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This article by Pat Tanner was prepared for the April 9, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Helping Small Farms Fend Off Agribusines
It has taken 25 years for organic food to go from
fringe to mainstream, but for Fran McManus and Wendy Rickard of Eating
Fresh Publications of Hopewell, organic food is just the tip of the
iceberg lettuce. The company’s roots go back to 1997, with an idea
McManus had for a cookbook that would extol the virtues of organic
farming in New Jersey while decrying the loss of its farmland.
That book, "Eating Fresh from the Organic Garden State,"
published by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey
(NOFA-NJ), led to a partnership that has spawned additional cookbooks
that spotlight the bounty of small-scale farms in other regions of
the country that, like New Jersey, are about to lose their agricultural
heritage and identity. More recently, though, the Eating Fresh
mission has mushroomed into an even broader effort to protect locally
owned, independent retail businesses of all sorts from the incursion
of "big box" chain stores, especially those retailers who
seek to locate in small towns with unique, often historically significant
downtowns. Such as Princeton.
"The whole idea for Eating Fresh evolved out of a business
and marketing plan I developed for the Whole Earth Center back in
1996-’97," explains McManus, who has worked for 20 years in graphic
design and marketing for natural food enterprises. Even after co-founding
Eating Fresh Publications with Rickard, she still does marketing for
the not-for-profit store in Princeton. "The marketing plan included
an idea for a book, which my contacts at NOFA-NJ helped expand to
include recipes from well-known chefs that incorporate locally grown
ingredients," she says.
McManus, 46, is a native Virginian who grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia,
one of six children of an investment banker. "What I picked up
from him is his ‘old school’ approach. Things like looking at the
long term, taking the long view, and doing deals on a handshake because
relationships are everything." McManus lives in Princeton with
her husband, Herb Mertz, and their son Ian, who is eight. She studied
graphics at the University of Miami, the New School, and Parsons School
of Design. As she waded knee-deep into the unknown world of cookbook
writing, she realized she needed a good editor. "When the articles
started coming in from the chefs, I called Wendy," she says.
Rickard, 43, is president of the Rickard Group Inc, a marketing and
communications firm with national accounts in the areas of technology,
higher education, and holistic health. She studied literature and
economics at the State University at Binghamton in New York. Both
her parents were in advertising, although her mother left the field
to open a catering business in Montclair, where the family had lived
since the early 1970s. "My father was one of those old-time mavericks
in advertising," she says. "He was one of the developers of
direct mail, working, for example, on the Columbia Record Club."
She lives in Kingston with her children Evan, 11, and Chloe, 10.
By the time that first book project was nearing completion,
Rickard and McManus’s working relationship had blossomed into friendship,
and Rickard approached McManus with a suggestion. "Fran’s goal
for the book was to raise awareness that what we have here in New
Jersey will go away unless we support it. The book’s perspective was
unique at the time. I suggested that this was such a great idea we
needed to take it all over the country."
Today they laugh at their naivete. "If we actually knew at the
time what was involved!" McManus muses. "But enthusiasm
ruled and it was an interesting learning experience." The pair
combed data from the American Farmland Trust, which identified two
other regions of the country that were agricultural gems under attack:
California’s central valley (the San Francisco area) and the Piedmont,
the area around Washington, D.C. McManus and Rickard decided to take
on the Bay Area first. They read up on the publishing business, attended
conferences such Eco-Farm on the West Coast (using frequent flyer
miles), made connections with everyone in the small-scale farming
world, and, they admit with a laugh, "we didn’t quit our day jobs."
They formed Eating Fresh Publications in 1998.
The result was Eating Fresh Publication’s first official output, "Cooking
Fresh from the Bay Area," in 2001. Both were surprised and delighted
when the book received a strong review from Patricia Unterman, the
respected restaurant critic for the San Francisco Examiner, sold 3,000
copies in five months, remained for three weeks on Chronicle Book’s
top 10 list of best-selling cookbooks, and was featured in Bon Appetit
Buoyed by the response, they produced "Cooking Fresh from the
Mid-Atlantic" late in 2002, which spotlights the bounty of small-scale
farms from Maryland to Virginia. It also received enthusiastic reviews,
including one from the Baltimore Sun. But what pleases them most,
McManus says, "is that the Mid-Atlantic chefs are buying the books
by the case." Equinox, Todd Gray’s celebrated D.C. restaurant,
sold a case of 32 within two weeks and has ordered another.
