an essential part of our success would come in meeting people closer to where their cooking and meal preparation boundaries lay. Food, cooking, and eating exist in the midst of a larger culture, and we weren’t in the position to change that culture on our own. I don’t think, even with the best instruction, that we’re looking at a future where most home cooks know how to cut up a chicken or why beef chuck cubes are ideal for stew while sirloin tip cubes are better for kabobs.
So over the years we’ve worked incrementally to shift our options to be less intimidating. I don’t anticipate ever getting so far down this path that we’re offering pre-cooked microwaveable TV dinners. We don’t need to take this reasoning to its culinary nadir. The critical issue is the task of learning to make good, pasture raised and grass fed food available to people in a format that makes sense for the way they’ll be eating it.
For those among our customers who know how to cook a whole chicken or a whole turkey, we continue to offer them. But we learned that selling cut-up chicken parts allowed us to reach a much broader group of people. Further processing turkey into ground turkey brought us to even more people. The recent introduction of turkey breakfast sausage, adding spices to that ground turkey and forming it into patties will bring us another step forward. The closer we can bring the food to the point where someone sees it as a normal ingredient in their meals, the more likely we are to be able to have our food incorporated into that meal.
For our farm to continue to be relevant, we’ll need to keep a watchful eye on the ways people are eating, and to learn how to be there for folks who want better food. It does nobody any good to be stuck trying to give away acorn squash to people who have no idea what it even is.
The Back Door to Acorn Squash
There is hope for acorn squash and whole chickens, though.
I’ve seen people get hooked on the gateway drugs — easy foods like pasture raised chicken breasts or our thin-sliced grass fed beef minute steaks. And gradually, over months and years their orders begin to take on more variety as they grow in their confidence and appreciation for the various tastes and textures of good food. They begin to purchase products that were previously perceived as hard-to-cook.
It is always an encouragement to get an email from a customer who is about to embark on a culinary project more complicated than anything they’ve tried before. Over time, cooking with better ingredients naturally leads to increased interest in the process of cooking and greater experimentation with new tastes. Squash may find its way onto the menu on its own.