When it comes to the sustainability trend, consumers are looking deeper than the dirt. Sustainability has become more than simple concern over the environmental impact of a product and responsible use of resources. It’s about the farmers’ well-being, fair treatment of workers, animal welfare, and supporting communities. And increasingly, there is concern about the state of the soil in which food is grown. We’re beyond organic now.

Everything starts at the ground level. Initial distribution of ingredients was based on regional availability and classic preservation techniques. A return to roots is happening. When the farm-to-table trend hit restaurants, it was a game-changer. The landscape shifted, and specific farms were highlighted on menus. Farmers, in turn, gained name recognition for humanely raised poultry and meats, unique herbs, and heirloom varietals of corn, tomatoes, plums, and other produce.

That same energy and excitement is now surrounding the prepared foods industry and the ripple effect is expanding it. Today, it’s not only the farmers’ market vendors selling a locally produced jam or salsa. Major grocery stores are selling foods and beverages made with regionally sourced products produced either on-site or at a co-packer facility nearby. Prepared foods are making a splash and disrupting the market in a way they never have before.

A conventional product easily can travel more than 1,000 miles to reach the consumer and can involve refrigerated or other specialized transportation, and additional resources. And, once the product leaves the warehouse, how far does it travel and how big a carbon footprint does it leave? In effect, consumers are asking: “Where did this product come from, and how long ago was it picked or prepared?”

Sourcing locally significantly reduces the resources used to take a product from the farm to the consumer. Shorter supply chains, decreased delivery times, lower transportation costs, increased site inspections, fresher produce, and a simplified overall supply chain are a few of the many benefits to sourcing from farms and other vendors nearer to production.

Today, most agricultural hubs have packaging and processing plants located within a short distance of the farms. When harvest time hits, processors and packaging facilities work overtime to preserve freshness as well as to reduce food waste and maximize output.

Small Gets Big

When the “locavore” movement began, it was not only hard for processors to key into, it was challenging for consumers, too. After all, unless you lived in a major food-growing state (such as California, Texas, or Florida) that produced a substantial array of products, the locavore idea made no logical sense. Should Iowans be limited to corn, pork, apples, and soybeans? Do Manhattanites never get to eat a banana or a pineapple?

While locavore has never been—nor can it ever be—a big trend, sustainability and ecologic well-being are still major  and growing concerns for consumers. Product makers need to tap into ways to participate in and help support these important issues. After all, it’s their planet, too.

Middle-sized and even large food and beverage companies have found their way in by focusing on regional sources to serve each of their production facilities separately, supporting local farms and ranches. By the same token, some farms and ranches turned to the cooperative paradigm and created national brands that still are community-oriented.

Niman Ranch (now owned by Perdue Farms Inc.) was a pioneer in this endeavor. The company started on the West Coast more than 40 years ago and eventually encompassed more than 720 privately owned ranches and farms to provide pork, beef, and lamb to the whole country.

Consumers trust the Niman Ranch name and, while the lamb chop they buy in California will taste different from the one they buy in Colorado, they know the meat came from nearby and was raised and processed in a manner certified by the Humane Farm Animal Care program.

Organic Valley, La Farge, Wis., is another example. Highly farm-
centered, this cooperative of small, family-owned organic dairy farms started more than three decades ago. Today, it encompasses a continent- wide network of more than 2,000 farms bringing in more than $1 billion in annual revenues.


Crafting Farm Freshness

“From the farm” items still are few and far between on grocery store shelves, but their numbers recently have been growing. Unlike organic, non-GMO, biodynamic, or fair-trade, “from the farm” products may utilize all of these aspects, although they do not have to fall entirely into a specific category. The story behind each product is important, and often focuses on the distance between the growing area and the consumer.

Staying as close as possible to the source is paramount to the success of many products in the category. Shortening the distance between planting, production, and, ultimately, the retail outlet itself has a great impact on the overall energy expenditure on a product and greater attraction for the consumer.

However, not all “from the farm” products rely on proximity to the source. Sometimes, it’s the land the ingredients come from, the reduction of food waste, the opportunity for development in rural areas, or the ability to create a future and build economies around food production. Certain ingredients, such as tropical fruits, tea, cocoa, or coconut can be sourced from multiple countries and used to highlight the terroir and distinct flavor profiles that hail from that specific region.