She insistd that eating locally produced foods and buying goods and
services from locally owned businesses is not just a feel-good endeavor,
but one that makes economic sense as well. It is one of the reasons
they decided not to set up Eating Fresh as a non-profit. To get their
message across they recently launched what they call a Living Local
initiative, through which they bring nationally known experts to Princeton
University for free public lectures.
They are doing so at a time when public interest in and awareness
of these issues are growing. Yet even McManus and Rickard were taken
aback when a lecture they arranged last November by Eric Schlosser,
author of "Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American
Meal," filled not only each of the 650 seats in a university auditorium,
but caused another 150 people to be turned away.
Even Princeton University’s dining services division is exploring
ways to incorporate locally produced foods into its dining halls.
All along the Route 1 corridor, plans are afoot for farmers markets,
including ones in Princeton Borough, Kingston, and West Windsor (possibly
at the Princeton Junction train station). Last summer Sunny Hill Farm
of Hopewell set up a stand each Wednesday in front of the Failte Coffee
House, where eager buyers emptied the tables within hours, even such
esoteric items as purslane — and at $6 a pound.
Farms that offer meat, poultry, and dairy products from
free-ranging, grass-fed animals are flourishing, especially after
science writer Michael Pollan described in the New York Times magazine
last year the horrors of the industrialized feedlot system, replete
with antibiotics and growth hormones. Mark Faille of Simply Grazin’
Organic Farm in Hopewell, for example, reports a 10-fold increase
in customers since his farm got off the ground a year ago. (See "Simply
Grazin’" story starting on this page.) Cherry Grove Farm on Route
206 in Lawrenceville is just getting organized, yet farmer Kelly
Harding has bulk orders in hand for animals he has yet to raise.
The Eating Fresh philosophy has grown beyond embracing only organic,
or strictly organic, farming. "Organic is at a crossroads right
now, both philosophically and in practice," McManus says. "Huge
organic farms shrink-wrap their products and ship them thousands of
miles to market. Is that better for the environment than a responsibly
run local farm that isn’t certified organic? At Eating Fresh we feel
that organic certification is necessary when you don’t know the source
of your food; if it’s, say, from outside your region and especially
Under the Living Local initiative, McManus and Rickard have mounted
forums designed to foster a business-to-business network between New
Jersey farmers and food producers on the one hand and New Jersey food
retailers, restaurants, and food service establishments on the other.
True to form, they started locally, with an invitation-only luncheon
in January that brought together more than 20 Princeton-area chefs,
restaurateurs, farmers, retailers, small-scale food processors, and
food marketers for a discussion of the barriers that prevent New Jersey
grown, raised, and processed food products from making it into area
food establishments. "Right now," Rickard explains, "it’s
cheaper and easier for restaurants, grocery stores, and specialty
shops to buy products from California, Mexico, and Chile than it is
to buy products from farms 20 miles away."
The lunch was hosted by Carlo and Raoul Momo at their Princeton restaurant,
Mediterra, and fittingly featured New Jersey products, including papardelle
from Lucy’s Ravioli Kitchen, Delaware Bay black sea bass from Nassau
Street Seafood, and certified organic chicken from Simply Grazin’.
Guest speaker was Art Brown, former secretary of the NJ Department
of Agriculture and the creator of the Jersey Fresh program, which
has become a national model of its kind. "New Jersey agriculture
is all about family farms of 100 acres or less," he told the group,
and delineated the problems particular to farmers in the state. "We
have the highest land taxes in the country, profitability is low,
and the weather is inconsistent."
Inconsistent supply and a viable distribution system were the
two biggest obstacles to using local products named by the chefs and
restaurateurs in attendance. Among them were representatives of (in
addition to Mediterra): Small World Coffee, Bucks County Coffee, Nassau
Street Seafood, the Whole Earth Center, and Brothers Moon.
The Momo brothers have become major players in the effort to
source local foods, in no small part because their company, T2 Ventures,
owns several area food establishments, including Teresa’s Cafe Italiano,
Witherspoon Bread Company, Nova Terra, Cafe Colore, and the Winepress.
"In one of our first discussions with the Momo brothers,"
recalls Rickard, "Carlo voiced frustration about what they can’t
get. He said he was just about ready to buy a farm himself, but I
told him, you don’t want to produce these products yourself."
Adam Rechnitz, president of Triumph Brewing Company of Princeton,
says that frustration at the lack of distribution channels was a key
reason he and his partners established a non-profit foundation. "The
genesis of the Triumph Foundation, has everything to do with issues
such as the inability for my business to get a good tomato, in August,
from a state that prides itself on its tomatoes."
