In a venue packed with a diverse audience in a museum dedicated to telling the story of the fledgling milling industry, a panel of eight tackled the latest Food Dialogues event for U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. The event, sponsored by the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council, Nebraska Soybean Board and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, took on a range of consumer concerns.
Moderator Alan Bjerga, agriculture policy journalist, Bloomberg, dealt with a big panel with a wide range of views. The group included:
• Bertrand Weber - director, Minneapolis Public Schools Culinary & Nutrition Services
• Bill Gordon, corn and soybean farmer, Gordon Farms, Worthington, Minn. - a conventional 2,000-acre corn and soybean operation
• Greg Reynolds, Riverbend Farm, Delano, Minn. - an organic farm serving a wide range of buyers directly
• Jen Haugen, registered dietitian, formerly of Hy-Vee supermarkets
• Jorge Guzman, executive chef, Surly Brewing, a popular Twin Cities facility that serves locally sourced ingredients
• Rochelle Krusemark, corn, soybean, pork and beef farmer, Krusemark Farms, Trimont, Minn.
• Steve Peterson, former director of sustainable sourcing, General Mills
• Steve Polski, senior director, sustainability, Cargill
Bjerga noted that at the event chairs were being added "which shows the passion for food in this community." And passion was evident from all panelists as they discussed food from their perspective.
During the hour-and-a-half event, spectators saw commercial farmers discuss their business and customer versus how an organic farmer, and buyer of local food works. Reynolds shared that he would post on Sunday what he would have available, pick on Monday and deliver on Tuesday. The process would continue on Wednesday with a Friday delivery. "We have a small scale organic vegetable farm where all kinds of vegetables can be grown from asparagus to zucchini, including some that can't be grown like peanuts and okra," he smiled.
His direct customers include co-op grocery stores, a small Community Supported Agriculture operation, and he sells the the Hopkins, Minn., school district. He notes that he has 80 acres of which 30 is tillable and 12 to 15 is devoted to vegetables. That's a far different operation versus Bill Gordon's commercial corn and soybean business.
"We're a fourth generation family farm - and 97% of farms are family farms," he says. His market is the commercial buyer of corn and soybeans. Yet thinking about the future is important for his business too: "I look at that same land my grandfather looked at. I try to farm it better than my father who farmed it better than my grandfather. I want to look seven generations down where we'll have 9 billion people to feed."
He adds that for his 2,000-acre operation he has 250 acres in buffer strips, wildlife habitats to help maintain water quality from his farm. "To a farmer sustainability is the continuing ability to raise a family, to feed you," he says.
Krusemark, the other farmer on the panel, notes that in her county there are 21,000 people and 1 million pigs. She notes that they're lucky because they have two ethanol plants and a soybean processing plant, offering her marketing opportunities, but often the corn her family raises is fed to pigs and marketed that way. Soybeans are fed soybean meal from the farm that comes from that local soybean processing plant. "We support our community and I call our county our community because that's how I see it," she says.
Changes in demand
As the conversation progressed, one common theme emerged that impacts the entire food industry and that's the need to know more about the source of the food. Peterson notes that when he was at General Mills the dialogue changed and they didn't just want grain from Cargill, they wanted to know more about the source of that product.
"We use a lot of oats at General Mills," he noted. "Where will those oats come from in the future."
For Guzman, chef at Surly Brewing, local is important, but not always organic. He notes that he's sourcing from local farmers and quality is his driver. "You can tell the difference between a commercially raise pork loin and one from my suppliers. The commercially raised loin is spongy," he says.
Gordon noted that he would like to know who his commercial supplier is because that's not what he's raising on his operation.
When Weber, from the Minneapolis School District noted that a lot of commercial pork is injected with solution in part to make sure it remains juicy, that brought up an interesting discussion about the fact that the consumer has lost touch with cooking their own food.
Krusemark walked through how to properly prepare pork - get it to 145 degrees F and let it rest for 5 minutes to achieve proper internal temperature while avoiding a dry product.
Gordon notes that the pork industry moved toward a leaner product because that's what the consumer asked for, which again raised the question about proper preparation.
Guzman notes that his restaurant buys 3 tons of beef brisket a month from local sources - led by Niman Ranch which works with local growers to maintain a specific quality level across the country. "We are looking for a quality product, and we do charge more for it," he notes.
During one exchange concerning processed foods, Guzman joked that he liked Kraft macaroni and cheese, but that was not something he was serving to customers. There's a place for a range of foods in the market.
The local discussion
Both commercial farmers - Krusemark and Gordon raised questions about alternative forms of agriculture and the challenges of serving local markets. Krusemark noted that her operation is too far from big cities that make it easy for organic farmers to thrive.
Reynolds pointed out that her operation is no more than two-and-one-half hours from the Twin Cities and that organic farmers from Western Minnesota and Wisconsin were serving those markets. Her response: "Perhaps we should talk about that." It was a collegial tone, but shows that different agriculture systems are driven by many factors, not just a belief that one system is better than the other.
Gordon was quick to say a couple of times that anyone with questions about conventional farming should visit his operation. "I welcome you to come to my farm and see how we work," he says, noting that transparency was important to agriculture. He had noted that in the past conventional agriculture had been slow to tell the story of how new technologies were helping improve the way he farms and there's catching up to do.
It was a lively discussion. The entire video will be available later this week at fooddialogues.com.
Moderator Bjerga summed up the meeting with a little humor:
"We've learned a few solid piece of information. First you should cook pork to 145 degrees and let it set for 5 minutes; Next time I return to Minnesota I want to see articles about the boom in ag tourism with people led by this group to visit all sorts of production models; we haven't resolved anything tonight, but we may have gotten a couple of new business deals; and we did not find answers but we did find different ways to look at questions."