Product developers are recognizing advantages to the unique flavor profile differences that take over when consistency gives a little. They see it as an asset rather than an obstacle in product development. Another distinct angle in the “from the farm” trend is a final product with ingredients from multiple growing areas, with a connection to individual farmers and co-ops.

Quinn Foods LLC, billing itself as the first snack maker with a fully transparent supply chain, recently developed and launched a new pretzel line based on sorghum. Each ingredient the company uses can be traced back to the source.

The Better Bean Co., although enjoying rapid nationwide growth and distribution, highlights farms and regions that each formulation’s ingredients originate from, even while the company sources predominantly from its “backyard”—the West Coast. The company established a direct line to the growing region, and connects the product in the package to the soil it grew in.

Many companies are now utilizing QR codes on packaging that can link to information about the origin and processing of foods as well as specific ingredients in the product, creating a full circle for the consumer. Traceability, which grew out of food safety demands, is gaining extra cachet through allowing for such source identification to double as a marketing tool.


Where Research Chefs Research

Demand drives innovation. Just as the desire for organic produce created structural shifts within the industry and generated new supply chains, the same is true for regionally farmed produce. With the increase of hothouse, glasshouse, and hydroponic farms in climates that typically do not support year round farming, more channels have opened to supply the market.

Restaurant chefs have taken advantage of such supply sources for decades. This allowed for an easy segue into the development kitchens of food product manufacturers. Also, preservation techniques have helped drive the availability of farm-fresh produce into industrial kitchens. Produce, sturdy greens, and delicate herbs can be harvested, flash-frozen and then used, for example, in an HPP cold-pressed juice product with little difference in texture or nutritional value.

Companies that source locally might not guarantee a certain percentage of ingredients to be from a specific region. This makes it easier for product developers to expand their ingredient toolbox. For example, they might include in their formulations tropical ingredients such as pineapple or ginger that are grown elsewhere. A co-operative of small ginger farms in Hawaii, for example, will provide the right story and status to a product as an all-local would.

A certain amount of flexibility within the “from the farm” category is required, especially when it comes to product development. “While many fruit juice concentrates are readily available, such as apple and cherry, for uncommon ingredients, the supply is often times not up to par, nor is it consistently available. However, by sourcing the best, this creates the demand to start growing more,” notes Beth Denton, product developer for Fruitbelt LLC.

“Sourcing for on-trend fruits that have high flavonoid and anthocyanin content is in such high demand that it’s difficult to get a consistent supply,” Denton adds. “Certain supply chains do not fully exist and specific products might not be available in concentrate or extract form.”

Some of the more fragile and perishable produce items need a bit of special handling to keep their fresh value in formulation. Figs—a fast-trending fruit—are an excellent example. Different methods of preparing them are suggested by Tom Payne, food technologist for the California Fig Advisory Board. The figs can be tray-frozen when just ripe, then sliced into quarters while still frozen to preserve shape and texture. For larger operations, Payne suggests natural enzymes or lemon juice to preserve the integrity of the fruit. This treatment also will add extra firmness.

Another method is to pickle or marinate the figs. “One always thinks of a fig as a sweet fruit, but in many parts of the world, figs are pickled to impart a balance of sweet and sour,” says Payne. “Typical formulations contain simple ingredients such as apple cider vinegar, sugar, lemon juice and kosher salt. Dark figs are normally sliced but also can be pickled whole.”

Payne also notes that marinated or pickled figs “make a great starter in foodservice operations and are a potential commercial product,” adding that he recommends curry, chili, and other spices to boost flavor. “Figs are synergistic and help create wonderful flavor combinations,” he concludes.

Root Source

Culinologists working on developing meals and sides have a great ally in certain produce items. Root vegetables can be stored for long periods of time. This allows for abundant usage and year-round supply of locally sourced vegetables that can move throughout the supply chain when needed.

