Pastured eggs on a roll

Vital Farms chickens are each allotted 108 square feet of outdoor space. (Courtesy of Dan Brooks/Vital Farms)

In 2006, Michael Cox, a chicken farmer in northwest Arkansas, faced a choice that many farmers do: Grow or die. His family had been raising chickens for three generations, first for agriculture behemoth Cargill and then for themselves. Even with 800,000 laying hens, Cox was not big enough to compete: “If you’re growing or dying,” he said, “we were planning our funeral.”

Cox, who was then 25, switched some of the family’s production to organic, which brought premium prices. Then, in 2009, he heard about a Texas startup called Vital Farms that wanted to produce pasture-raised eggs and sell them across the country. “Here were guys doing something completely different,” Cox remembers. “It was just crazy enough to work.” He signed on to raise 5,000 chickens.

I write about Vital Farms’ success in this week’s Washington Post. Since 2009, the company has nearly doubled in size each year. What started as a farm outside Austin with just a few thousand birds now works with about 60 farms and produces 1.5 million eggs every week. The eggs, which cost from $4.99 to $8.99 a dozen, are sold across the country in Whole Foods Markets and other natural-foods grocers, as well as in some mainstream stores, including Safeway and Kroger.

Vital Farms’ national distribution lets consumers who live in cold climates like the Northeast have access to pasture-raised eggs year-round. (Chickens can’t graze on pasture if there’s no grass.) Moreover, it is proof that companies don’t have to compromise on animal welfare, or on how much they pay farmers, to compete in the marketplace. “We set out to build a big business without compromise,” said Jason Jones, Vital Farms’ president. Added founder and chief executive Matt O’Hayer, “Our job is to show people that an egg is not just an egg.”

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Sustainable agriculture’s missing link

Food hubs aren’t as sexy as news that McDonald’s will stop using chicken raised with some antibiotics or that foodservice behemoths Sodexo, Aramark and Compass will soon buy cage-free eggs. Such moves are important. But they are tweaks. (McDonald’s is only banning antibiotics used in human medicine, not all antibiotics. The foodservice companies’ policies apply only to liquid eggs.) These are tweaks that affect a lot of people, but tweaks just the same. Food hubs, which aggregate and distribute food for local and regional farmers, in contrast, have the potential to revolutionize America’s food system, helping to create one that promotes regional agriculture and values farmers and the soil. They deserve as much attention.

In my latest story for Stone Barns Center, I look at the promise of food hubs. A national survey conducted in 2013 by the nonprofit Wallace Center counted 221 food hubs in the United States; 62 percent of them were less than five years old, and 31 percent had more than $1 million in revenue. While many hubs—La Montanita in New Mexico, Cherry Capital Foods in Traverse City, Mich., and the Local Food Hub in Charlottesville, Va.—have seen success, there also have been failures. Grasshoppers, an ambitious food hub in Louisville, Ky., closed its doors in December 2013. “The first flush of emotional excitement has evolved into asking the real questions,” says John Fisk, the Wallace Center’s executive director. “What are our margins? Where do we get access to credit? You can’t do good if you aren’t doing well.”

Can food hubs fill the gap? Let me know what you think.

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It all adds up: the cost of true farming

For most farmers, the decision to use chemical fertilizers is an easy one. For every ton of ammonium nitrate a farmer uses, he pays $387 and sees a return of between $666 and $2,066—as much as 500 percent. The math simply makes sense.

Or at least it appears to. A 2013 European study calculated the total costs of using nitrogen fertilizer, including things like the cost of cleaning up chemical runoff into local waterways. What they found was that adding nitrogen fertilizer did not deliver a windfall, but resulted in damages to the environment, society and public health that ranged from $990 to a whopping $5,172 per ton. “If the damage done was charged to the farmer or fertilizer supplier, it would cancel out the benefit and it would transform agriculture all over the world,” says Patrick Holden, a farmer and the director of the U.K.-based Sustainable Food Trust.

Transforming agriculture is exactly what Holden has set out to do. His strategy is to put precise dollar figures on the costs of industrial agriculture. These are the so-called externalities that we hear about so often from food-reformers who argue that cheap food isn’t really cheap.

