Ari on Business

Attending to Agriculture

Seed Selection, Feeding the Soil and Sustainable Price Structures

Wendell Berry, who keeps an insightful eye on the American landscape (both literally and figuratively), once wrote, “When you find a farmer or a forester who has united the inescapable economic concern with an equally compelling interest in ecology, that is when you had better stop and take notice.”  I am lucky to work with one of those people.  I’ve tried to stop and pay attention.   This piece is written in the hope that a few others might pause and take notice, too.

That might, in a way, be easier said than done.  Everywhere we turn, there’s a lot going on.  Politics, kid’s soccer games, shopping lists, violence, social change. I can’t think of anyone I know—here at Zingerman’s or in the world at large—who’s walking around wondering if they’ll have enough to keep themselves busy tomorrow. As insightful writer and presenter Virginia Postrel posits, “The fundamental economic fact of contemporary society is that attention is scarce.”

To some extent I agree.  But then again, I don’t.  It’s a bit of a paradox, I suppose.  I’d argue that while it’s often hard to get people to devote their attention to anything in particular, the truth is that most of us have plenty of attention available to put to use in making our lives into something truly special. If, I should add, we decide we’re going to.  As Sam Keen writes in Inward Bound, “We are seldom too tired to do what we really want to do.” When we want to focus, I’m fully confident it can still be done.  In fact, I’d argue you’re proving the point that focus is still possible in a positive way merely by reading this article!

Still, it’s not always easy to find the things we might benefit from paying attention to.  Even here within our own little Zingerman’s Community, there’s so much going on that it’s easy to miss any number of important elements of our ecosystem.  Cornman Farms—the agricultural part, at least—is easy to overlook.  Unlike the majority of the places in which we do Zingerman’s business, our ten acres of agriculture get no daily visitors.  You can’t come by to grab a loaf of Bakehouse bread and you can’t get a cup of Cornman blend coffee.  You can’t easily bring your friends from out of town for lunch, and you don’t stop by on your way home to pick up a couple of heirloom tomatoes.  While we hold magnificently marvelous weddings in the beautifully restored barn and farmhouse at Cornman Farms, no one’s actually trekking the half mile through the trees to our fields to get next to one of our tomato plants.  The truth is that unless you pay close attention when you’re eating at the Roadhouse, or you’re really up to speed on the “secrets” of the Zingerman’s community, it would be easy to miss the fact that we even have a farm.

Farms generally don’t get famous, so we’re not alone.  Best I know, there’s no James Beard award for “farm of the year” and the press doesn’t publish “Top Ten Farms Not to Miss in 2016” lists. In the grand scheme of everything we have going—Presidential visits, articles in USA Today, renovation projects at our Southside businesses, a new book on Beliefs, another book coming from the Bakehouse, ZingTrain classes being taught in Bratislava – some raised beds and a few bushels of heirloom tomatoes may not be the first thing that catches your attention.

And yet, I believe, ever more strongly every day, that the agricultural work at Cornman Farms is truly one of the most meaningful organizational accomplishments we have had in our nearly 35 years of doing business.

A Suburban Look at Sustainable Agriculture

Personally, I grew up with only a bit of the two things Wendell Berry was writing about bringing together.  Economy and ecology were, I guess, present, but hardly front and center.  Our middle class was much more focused on school, politics, and community activity than it ever was on money.

Ecology back then was barely a word, at least in the world I was moving in. Though my mother was, I now realize, a bit ahead of her time—she was recycling long before there was curbside pickup.  My grandmother, in her own, old world way, was as well.  She saved everything it seemed like, though probably more out of experience with poverty than frugality.

Doorknobs were regularly replete with used rubber bands and drawers were filled with saved plastic bags, other people’s pens, safety pins and bobby pins.  However, farming was really far out.  To me, as a child, food came from the grocery store.

I don’t think I ever gave much thought as to whether one tomato was any different than any other.  The farm I knew best was the scientific one at the Museum of Science and Industry. It was the era, perhaps the peak, of industrial farming. Chemicals, straight lines, pesticides and power from dams and nuclear plants were going to save the world.

The Fall of American Farming

While the idea of farming as we do it at Cornman Farms has been getting more attention of late in the artisan food world, the truth is that most of the last 150 American years have been spent trying to get away from the farm!  In the 1830s, when the house and barn were built, over three quarters of the population of the United States lived on a farm.  In 1882, the year that Rocco Disderide arrived in the U.S. from Italy, about half the country’s population lived on a farm.  By the time he opened his shop in 1902, in the current Zingerman’s Deli space, that number was down to a third of the people in the US.  By the time we opened the Deli in 1982, it was down to a tenth of that—only about 3.4% of Americans lived on a farm.  By the time the farmer I’m going to talk about started farming in the early aughts, it decreased by half again. To make the picture even bleaker, by the time we started farming at Cornman, nine out of ten American farmers were dependent on off-farm income to make their living.