An area that falls short in the locally sourced “from the farm” category is diversification in IQFs. A secure supply chain that can support the demand is ideal, but this is not always the reality. Here Holdings LLC is based in Chicago and uses produce items from the Midwest that are available in all seasons. The company crafts spreads, dips, dressing, marinades, and cold-pressed juices that are trademarked as “From Farm-to-Label.” Moreover, the company donates a portion of its profits to farm training.

Sourcing locally is about understanding what is available in the market, from where, and when. Beans from Michigan are one example. While beans are often associated with Southwestern and Western regions of the country—and their attendant cuisine styles—Michigan actually possesses an excellent climate for growing the legumes.

Fifth generation Carlson-Arbogast Farm has more than 1,000 acres producing multiple varieties of beans. Harvesting happens at the peak of the season and then the drying process begins. Properly hulled, sorted, and dried beans have an incredible shelflife and thus, they can be called upon when the demand arises.


Where Apples Fall

Here Holdings uses apple juice as the base for all of its juice blends, something common to many juice formulations on the market. While many large juice companies source from all over the country and adjust flavors for consistency, Here Holdings uses only Michigan apples. Michigan varietals yield a high sugar content, and sweetness is a desirable profile in juice.

“Fluctuations and differences in products start with climate,” says Megan Klein, president of Here Holdings and a former farmer. “When you use ingredients from the same region, consistency is solid; there’s not a lot of variation. It’s difficult to maintain the desired sugar levels and flavor profile if you are sourcing apples from New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Michigan. One of the major benefits of sourcing locally is that flavor profile. By specifically sourcing Michigan-grown apples, the sweet flavor is a benefit, since that is preferred by consumers who are still adapting to juices that are not solely fruit based.”

Although they do currently dominate the field, small to medium players aren’t alone in the game. Large corporations are working on developing a farm-to-label connection and are doing it on a grand scale. Recently, General Mills Inc. made plans to convert 34,000 acres of conventional farmland in South Dakota to certified organic farmland in order to produce wheat for its Annie’s Home-Grown Inc. brand pasta products.

The General Mills land will include up to 3,000 acres of pollinator habitat and rotational crops such as legumes. A soon-to-launch, single-source organic macaroni and cheese will be joining the long list of Annie’s products already on the market.


Keep It Natural

As for keeping true to a sustainable label, there’s a strong impetus among product makers to use naturally derived ingredients that consumers are familiar with, yet to still achieve the same end result of the formulation. Botanical extracts with known biochemical functionality can help meet this goal on the shelflife extension side.

Celery extract has experienced great success in the natural meat category. Although the nitrite compounds inherent in celery and lab-produced nitrites are chemically the same, only one ingredient can be labeled as “celery extract.” The same is true for similar compounds derived from rosemary that prevent rancidity in oils and fats.

Other natural preservatives—such as ginger, garlic, oregano, clove, cinnamon and green tea extract—are all on the front line for clean-label ingredient applications. There is a familiarity with these ingredients that helps the consumer feel better about the products they are eating. These also bring a sense of accomplishment to the research chef developing a new product to fit the parameters of natural and identifiable, even more so when the botanical compound is from an organic source.

Continual advancements in technology, packaging, and processing will define the future of the prepared foods industry just as they always have. Ever-increasing demand for fresh flavors, high nutritional value, engaging textures, and attractive colors will continue to drive the way foods and beverages are developed and produced. Keeping the “social ingredients” of sustainable, regional, fair-trade, “green,” and farm-friendly, and other such attributes in mind will only add to the allure. 

Catherine Stanton is a Chicago-based culinary consultant, instructor, and degreed research chef with extensive experience in concept ideation, product development, and streamlining of production methods for maximum efficiency. She carries certification in Plant-Based Nutrition from Cornell University and a bachelor’s degree from the Culinary Institute of America, NY. She has been involved in both front- and back-of-the-house operations consulting for start-ups and established firms on nearly every continent. Stanton also has worked on farms throughout Italy, France, Spain, and Morocco as part of the non-profit World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program.
Contact her at cath.stanton@gmail.com or through this magazine.

