How to Shop (During Coronavirus and Beyond) for a Better Food Future

How to Shop During Coronavirus for a Better Food Future
Follow the cattle to a better food future.

It's been a few weeks since John Tyson, the chairman of Tyson Foods, ominously warned that "the food supply chain is breaking." He took out a full-page ad in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to state something that's both obvious and not new. The food supply chain isn’t breaking, it's been broken. To blame the collapse on COVID-19 is like building a house with straw and blaming its frailty on the wind.

To me, the Tyson ad reads as a thinly veiled attempt at playing the victim and enlisting the masses in a class war against the food giant's processing plant workers. It's the equivalent of saying be on our side as we coerce employees to continue working in unsafe conditions, or there will be less food available. In the letter, John Tyson calls on government bodies to "unite in a comprehensive, thoughtful and productive way to allow our team members to work in safety." Tyson absolves his company of any wrongdoing by shifting the entire onus of safety onto the government, and then unloads the moral burden onto the public: "Our plants must remain operational so that we can supply food to our families in America. This is a delicate balance because Tyson Foods places team member safety as our top priority." Read: we value our workers' safety, though we're going to defer its oversight to the government, and anything we're doing that may be dangerous is for you, dear reader; it’s all to feed you.

We're facing a bleak reality: looming meat shortages, increased prices, rationing at grocery stores, and elusive delivery time slots from overwhelmed services like FreshDirect and Amazon Fresh. At the same time, we're faced with a rare opportunity to support an alternative food system and have that impact magnified. Like when individuals or companies match donations, every dollar we spend now on the alternative food system goes even further in building a better food future. So when we emerge from COVID-19's shroud of turmoil, we can leave behind the complicated, vulnerable, and fragile food supply chain that got us into this mess, and have something to show for it: a resilient network of interconnected yet self-sufficient local food sheds. So how do we get there?

A Peek at the Future of Food

There's a growing segment of farmers adopting practices aimed at improving soil and ecosystem health. An inextricable part of that process is rebuilding localized food systems that value community and resilience over quarterly profit. This return to regional food sheds offers a glimpse into what the future of food could and should look like. Even livestock farming can be done in a way that reduces atmospheric carbon. Yes, you read that right. By moving livestock from pasture to pasture in accordance with grass growth, these grazing practices pull carbon from the atmosphere, where too much can be harmful, and sequester it in the earth, where it benefits microbial and plant life. This kind of grazing also improves the land's water-carrying capacity, making it more resistant to flooding as well as drought.

Known by a variety of names - rotational grazing, holistic management, mob grazing, biomimicry, multi-paddock adaptive grazing - this is farming that does more than harm. Iis regenerative agriculture, but these practices are nothing new, just pushed aside in the narrow pursuit of profit. This kind of agriculture is beyond sustainable and can bring ecosystems back to life, including once-shuttered rural communities.

The resurgence of this agricultural ethos is not just about returning to ecologically-centered methods of raising livestock, it's also about creating an entirely new food system. These practices don't quite fit into the existing model of CAFOs and consolidated processing plants that slaughter more than 300 cattle, 1,000 hogs, or 8,000 birds per hour.

Instead, because these farmers are raising animals on open pastures, they have fewer animals to process at a time. The massive-scale slaughterhouses won't accommodate them, so these farmers are creating their own supply chain, both out of necessity and as an act of rebellion, working with small and mid-sized processors, or building their own.

And it's paying off. Sales have jumped for many of these small producers during the COVID-19 pandemic while the consolidated processing plants are closing down. But can this alternative feed the masses? The solution for a more resilient food system, according to Dr. Allen Williams, is to build out "processing of the middle... We need processing facilities with 100-500 per day capacity to start. We need at least one medium-sized plant in every state to start to completely transform the food system in the U.S. With more processors, more farms can transform and thus grow small businesses and the rural economy. These communities that are dead and boarded up will come to life and rural economies will surge. The country’s economy surges when small businesses and communities thrive."

A thriving rural American and a food system that heals land instead of hurting it? Yes, and now is when we build that future.

Where You Should Be Spending Your Food Dollars

Here's how you can support the transformation to a resilient, regenerative food system. The foundation has already been set by a few brave farmers. Now, it’s up to us to build the food supply chain of the future; the one we need and, if we do the work to build it, the one we deserve.

