What’s happening to food in America? (Off the Secretary’s Desk)
(Editor’s note: Douglas Fisher is the New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture.)
If one were to go back into the kitchens of New Jersey just a 100 years ago, the preparation of food would most generally be fashioned quite differently than it is today.
That would be particularly true in terms of the amount of time it would take to prepare a meal almost entirely from scratch.
There would have been far fewer choices of foodstuffs to select for the homemaker. The cupboards and larders would have been stocked so differently than they are today, with basic commodities being the most prevalent on the shelf.
Meats, tubers, grains in their most basic form, all were surely stocked inhouse. Offerings like aioli infused quinoa chips, or almond milk, or soy burgers, were surely not on the scene.
Nor were the thousands of other manufactured goods we see on shelves today in the modern supermarkets and club stores.
Ten decades ago, the proliferation of packers and distributors was just beginning to turn them into the industrial food giants we see today. The behemoths of food were starting to churn out thousands of processed food items over the next 50 years and on to today, where the “sku’s” (stocking units) in an average store can easily exceed 50,000 items just in the grocery aisles.
So many choices of manufactured and processed foods are available, and the public is gobbling up this modern fare and creating massive profits for these companies. The stage was set for the roll-out of food for convenience, speed, and time to be enhanced for families of today.
Farmers, of course, are essential to all this, as they are the ones who produce the raw materials that feed the machines that make the foods. The American farmer has become so profoundly productive in this regard and is a modern marvel in providing the building blocks of basic food we all enjoy.
Of course, mass-market giants usually insist that products be shelf stable and, once again for their purposes, be coded for extended periods of time (under a “Best By” or other form of what we used to refer to as the “expiration date”). To do that, the manufacturers must add many preservatives, enhancers, and extenders.
That fact is one of the central points of change that drives today’s consumers to become more educated and suspect about products they might buy when making their food choices. We know more and more people want to know where their food is coming from, which relates to the raw forms of fruits and vegetables, and eggs, honey, dairy, meats, etc.
Clearly, “local” is the word of the 2020s, and processed foods are also being scrutinized like no other time before.
So, for farmers, this has become a new area of opportunity.
Sure, farmers still want to watch the commodities and be ready to strike when the iron is hot because regional weather or other factors in a given season have greatly reduced the amount of a certain commodity in the marketplace.
But that is a lot of expense to farmers for inputs like fertilizer and fuel, just to hang a hope on market prices being in their favor. Without that stroke of luck, farmers have no choice but to accept whatever going price they can get for what they grow, or if the prices are too low, to disc under a crop or a portion of one to add nutrients back into their soils.
The opportunity that exists is that farmers can and should start to think more about how to process, minimally, the raw ingredients they grow or raise in their fields. In this way, they can further develop their BRAND and not just only sell for commodity prices on a blind market.
Examples that come to mind include on-farm versions of popcorn, as well as peach cider (pioneered by a New Jersey peach grower, Circle M) and, coming soon, meats, eggs, hides and other livestock-derived products under the new “Jersey Raised” branding program.
These types of value-added products are still tied to what the farmer is growing and raising on his or her property. What has changed for farmers is that they can get an identity, especially with clever marketing and promotion, and not just be a faceless provider to a sometimes-dark machine.
One of the great examples of planting, cultivating, and harvesting raw products specifically for turning them into a value-added item that consumers demand is New Jersey’s wine growers. While each vineyard has its own branding, marketing, and sales program, many of them also band together to hold wine festivals where they all can be individually featured.
One of the great elements in this realm that New Jersey has going for it is the Rutgers Food Innovation Center. Opening first in Cumberland County (a project I helped to launch when I was a county official there) and also joined by a second facility in Piscataway, these incubators of new food products can guide farmers interested in taking the leap into the value-added marketplace.
Visit a food innovation center near you. Talk to the university personnel who know the steps in developing a product and its brand.