All of which helps make clear that, back when we opened the Deli, college graduates were not racing to establish themselves as farmers. Getting a small sustainable farm started is not now, nor was it then, a quick way to find fame or fortune.  In a society fixated on speed, old school agriculture works the other way around.  The pace of “feet in the soil” agriculture is slow. A snail’s pace compared to most economic activity.  However, to move faster would be incongruous; out of sync with the natural systems we all admire.  As Wendell Berry writes, “the gait most congenial to agrarian thought and sensibility is walking. It is the gait best suited to paying attention, most conservative of land and equipment, and most permissive of stopping to look or think.  Machines, companies, and politicians ‘run.’  Farmers studying their fields travel at a walk.”  In that sense, maybe it makes sense that it’s taken me so long to put explore my thoughts on our farm.

The Story of Cornman Farms

The farmer I’m taking notice of here—per Wendell Berry’s beliefs—is also a chef, and also the managing partner at the Roadhouse.  Alex Young came to work with us fifteen years ago—one year of transition into the organization by serving as the kitchen manager at the Deli, then, as planned, moving on to be the chef and partner at the Roadhouse.  I don’t think that Alex grew up in a farm setting either, but at least he spent much of his youth in northern California where local produce and nature are a lot more prevalent than they were for me in the squared off streets of Chicago.   Alex moved his family here to settle down in Dexter where his wife’s family had been farming since the early part of the 19th century.  While his own upbringing was one of near constant shifting, the Arnold family had been on the same land for nearly two hundred years!

This September, the Roadhouse will celebrate its 13th anniversary.  Alex and crew have won a James Beard award for their work; they’ve been written up in numerous publications, the most recent of which was a rather large and gorgeously glowing piece in USA Today by best selling author Larry Olmstead.  (Check out Larry’s great new book Real Food, Fake Food!)  The Roadhouse has been on TV half a dozen times, in the local press many more than that.

Food writers from across the country come to speak at special dinners featuring their cookbooks. While the agricultural work on the farm gets a few lines in all the articles, it rarely takes top attention.  I guess the agricultural work is a kind of like the drummer in a famous band.  The chef is the lead singer.  While the drummer sits in the back and keeps the beat going, the singer gets all the attention.

The funny thing here is that in our case, the drummer and the singer, the chef and the farmer, are the same person.  Alex does both.  The chef at the Roadhouse didn’t just decide to buy from local farms (also a great thing mind you), he actually started one!

What is now an entire farm started as a hobby. Alex used it as something to take his mind off the stress of figuring out how to run a very large, very high-quality, restaurant. At the time he started, I remember Alex catching flak for taking his attention off the restaurant by doing something “unrelated.” But for Alex—it gave him a whole new perspective on what it meant to be a chef and run a restaurant.

Even still, farming wasn’t high on Alex’s bucket list. He was a chef. He loved to cook. He’d cooked all over the U.S. and Europe. He was good at it. He told me that one of the first times he cooked for other people was when he was 13 and his parents went out of town and he invited a few hundred people over for a BBQ.  (That was the event at which the barbecue sauce we now all know as Alex’s Red Rage had its beginnings.  He’s been tweaking it regularly ever since). In the early years of the Roadhouse, he used to sit on his porch, just up the road from where his wife’s relatives had started farming.  he told me “That was my wishing tree. I used to sit out there and think about what it would be like to have a farm. I thought it would be cool to have a farm one day.”  At that point though, it was probably more about the idea of having a farm than it was of doing the actual farming.  Not that he was opposed to hard work—running restaurant kitchens is hardly a leisure activity.  But he’d never farmed, never had a real sense of what was involved.

Somehow, early on in the stressful times that accompany nearly every restaurant startup, Alex had the idea to go out in his backyard and start growing some tomatoes.  Over time he added a few other vegetables as well.  One day he brought a few things in to the restaurant and started doing what he knew how to do best, which is cook with them.  Spotting a regular customer sitting up front at the chef’s counter, he brought out some of what he’d prepared with the fresh produce.  He still talks about that moment—when he experienced the emotional and culinary connection of watching a customer eat what he’d grown.  Reflecting back on the good Mr. Berry, it strikes me that this was the moment—or at least one of them—when Alex first “united the inescapable economic concern with an equally compelling interest in ecology.”

