Take a stroll through your local grocery store, and you’ll see a lot of names you recognize, like Smithfield (whoever he is). Chances are not many of them—if any of them—are the names of local farmers.
That’s because so much of food production today has been consolidated and commoditized so a handful of conglomerates produce most of what you find on the shelf. If you’re reading this, then you know that in the name of increased volumes and throughput, those producers have compromised on the quality of their meat—and who knows what happens on the long and winding road from their manufacturing plant to your table?
It wasn’t always that way, and in some places—for some people—it still isn’t. The Diestel Family Ranch is one, and we’ve got a number of friends for whom product quality still outweighs the production volume. Friends like Neil Dudley of Pederson’s Natural Farms. Neil and I have been working on something exciting over the past few months (spoiler alert: it’s delicious). I gave him a call recently to see whether he’s as good a conversationalist as he is a collaborator (another spoiler alert: he is).
Heidi: Neil, thanks for jumping on the phone with me. I know that you and I go way back, but I was hoping to kick things off today looking to the future. What do you think is the future of farming—and especially the farmers who’ve made a brand for themselves?
Neil: I think we’re already beginning to see what the future’s going to be when it comes to farmers and the food system—especially with the pandemic. Even the big guys have started to realize that having all of their production capacity tied up in a few locations is a big problem. I’ve heard from more than one large investment group rumblings about decentralizing the whole system, which would immediately free up food to flow to people more locally and regionally. Instead of picking up food from who-knows-where, people would be able to say, “Yeah, I went down to Neil’s Butcher Shop, and I picked up a steak that I know came from this farm just a few miles from here.”
I think we’re already beginning to see that transition. Consumers all over the country have used, will use, and can trust, I believe, the food those conglomerates offer, but I don’t think you can trust them for the highest quality or the best transparency. Those are the pieces of the pie that I like to serve, and as they become increasingly important to consumers, I think we’re going to continue to see that shift.
Heidi: If people increasingly value high quality, responsibly produced food then why do you think more young people aren’t flocking to farming?
Neil: It’s the money, and it’s hard work.
I grew up with a lot of kids whose parents worked in agriculture. Something about the small town and the rural lifestyle didn’t appeal to them, so they left for big cities—like there’s something they’ll find there that they can’t find out here. I never really experienced that—the feeling that I’m going to go find something big in the city, or I’m going to be something big.
Anyway, in the time it takes them to realize that nothing big is happening there, they’ve lost a lot of the time it takes to build an agriculture business. If you’re going to have a family, especially a big family, there’s not a lot of money in agriculture, at least not early on. It can be hard to get going and hard to sustain.
The truth is I had it easy—things worked out for me—but I know that’s absolutely not true for everybody.
Heidi: But it’s still important work, right? We’re as advanced as we’ve ever been—technologically, socially, culturally—but our food and our food system pales in comparison to what it used to be. Unless you’re going out and finding a CSA in your community or raising your own meat, what you get is a shadow of what it once was. But the values of the shopper may not be there either, you know? They’re looking for convenience, and they find value in convenience. As a farmer who knows the care and attention it takes to produce good quality food, what do you think the role of convenience will play?
Neil: Oh, I guess I’m banking on consumers to make a change, too.
I don’t know about you, but kids around here are wearing mullets. When I was in my early teens, mullets were so cool, and by the time I was an adult, they were the biggest joke. And now here we are however many years later, and they’re cool again.
I don’t think food is any different. My mom always thought fresh food was important, and she liked to cook. If I had to guess, I’d say my daughters are going to feel the same—even if I’m not so much that way. Millennials are looking for convenience, they’re looking to technology and quick fixes, but Gen Z is already thinking more about the role they play in the world. They’re getting way more interested in cooking, too. I think they’re going to take us where we need to go.
That’s what makes it such a fun time to be in the business. It’s challenging, sure, but there’s opportunity everywhere—like the turkey bacon burger we got to make with you, Heidi. That’s the kind of stuff I love to do.
Heidi: Yeah! Let’s talk about the turkey bacon burger.
Neil: A lot of people buy turkey because of their perception of the nutrition or production of beef or pork. This concept turns that right on its head. We’re using the best turkey, the highest quality bacon, and we’re making a turkey bacon burger. People are going to buy the heck out of it. It tastes great, and it’s about the cleanest, highest quality food you can get.
Heidi: Yeah! I’m really, really excited about the bacon burger. It’s the blending of two worlds, bringing two actual farmers to the front of the package so people can look at it and know where the pork and turkey came from. It’s like you said—transparency.
Neil: And it’s utilizing the animal the right way, making sure that the lives of the animals are fully utilized and fully considered. Higher quality, less waste—
Heidi: That’s one of my favorite things about it. Plus we’re launching with our good friends over at Imperfect Foods. We’re taking the highest quality turkey and making the absolute best possible product. It’s the best turkey burger I’ve ever had, and I was literally raised on turkey. I know a thing or two about how to cook a bird, you know?
When my mom was in charge, it was the height of the low-fat craze, only she took it a step further. When everything was low fat, my family was no fat, which made for some very, very lean dinners. I keep having these flashbacks now that we’re in charge, and we’re bringing fat back. We’re bringing flavor back!
Neil: That’s what happens when farmers work together. Nobody knows the food better than the people who’ve spent their lives making it the best they can be.
Heidi: It’s really satisfying, and it’s very humbling. Like you said, it’s hard work, but for me, with turkey, we get Thanksgiving, when families across the country gather around the table celebrate around our birds, and that’s really meaningful. What is it for you?
Neil: I’m trying to come up with a good picture to paint that’ll make it clear, but honestly, it’s just “today” that does it. Today is what keeps me going. I don’t know if I’m going to live tomorrow, but today I was doing something that I loved, and my girls were with me, and they were excited about it. That’s what really turns my clock. I’m sure lots of people find it in lots of places—even in the city. But the farm is where I find it, and I think that’s God’s gift to me—getting to see, enjoy, and appreciate his creation.
That, and it’s great to know you’re making food that other people like. That’s rewarding in itself.
Heidi: It’ll be really interesting to see how the next generation shifts, how they decide to cook, whether they’re willing to spend more time in the kitchen (which we know is important to our health and vitality, right)?
But I think you’re right: we’re headed that direction. We see more and more people flocking (get it?) to more and more remote places for a taste of what you were describing a moment ago because it’s so… foreign. It’s human nature to want that accomplishment of growing, nurturing, creating—it’s tangible. And farming is so tangible. In a world that’s becoming increasingly digital, farming is the exact opposite.
Maybe that’s what’s so great about the new turkey bacon burger, too. When everybody in the industry is making non-meat protein, we’re doubling down. Farmers know best, and this is the best. I tell everybody that Diestel Family Ranch has a blended burger now—no, it’s not part-sweet potato (those are for fries); it’s pork, and it’s turkey, and damn, it’s delicious.