Farms that I have personally visited:

Atticus Farm | West Shokan, NY

CSA and pickup: pork, microgreens, flowers

This was my first extended farm experience. I was lucky enough to be connected to Kyle Jaster shortly before he started this idyllic pastured pig operation in the Catskills. He was kind enough to let me spend a week there helping around the farm, and I learned a ton. He’s one of the farmers whose thinking I really agree with and is doing some really cool things in his community. His pork is ridiculously good. I pray to one day try the prosciutto.

Free Hand Farm | Placerville, CA

Pickup: raw milk, beef, lamb, pork, eggs

What a family. Spencer and Melissa Tregilgas are raising four adorable kids on this fairytale farm. They make it look easy, with a flock of sheep in a beautiful landscape that made me think I was dreaming. They manage a herdshare program, raising dairy cows and sheep for the members who come and pick up their shair of the milk. When the animals are past their milking life, they are harvested for regenerative meat. This is such a cool operation, and I learned a ton from Spencer and Melissa in just one afternoon. There’s also an outdoor stage in the broader land cooperative where they host occasional performances.

PT Ranch | Ione, CA

Pickup: lamb, chicken, duck, turkey, olive oil, honey, lavender

I drank raw milk for the first time at this farm after learning to milk a cow on the tour. Emily and Molly Tayor, an unstoppable mother-daughter team, are building out this regenerative ranching operation with gusto. They have a really cool hospitality component, with retreats and a speaker series. Emily has a background in interior design and it shows. They turned an old granary into a charming workspace/meeting room that puts any Brooklyn loft or trendy coffee shop to shame. I stayed for a weekend and it was blissful.

TomKat Ranch |  Pescadero, CA

Sold through LeftCoast Grassfed: beef

Kathy Webster, the farm’s Food Advocacy Manager, hosted me on a visit to this ranch in Central California. I got a tour of the farm, met the ranch manager and a few employees, and watched them round up the herd. They are a research-heavy farm, working with Point Blue to monitor ecological function and the effects of their land management practices. It’s a beautiful farm with rolling green hills, not too far from oceanside cliffs where you can see cows grazing on a neighboring farm. A picturesque drive to pick up some regenerative beef.

White Buffalo Land Trust | Summerland, CA

Ships nationwide: persimmon vinegar

I visited their first location, primarily a demonstration and education site near Santa Barbara, where I learned so much about compost and the fascinating complexities of microbial life. My visit there started me down a rabbit hole that I’m still making my way through, and it opened my eyes to the incredible possibilities of harnessing microbes to turn our waste into black gold. They are developing a project to turn 1,000 acres in Jalama Canyon Ranch into a regenerative farm and education, training, and research center. You can support this effort by donating or buying their persimmon vinegar, sourced from regenerative farms in Central California.

White Oak Pastures | Bluffton, GA

Ships nationwide: beef, pork, lamb, goat, rabbit, chicken, turkey, duck, goose, guinea, eggs, honey

This is where I did my field internship and where I currently live and work. If you don’t know about us and Will Harris, you will soon. He’s one of the pioneers at the forefront of regenerative agriculture. We sell almost every meat under the sun, all regeneratively raised on open pastures, plus tallow candles and beauty products, leather goods, and pet treats as part of our zero-waste production model. Our meat is saving the world, literally. A third-party study found our beef to be carbon negative. We’re also doing really cool things like raising Iberian hogs to make Jamón Ibérico and providing managed grazing to a solar ranch to produce regenerative energy. The best part - we raise, slaughter, butcher, pack, and fill orders all from the farm. You won't find that anywhere else.

On my list to visit or other farms I trust:

This extended list includes farms where I've met the farmer, spoken to them, or they have the stamp of approval of someone I trust.

Clemmons Family Farm | Charlotte, VT

Arts and heritage site

Fogline Farm | Soquel, CA

Delivers in Santa Cruz and to various pickup locations: pork, chicken, eggs

Pajaro Pastures | Corralitos, CA

Sells at several surrounding farmers markets: eggs, vegetables, fruit, goat, lamb, pork

Studio Hill Farm | Shaftsbury, VT

Delivers locally (within 25 miles): chicken, honey, candles, soap, sheepskins

Sylvanaqua Farms | Montross, VA

Delivers locally (DC, Richmond, Charlottesville metro areas): chicken, eggs, pork, beef

Other Resources:

More farms coming soon! Compiling all this has proven a bigger task than I expected.

The lens through which I evaluate farms is shifting as I learn more about agriculture and the realities of the industry. You can read more about that here. If you're not already on the list, sign up below to follow along the learning journey.

Updated: November 11, 2021

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