Mark Baerwolf remembers those days: “I’d worked as a cook around town for years, and I came to the Roadhouse because I’d read Alex’s description of what he wanted the Roadhouse to be in an article in the Ann Arbor Observer.  He’d explained how he wanted to explore American foodways by using local and organic produce, if possible.  He and I started talking veggies and tomatoes because we both had gardens.  He invited me out to see his backyard garden – and I never left.  I’ve worked with Alex and the garden since 2006 while also working as a cook at the Roadhouse.  I’d work during the day at the and head off to the restaurant for the evening.   But I’ve been full-time on the farm the last three years.  I am the best version of myself out in the garden, and I’ve met the nicest people from farming.”

Over the last decade, what started as digging a few rows of tomatoes has turned into a ten-plus-acre farm which produces multiple tons of produce for the restaurant. Cornman Farms is an integral piece of what we do at the Roadhouse. I don’t conceive of Cornman Farms as a purveyor to the Roadhouse—I imagine it as the back prep kitchen of the restaurant. To me, it’s not much different than the pit or the cutting table where we prep fish, or cut up whole sides of beef.  It’s just part of the process—our process—of producing really good American food.

The connection between simultaneously growing our own vegetables in order to cook them in our own restaurant is a big shift in beliefs.  This is not the way it’s been done, at least not in the second half of the 20th century.  That’s not an overnight shift to make.  As biologist Julian Huxley, the brother of Aldous Huxley, author of the aptly-titled for the purposes of this piece, Brave New World, said in 1961: “It is hard to break through the firm framework of an accepted belief-system and to build new and complex successors, but it is necessary.”

Alex’s insight, his willingness to twist the viewing lens, to shift his beliefs, makes very good sense.  In an industrial restaurant, most of the food arrives already prepped, in boxes, cans or bags.  One step up (in my judgment) would at least take whole commercial produce into the kitchen to work with.  A better kitchen—the kind we would want to work with—would take the fresh produce, where possible, from farms with whom they have a relationship, and work with them to offer what was best in season.  Certainly there are now a fair few places around the area, and many more around the country, who are doing that.

What Cornman Farms has become for the Roadhouse is, in my mind, merely taking that process one step further in the quality chain.  The Roadhouse doesn’t just prep fresh produce—it grows it!   In my fantasy, the farm would literally be located right out the back door so that people from the prep kitchen could walk out and talk to the folks growing in the fields.  I think about asking the prep cook to run out back to pick some more tomatoes!  But since we aren’t likely to be able to turn the Westgate Mall parking lot into a patch of organic produce, I think this is about as good as we’re gonna get for the moment.  And I’ve been in some big hotel kitchens where it takes as long to walk from one side of the building to the other as it takes to drive all the way to Dexter.

Sidenote:  My quip about parking lot produce was a bit too quick.  The Cornman crew actually has some great looking produce growing liberally around the restaurant.  The parking lot has corn, sunflowers and a few herbs all on hand.  And folks do come out as needed to pick a bunch of mint for cocktails, herbs for salad, etc.  It makes me smile every time I park near the dumpsters and see a spread of beautiful sunflowers standing tall right next to it!

Flowers and French Peppers

Turning all this passion into a financially workable model isn’t, as you can tell already, all that easy.  The key has been finding things to grow that we feel great about, things that taste special enough to allow us to charge what we need to charge, that get the attention of food lovers who eat them. One way is flowers.

Amanda is all about them. Amanda Maurmann grew up in Ann Arbor (her father, Gene Hopkins was one of the architects who worked on the first Deli expansion back in 1986).  After a number of years out east, she moved home and started working at the Roadhouse. Her passion for agriculture soon shifted her to working on the farm.  You can see, and feel, her commitment in every conversation.  She’s growing nearly 100 varieties of flowers on the farm.

Finding old school, organic flowers, flowers that aren’t laden with pesticides, flowers that look beautiful and are sustainably grown, is harder to do that, one might think. Most flowers you and I see outside the farmer’s market are the floral equivalent of industrial food. “I get so upset when I see industrial flower growing,” Amanda said. “Flowers cry out for bees and other pollinators, but to get those perfect blooms in mass plantings often times they spray, and end up killing the good with the ‘bad’, not to mention spraying it on the farm workers, too…”

While few consumers realize it, 80% of flowers sold in the US are imported, often from places with a lot looser and more dangerous agricultural policies than ours.  What Amanda is experimenting with on the farm is something that’s aligned with the way we approach our food.  Old varieties that look lovely, that enhance the look of the land, and if you buy them, your table, too.