It’s in the Soil

Coffee was one of the first products to place heavy emphasis on fair trade practices with the farmers supplying the beans. This grew out of a concerted campaign to raise awareness of rapacious practices and destructive farming of coffee in a number of developing countries run by corrupt governments.

While Oakland Coffee Co. is an example of a dedicated “farm-forward” company, it is one of the first to focus attention on the soil itself. As the owners assure, the company’s products “have been developed with care and intention at every stage, from the communities that support our farmers to the soil that nurtures our plants.” The company also uses patented, technically advanced, fully compostable packaging for its bagged coffee and coffee pods.

Other companies are digging into the soil to craft “better for you and the planet” products. As evidence, the word “biodynamic” is starting to show up on food product packaging. Biodynamic is a more stringent version of organic, wherein the farming involves a greater integration of soil, growth, methodology of production, and integration. A couple of years ago snack and flatbread maker Natural Nectar Foods Inc. launched a line of crisped rye flatbreads that moved beyond organic to attain biodynamic certification.

While still on the fringe, such attention to food from the ground up is destined to increase as consumers become more aware of such “socioemotional value-added” options.

Reverse Engineering

Although the charge to source from small and regional farms might appear unilateral, some growers are highly selective about which food processors they will work with or supply. While few processors will have trouble placing a first order, after that there is no guarantee.

For the smaller farms, it can be a matter of wanting to interact only with like-minded purchasers. With limited production, they can have the option of being selective and refusing the business of a company that does not adhere to the same food philosophy they do. An example would be a produce farm owned by vegans refusing to sell to manufacturers that use animal products no matter how closely they toe an organic line.

Often, however, the hindrance is that growers have already contracted with distributors. Or, they might already have allocated their entire supply to companies that established regular, ongoing orders. Some growers will meet the demand of a company that is purchasing larger volumes first, and be less focused on keeping smaller purchasers content. The security of the farmer is guaranteed when complete crop sales are guaranteed as well.

Bridging this gulf is how large-scale organic farms such as Earthbound Farm have been able to get a foothold in the marketplace. With more than 50,000 acres devoted to organic farming, the company is able to provide “from the farm” produce to the whole of North America. Large companies can ensure the sustainability of future supply with long-term contracts, something not always possible with smaller companies.

But is product acquired from such massive corporate entities still able to count as at least quasi-regional? That might depend more on the consumer than on the company’s adherence to the practices and values its founders intended.

When Earthbound Farm’s parent company, DanoneWave, was created early last year by the $10.4 billion merger of Danone SA with White Wave Foods Inc., the company presented itself as “the largest public benefit corporation in the US.” Now known as Danone North America, the company named Patagonia’s CEO Rose Marcario as the chair of its advisory committee “to guide adherence to promoting better dietary practices and other environmental and social benefit goals, including diversity.” Only time will tell how different organic corporate farming is from the corporate farming that triggered the growth of organics in the first place.

Consumer Expectations

Adapted from The Hartman Group, “Organic and Natural 2018” report

Consumer engagement with organic and natural foods has deepened over the years, while concerns with GMOs have risen to new heights as consumers grapple with the tensions between food and beverage products that are human-made and those that are nature-made. Today’s shoppers increasingly prioritize fresh, real food that does not contain artificial ingredients [or] other perceived negatives.

More than one-third of consumers (40%) say that “no GMO ingredients” is an important factor when selecting which food or beverage products to purchase. Consumer concern with, and avoidance of, GMOs has risen sharply. The proportion of consumers avoiding GMOs has almost tripled since 2007, with 46% of consumers saying they actively avoid them. Why the spike in avoidance? Quite simply, consumers’ attitudes toward GMOs reflect a much broader shift in food culture: today’s consumers aspire to eating food that is closer to its natural form and less changed by human manipulation. This means food grown in fields by people who feel a connection to the earth, not designed and created in laboratories.

Consumers see eating foods “made by nature” as reclaiming an imagined time when food production was simpler and safer—when you didn’t have to trust a business to do right by you to eat safely. Food was just food. Organic and natural are key concepts in food that speak to these values. Organic and natural together are umbrella concepts that encompass a universe of purity distinctions in foods and beverages.

For more information, go to: www.hartman-group.com