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Our Voices: Ag Sector Alliance: Learning what Works

December 7, 2011 | By Glenn Puit

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Bartlett Durand and Tim Metcalfe each believe there’s a better way for our food system.

Mr. Durand is the managing member of a small-scale meat processor in the Madison, Wisconsin area called Black Earth Meats. His business sells locally purchased beef and locally processed meats that are 100 percent organic to Madison residents, and he’s found that sourcing meat locally — and processing animals on a reasonable, non-industrial scale — makes for a very successful business model.

“We need to recognize that we are all in this together, and that it’s time to return to a human scale of production, processing and purchasing,” Mr. Durand says of the locally grown food system he wants for all.

Bartlett Durand, a managing member of Black Earth Meats in Wisconsin, talks about how providing local, organic meats to his customers has turned out to be a very successful endeavor for his business. Photo by Glenn Puit


Mr. Metcalfe, meanwhile, is a fourth-generation grocer and president of grocery operations for Metcalfe’s Markets, also in Madison. Like his fellow Wisconsinite, he maintains, too, that making local food a prominent part of his business model is a pathway to success, in large part because his customers love it.

“In this economic downturn, customers can directly impact their local economy through local food sales and purchases, which equals job creation,” said Mr. Metcalfe.

Mr. Metcalfe and Mr. Durand delivered their messages last week to a diverse group of farmers, food distributors and policy specialists as part of the December 2, 2011 Agriculture and Food System Sector Alliance meeting at the Park Place Hotel. The consortium of stakeholders from the food system network of the Grand Traverse region are working together to improve agriculture and food employment in our area, as well as identifying the training needs most lacking in that same Northern Michigan work force.

For Mr. Durand, the business model he favors includes sourcing local animals, processing them locally, and selling within his region. This compares to the massive industrial meat processing system in America that gets 80 percent of its meats from just four industrial slaughterhouses.

“On my scale, it means I have a team of butchers working with hand tools to do slaughter and processing of the animal,” he said. “It’s not high speed. It’s not driven strictly by capital or machine. It’s driven by people.”

This returning to a local scale, in which customers get their meat essentially from their local butcher, is hugely popular for Black Earth Meats.

“Most fundamentally, we respect ourselves,” he said. “I have a tremendous response from the consumers, who can visualize how it works. When you walk into an industrial sized meat packing facility, it is incomprehensible to anyone but the engineers.”

For Mr. Metcalfe, he’s learned a lot about delivering local foods to customers since his grocery stores made the move to locally grown produce beginning in 2005. In a world where large segments of our food are produced on a national, industrial scale, selling locally grown in a grocery store “isn’t always easy,” Mr. Metcalfe says.

“Every day the local section (of our store) is different,” said Mr. Metcalfe. 
“You need to communicate to the consumer on what is it, where did it come from and how do you use it.

“If I have one message, it’s that for retailers, one of the most important things we need to do is communicate,” he said. “Sometimes we do a poor job of that. Buying local is difficult…and you need to be flexible and understand what the farmer’s needs are and balance them with what our needs are.”

Metcalfe’s Markets spent a significant amount of time training its employees on buying local and developing skill sets for maintaining long-term relationships with area farmers. The effort, according to Mr. Metcalfe, has been worth it, because by navigating through those challenges he has developed a loyal customer base that bypasses a nearby Target and Whole Foods to shop at Metcalfe’s.

“When you shop at our store you are actually making a difference, and for us, as an organization, it feels really good,” Mr. Metcalfe said.

Jim Sluyter, a policy specialist with the Michigan Land Use Institute, said hearing from the two Wisconsin speakers Friday was very valuable for the members of the Sustainable Ag and Food System Sector Alliance.

“Having these two successful entrepreneurs illustrate how their business model works and why it is important is a great message for our region,” he said.

“A couple of themes were developed by our speakers,” Mr. Sluyter said. “One is around scale as something that producers need to pay attention to. That means figuring out where you are in your farm or business, what can you achieve, and what you can deliver, then focusing your efforts to that scale. We also learned about competition and the need to bring local food into the traditional food market because that’s what the customers demand. Mr. Metcalfe doesn’t think it’s a regional attribute to Madison…that it will work almost anywhere, and I agree.”

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