Sidenote: To that end, the Roadhouse has, while the flowers are in season, started offering them to you when you make a reservation!  If you’d like a bouquet of these old school flower arrangements waiting on the table when you arrive just let us know next time you book. I can pretty much guarantee you will win friends and influence whomever you brought with you to dinner! Or lunch! Or brunch!  Or just for afternoon oysters and sparkling wine!  When you do, remember what Amanda told me: “We would not be here if it wasn’t for flowers. Flowers are to attract the bees and the bees pollinate the plants.  It’s totally mind-blowing!”

Agriculture and Economy – Paying the price

All of this, I would imagine, sounds rather inspiring.  It certainly does to me!  The challenge—aside from the enormous amount of work it takes to restore the soil, choose the seeds, grow it all and harvest it—is trying to figure how to make the money work.  It’s again, easier said than done.  I’ve been turning this over in my head, gently, without sending myself into a total tizzy, much the way the crew at Cornman work the land.  Thoughtfully, purposefully, with care, and with the intent of sorting out what’s really best over the long haul.  It’s not about quick fixes.  It’s about sustainability of food and finance.  About bringing every element of existence into alignment, leaving our world—both in business and with raised beds—better than we found it.

Here’s what I wrote a few years ago in Part 1 of Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading:

Paying the Full Price Up Front

I think that this idea of staying in business bleeds into a topic that hardly anyone ever really wants to talk about—charging enough for our products for our business to actually be financially viable over the long term. The funny thing about this is that even in the world of sustainable food production, there are still a whole lot of folks pushing for ever lower prices. Which is certainly their prerogative. It’s not like I’m an advocate of raising prices on principle. Nor have I ever thought that life is all about maximizing your financial return. And I definitely don’t think higher prices should be used to cover up inefficiencies.

But the reality is that higher prices that allow healthy, sustainably minded businesses to do all the things we’re talking about and still stay in business are, I think, a good and necessary thing. By contrast, driving prices down at all costs is the exact model that we all say that we want to get away from in the food world. And we know what happened there. Personally, I think back to what Michael Pollan wrote in a piece for the New York Times Sunday Magazine entitled “Unhappy Meals.” Among his principles of healthy eating, number five is “pay more, eat less.” He goes on to explain that:

“The American food system has for a century devoted its energies and policies to increasing quantity and reducing price, not to improving quality. There’s no escaping the fact that better food—measured by taste or nutritional quality (which often correspond)—costs more, because it has been grown or raised less intensively and with more care. Not everyone can afford to eat well in America, which is shameful, but most of us can: Americans spend, on average, less than 10 percent of their income on food, down from 24 percent in 1947, and less than the citizens of any other nation. And those of us who can afford to eat well should. Paying more for food well grown in good soils—whether certified organic or not—will contribute not only to your health (by reducing exposure to pesticides) but also to the health of others who might not themselves be able to afford that sort of food: the people who grow it and the people who live downstream, and downwind, of the farms where it is grown.”

Having worked in the food world for nearly 30 years now I’m still shocked and awed to hear, over and over again, stories of restaurants and retailers that were generally considered to be big successes who, it later turns out, never made any money. Although some of them charged high prices, they ran cost of goods numbers that simply weren’t viable, yet struggled along for years anyway. Some survived on infusions of cash from corporate parents, wealthy-from-other-work owners, or public stock offerings. Others stayed in business, in part, by not paying themselves a salary, either because they didn’t need the income or because there wasn’t any cash to pay it.

To the consumer, of course, these businesses look perfectly healthy. And the prices they charge set a standard that others see as the norm. But the problem is that using these failing businesses as a benchmark is akin to setting your weight target by looking at fashion magazines. In either case, the model (sorry, pun intended) is not very likely to be sustainable. It survives, maybe even looks glamorous for a bit, but eventually starves and collapses. And, in the process, it leaves the world around it—staff, suppliers, customers, and community—worse off than when it first arrived on the scene.

What that means to me on the upside is that we have to have the courage to charge what we need to charge to stay in business in a healthy way. That we have to back that up by delivering great experiences to those we interact with—staff, suppliers, community, shareholders, and of course customers. We have to share what we take in with all of those groups, so that everyone gets something positive out of the work that we do in order to create the kind of abundance we’re committed to delivering. We have to back that all up even more by using good business practices, careful costing, and effective purchasing, so that we’re not wasting cash that customers contribute to our cause.

