Sustainable livestock: from pasture to market
Here is an excerpt of an interview with Jennifer Curtis, Project Director for NC Choices, a Center for Environmental Farming Systems initiative. The interview was conducted by Jen Dalton and published by the blog, Civil Eats. Jennifer Curtis prepared From Farm to Fork: Building North Carolina’s Sustainable Food Economy – a CEFS report, with Dr. Nancy Creamer and Tes Thraves. Their initiative reflects nearly two years of work with stakeholders from across the state.
CE: What issues have you been focused on?
JC: Scaling the availability of pasture-raised livestock in local markets and supporting small-scale independent farmers.
CE: What’s your overall vision?
JC: I’d like to see this country (or, just for starters, more communities) adopt a culture around food and farming that is integrated with natural cycles (ecologically oriented) and appreciative of all the people who are involved in getting food from farm to fork: farmers, farmworkers, butchers, cooks….a culture that values good taste and nutrition and understands where their food comes from.
CE: Who’s in your community?
JC: I have a great community – both in terms of place and shared values. I have an immediate community at home in Carborro — a town full of people with whom I really connect with in terms of lifestyle. It’s a very bikeable and walkable place with a real entrepreneurial spirit and many small farms all around. We are developing a real vibrant food culture here that excites me. Just last week I signed up for a first ever seafood CSA that will deliver coastal seafood from independent NC fishermen weekly about a mile from my house. That kind of abundance makes me feel really fortunate.
And, in terms of doing food systems work, it doesn’t get better than the state of North Carolina where we have such a strong agricultural heritage combined with growth in new farmers and metropolitan communities clamoring for good, seasonal food. I really value the farmers I’ve been able to get to know these past few years and the opportunities I’ve had to dig deep into a few areas and try to strengthen systems here.
CE: What are your goals?
JC: …My short-term goal is to learn to run a food business that will support independent farmers raising animals more sustainably and help them connect with expanding local markets for pasture-raised meats. I’m focused on business development as an area of learning for me and for the movement. Coming out of 20 years of non-profit advocacy and academia, this is a new approach! I see it as complementary — to craft an approach to business that takes care of everyone in the supply chain but that is sustainable financially. Seems like a huge challenge to me but one that is critically important.
CE: What does change look like to you?
JC: For NC Choices, we’ve been developing a network of pasture-based livestock producers and helping them with processing and marketing issues. So success in that area looks like a small-scale farmer or rancher developing a good relationship with a new processor and finally having a wide range of value-added products to sell and thus improving his or her financial bottom line.
Sometimes success is more internal. I work with a lot of institutions — academic and regulatory. In these settings, success looks different and it takes longer and requires more patience. But it can look like new partnerships and resources bringing new capacity that is dedicated to advancing agri-ecological issues from a research and extension perspective. It might feel slow and lumbering but its just as valuable as more quixotic kinds of change.
It’s astonishing to me, in the last few years, the way Jon Q Public is talking about food systems issues. It’s just catapulted us into another arena. I don’t know what actual change will come from it, but it’s evident that people are more aware of the importance of local food and farmers than they every have been before.
CE: What projects are affiliated with yours?
JC: I work as a consultant — these days, primarily for CEFS, which is a partnership of NC State University, NCA&T University and the NC Department of Agriculture. I direct NC Choices, which is a statewide network of pasture-based livestock producers. It receives funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and was started by Dr. Nancy Creamer, CEFS Director, to bring attention to alternative hog production techniques and build local market opportunities for farmers. We have close to 50 farmers profiled on our website along with some of the states small scale processing facilities. We’ve expanded beyond pork to include local beef and poultry producers since so many of the marketing and processing issues are relevant to all farmers raising animals.
On behalf of CEFS, I am also incubating a business — Farmhand Foods, LLC that will try to solve some of those pain points between connecting local farmers with wholesale markets in the Triangle area. We just got grant funding from the NC Rural Center and Tobacco Trust Fund, to support our business launch activities. We’re going to focus on building a network of producers and creating value-added meat products (think hot dogs!) for sale in retail and restaurant outlets. I’m fortunate to have hooked up with Tina Prevatte, a recent MBA grad from UNC who has immersed herself in the small scale meat processing sector and local food issues in recent months.
CE: Where do you see the state of agriculture/food policy in the next 5-10 years? Is real policy change a real possibility?
JC: I do think it’s a real possibility. I’d feel more confident if we had greater organizational capacity…. We have the ideas, the enthusiasm, and a whole new rash of partnership across a diversity of issues — health, food access, environment, agriculture, planning, etc… I’m also excited by the change that is possible at the local level — the vision and energy that folks like county managers have, to move local food economies forward. There is a real grassroots element at work here that I believe has real potential.
– Jen Dalton is the editor of Civil Eats’ Local Eats series, which features stories of how cities all over the United States are rebuilding local food systems from the ground up; and the co-founder of Kitchen Table Talks, a local food forum in San Francisco. Jen is also a communications and branding consultant who works to promote sustainable businesses, local economies and good food. She was the former Programs Director for Slow Food Nation.