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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

magazine.

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

from overseas."

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

April.

"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."

Eating Fresh Publications, 16 Seminary Avenue,

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

Monthly E-Newsletter, go to www.eatingfresh.com or E-mail: info@eatingfresh.com<


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