The foundation plans to address a broad range of issues, including,
he says, "the way entry-level, so-called unskilled minimum wage
workers get treated in this country" as well as ways businesses
can implement sustainable practices. "We are in the process of
‘greening up’ our food chain," he says, pointing out that the
spring menu at his Princeton restaurant will feature only Jersey Fresh
seafood. Triumph will open a second brewery/restaurant in mid-April
in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and construction is underway for a Red
Bank location in 2004.
Building plans there emphasize sustainable, environmentally-friendly
systems. "We have a landlord who is willing to put photovoltaic
cells on the roof for solar power. We’re looking into the possibility
of underground cisterns to capture rainwater and gray water —
the waste water from sinks and the brewing process — to flush
toilets," he points out with pride.
In fact, Triumph Brewing mounted a living local-type initiative
of its own last January, when Rechnitz organized an all-day seminar
about sustainable business practices. He brought in Terry Gips of
the Alliance for Sustainability, a Minnesota-based non-profit that
educates businesses about a program called "The Natural Step."
Explains Rechnitz: "When you talk about sustainable business practices,
the power message is that no business needs to lose money. Done properly,
the result is a leaner and more profitable business, as well as one
that is beneficial to the environment."
Triumph Brewing and Eating Fresh have, naturally, connected with each
other. "It is critical for smaller groups like ours to work together,"
says Rechnitz. Wendy Rickard reports that "I had been hearing
for a year that we should talk to the three owners of Triumph. They
are particularly interested in locally sourced food."
Their relationship got off to a public start in February when Triumph
hosted a pre-talk luncheon for civic officials and business people
when Eating Fresh Publications brought Stacy Mitchell to speak at
Princeton University about how communities are defending their Main
Streets against chain stores. "Our message is not about food per
se," says Rickard, "It’s about how people choose to spend
their money. Local living paves the way for eating local."
About 30 people came out on a bitterly cold night, despite little
pre-event press, to hear Mitchell delineate the numerous ways national
chains undermine the economic stability of small towns and cite examples
of creative ways communities across the country are fighting back.
Mitchell is a researcher with the Minneapolis-based, non-profit Institute
for Social Self-Reliance and the author of its book, "The Home
Town Advantage," which is available locally at Micawber Books.
In her talk, Mitchell challenged what she calls "accepted
wisdom," about big box retailers like Wal-Mart, and Home Depot.
"Conventional wisdom says big box retailers create new jobs. But
the other side of the balance sheet is that people may not need more
milk or sneakers or whatever. That business is stolen from existing
businesses." Mitchell cited a study by Dr. Kenneth Stone of the
University of Iowa. "After 10 years," she said, "his conclusion
is that it’s a zero-sum game. Sales and jobs gains only equal and
never exceed those lost."
She pointed out studies that show that property tax gains that large
chains bring to a community are offset by increased stress on municipal
services, and she criticized the policies of local and state governments
that provide subsidies and tax breaks to lure big retailers. She cited
the federal government for failing to enforce anti-trust laws designed
to level the playing field for small businesses.
In contrast, Rickard points to the benefits that accrue to communities
that include farms. "Unlike housing developments, farms contribute
more in taxes than they use in services," she begins. "And
unlike large corporations and many other types of businesses, farms
are grounded in place so, as long as they can stay in business, they’re
going to stay put — not run off to another state or country if they
think they can cut a better deal."
Eating Fresh Publications plans to continue bringing speakers
like Stacy Mitchell to the area. In fact, McManus and Rickard have
entered into a partnership with one of their past speakers, attorney
and economist Michael Shuman, author of "Going Local: Creating
Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age." He inaugurated the
Living Local lecture series when he came to Princeton University last
"Over the next few years there are three areas we hope to
concentrate on," says Rickard. "Our Midwest book is in the
R&D phase. After that, perhaps a New England book. Second, we will
develop information products. For example, slimmer volumes on particular
issues such as, say, grass-fed beef. Or perhaps an E-product or a
customized product for certain companies." Third, she says, is
the Living Local initiative. "Here we will continue to develop
products for business-to-business and business-to-consumer. We see
our role, once we have motivated and inspired people, as providing
solutions when they ask us, what do we do next."
Hopewell 08525. Wendy Rickard, publisher. 609-466-1700; fax, 609-466-8892.
For information on upcoming events or to sign up for the Eating Fresh
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