To me, that’s the crux of what sustainable business is all about. Staying in business in order to sustain the lives and livelihoods of the people and the producers of our community.

Well, I’ve now worked in the food world for nearly 40 years, but there’s nothing else in what I wrote then that I’d change now.  In fact, I might even say it more forcefully.  What’s the point of doing all the work if we aren’t going to charge enough to cover what it costs us to do the work in the first place?  

It’s a key part of Wendell Berry’s beautiful statement up at the top of this piece.  “When you find a farmer or a forester who has united the inescapable economic concern with an equally compelling interest in ecology…”  It’s the combination of the two that’s so special.  Just having a high interest in economics alone leads to the unsustainable stuff that most anyone reading this essay has already long since come to view with suspicion. Having a compelling interest in ecology alone might lead you to appropriately recycle, reduce your carbon footprint, and support ecologically-minded non-profit organizations. The point here though is to “unite” the two.  Ecology and economy.  Each without the other is unlikely to get us very far. At least not very far in the direction we want to go.  

While the country is happily moving up minimum wage and helping entry level folks move closer to making a manageable living (there’s still a long way to go, mind you), the reality is that most small farmers don’t even get that.  When you own your own place, your own business, you don’t get paid by the hour.  I think that’s a good thing—a vocation, a passion, something you really care about isn’t something you punch in and out for. While most of the folks in this country who care a lot about food, are all for increasing the amount of acreage managed by sustainable farmers, the reality is that most of those have a hard time making ends meet.  

I’m determined to change that.  Or, at least, I want to try.  I believe that we can, in the same way that we’ve worked to make artisan bread baking, cheese-making, sandwich-making into a sustainable business, I don’t know why we can’t do the same with farming.   The work that Alex, Mark, Amanda and everyone on the farm is doing is exceptional.   When we started at the Deli in the early ‘80s, let’s just say that artisan cheeses and olive oils were selling for a lot less than they are now. We pay a lot more and, consequently, we also charge a lot more. The same is true for other traditionally made foods.  People started to price their products not on “the market price,” but on some reasonable estimate of what they actually cost to produce.  Did they push the envelope of what many folks “thought” that a piece of cheese or a bottle of olive oil ought to cost?  Of course they did.  But they did it anyways. If we really value what they’re producing, then it only makes sense to pay a price that allows them to make a modicum of a living.

Growing heirloom tomatoes doesn’t win headlines but it might just make a huge difference in the way we eat, and live, what happens on the planet and inside our bodies.  When I talk about charging enough to cover costs we’re not talking about covering some huge salaries.  Just the same sort of “good-for-our-industry, not-that-high, compared-to-many-other-industries,” kind of pay rates we try to pay here.  And benefits like health care, paid time off and other things that most professions pretty surely take for granted.

Farms and Finance

To be clear, I’m not remotely the world’s expert on small-scale, sustainable agriculture.  I’m just an outsider: the city kid who likes to cook and still feels comforted by the smell of warm asphalt in the sun, trying to figure all this out.  Best I can tell though, the reality of most farming work is that it’s based on a couple of economic models that I don’t really want to emulate:

  • a) pay migrant laborers below minimum wage
  • b) get interns who will do the work for room and board – this isn’t a terrible model. It allows new folks to learn so they’re basically getting important education without having to pay for it.  
  • c)  families living on off-farm income then doing a LOT of work on-farm for no real pay because they believe in what they’re doing, believe in agriculture and are deeply committed to maintaining their craft and their land.

With all due respect, I’d like to try a different model. One in which maybe no one gets rich, but in which the economic framework is as sustainable as the soil and the produce we’re working to grow in it.  To set the strangeness of that structure into context: take out “farmer” and plug in pretty much any profession you want – attorneys, actuaries, accountants, automakers – imagine that they all had other jobs in order to make their profession work financially.  Even the thought of it makes me laugh, though not really for good reasons.

It’s not an easy box to get out of. In her introduction to the New Farmer’s Almanac, Severine von Tscharner Fleming wrote that, “yes, labor is expensive and yet too cheap, food prices are higher than people can afford and yet lower than reasonable cost of production.”  It’s all a bit paradoxically problematic.  Which, frustrating as it seems at first, isn’t necessarily such a terrible thing.  As Alfred Kazin wrote: “Man’s life is full of contradiction . . .  a contradiction that is faced leads to true knowledge.”  I look forward, then, to the creative energy we can unleash if we can sort out a healthier set of beliefs. Together, I’m convinced, we can figure this thing out.