The problem is that without hard numbers, the issue remains stubbornly abstract. This is why a financial reckoning—what Holden calls true cost accounting—is so important. Only with real figures in hand can we at last have serious conversations about how to hold producers accountable and begin to level the playing field for sustainable producers.

In my latest column for the Stone Barns Center, I write explain true cost accounting and why it is essential to move forward the debate about sustainable food and to advance sensible policies.

Take a read and let me know what you think.

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Do family farms make ag more sustainable?

I moderated a super lively debate at the Food Tank’s first annual summit last month. To start, we talked about just what a family farm is. After all, a huge industrial farm could be owned by one family…And Cargill is privately held, too.) We had an impressive set of panelists including Mark Smallwood of the Rodale Institute, Kathy Ozer, executive director of the National Family Farm Coalition, Chandler Goule of the National Farmers Union, and Eric Hansen of the  National Young Farmers Coalition, among others.

It was a huge topic to cover in an hour but we did it. We even managed to (somehow) get intel on who on the panel had tattoos under their suits. You can watch the session here.

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Making dietary guidelines sustainable

For the first time in American history, the government is weighing whether sustainability should shape our national dietary guidelines. A draft recommendation circulated by a nutrition advisory committee argues that a diet “higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with lesser environmental impact.” The committee specifically called out cattle ranches as a contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions and deforestation.

Predictably, the beef industry is apoplectic. Advice to eat less meat would affect meal plans in schools, military bases, federal cafeterias and, perhaps more important, undercut the industry’s claim that beef is what should be for dinner. Over the last few months, its powerful lobby has filed comments in the federal register and persuaded Congress to sneak a directive into an appropriations bill that declares sustainability, climate change and production practices beyond the scope of the advisory committee and warns federal agencies to ignore such suggestions in the final guidelines.

The congressional meddling made headlines. What the media failed to note, however, is that Congress is wrong. There is no limit on what can or should be considered in devising guidelines for healthy eating. The legislation mandates onlythat the guidelines “shall contain nutritional and dietary information and guidelines for the general public… [and] shall be based on the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge which is current at the time the report is prepared.” Like the media, politicians don’t let facts get in the way of a good story.

In my latest column for the Stone Barns Center, I look at whether sustainable farming practices should help to shape our nation’s dietary guidelines. The answer: Yes. Studies prove that sustainability can shape the health of individuals and society as a whole. If there is no arable land to grow crops; if pesticide runoff poisons our waterways; if greenhouse-gas emissions nudge temperature levels too high, it doesn’t much matter what foods a panel of experts tells us to eat to promote our health and well-being. We won’t have a lot of options.

Being healthy is about more than just eating the right nutrients—and we have an obesity epidemic to prove it.

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Frozen dinners shoot for delicious

In the 21st century battle for American appetites, one clear loser has emerged: TV dinners. Sales have tumbled over the last five years, with many customers opting for higher-end fast-food like Chipotle, and millennials, who were raised to equate fresh with healthy, avoiding frozen meals altogether. So dire is the situation that this spring, food-manufacturing rivals including ConAgra and Nestlé came together to launch a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign to salvage the industry’s reputation. Its slogan: Frozen: How Fresh Stays Fresh.

They have a point. Freezing is not inherently wrong; in fact, the technology brilliantly preserves flavors and nutrients. But perhaps a better strategy would be to hand over the PR to a new generation of companies that is working to satisfy modern appetites. Some stand out for their taste and sophisticated flavors. (I would happily serve chocolate souffle’s from Babeth’s Feast at my next dinner party.) Others limit fat and sodium, use antibiotic-free and humanely raised meats, and liberally employ hip “nutrient-dense” ingredients such as pomegranate and kale. In short: You’ll be hard pressed to find what author and food guru Michael Pollan calls “foodlike substances” in the frozen dinners I write about the Wall Street Journal this week. Things are looking up.

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  • About Me

    Jane BlackI am a Washington, D.C.-based food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. My work appears in the Washington Post, (where I was a staff writer), the New York Times, Saveur, New York magazine and other publications. On this site, you will find my blog and links to my written work and my Washington Post columns.

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