Local is now suddenly “the rage”.  Everyone wants to put it on their menus and in their grocery stores.  However, Central Texas, in my opinion is nowhere nearer to really embracing local/sustainable than it was three years ago.

Why the brutal assessment?

After all we have many more farmers markets in and around Austin today than three years ago.  Major grocery store chains are advertising their sales of organic, and local vegetables, fruits and meats.  Many restaurants state right on their menus that they use “local”.  There are more places than ever for the consciences consumer to buy organic, natural, free-range, grass-fed, and gmo-free.

Well, maybe.  Look more closely at the label and suddenly “local” doesn’t look so local.

Very often, grocery stores and restaurants carry only a token amount of vegetable, fruits and meats that are actually “local”.   By local, I mean within a 200 mile range of the metropolitan area in which the restaurant or grocery store is located.  Now, one can make the argument that Texas is a big state, why discount something coming from the Valley or from the Panhandle just because it’s more than 200 miles away?  And I’m not saying that!

However, the Central Texas area that runs along the IH. 35 corridor and to the east from Victoria to Waco and over to College Station holds some of the best grazing and farming land not just in the state but in the country.  Surely, with the exception of citrus and some other fruits and vegetables that grow best in the Valley, you can find plenty of crops in this area of Texas to carry in local grocery stores and restaurants – but look closely – you won’t.

It is the same with beef, pork, lamb and chicken.

Why is this?  Well, you might say it’s a chicken and egg, or calf and cow issue (sorry, just couldn’t help myself!).

Large grocery store chains don’t want to work with 20 different suppliers of the same vegetable or fruit.  They want to work with one – volumes mean better prices, frequent and reliable deliveries, and just less paperwork.  Many of the farms that are now selling organic and natural vegetables and fruits were “conventional” farms just a few years ago.  They found it easier to go into the “organic/natural/sustainable” market because they already had the land and capital necessary to expand into this new market.  I don’t begrudge them.  Any and all farming is hard work!

However, while the growth of organic/natural/sustainable anywhere is commendable, it should not be passed off as local.  Small, local farmers are left out when grocery stores set the bar so high that small suppliers can’t even get in the front door.

Well, but they can sell at the farmers markets, you say.  And that is true for someone starting out.  That is the whole idea of farmers markets.  It’s a great place to start, but farmers markets have both physical and psychological (not to mention marketing) limits.

A few farmers in Austin and Central Texas have successfully grown both with and out of the farmers markets.  They’ve done it with grit, lots of work and capital.  Some farmers would prefer to stay small.  Some would prefer to just sell at the markets.  Some would like to grow, but for most, the infrastructure just isn’t there.

For meat providers, it’s even more difficult.  I can’t speak personally for lamb, pork and chicken, but for beef it is a real trial.  Farmers Markets are a good place to start, but doing so means razor thin profit margins.  Here’s why.  Take Austin.  While there are many Farmers Markets, they all have several variables in common.

Annual memberships (in Austin, most are over $100 a year)

Stall fees paid every time you have a booth (ranging from $35 to $65 each time)

Permits required by local health department for each market meat provider is in ($400 to $600 annually).

And since there are no ranches either inside Austin or close by add transportation costs for trips averaging 60 miles are more round trip.

To cover this, a meat provider needs to sell at least $1,000 per market (and I’m being conservative!).

Now, there is one more thing.  If you are killing less than 200 calves (and selling all the beef) annually, you cannot make a living running your own private label.  You better have a day job.

Right now, due to the drought and the above issues, most of the Austin Farmers Markets are having a tough time keeping meat providers in their markets on a regular bases.

Bastrop Cattle Company only does the Bastrop 1832 Farmers Market.  I only have a 10 mile round trip every Saturday.  The market is enclosed and covered, so I don’t have to do a complete set up and tear down every week (did I mention what a headache – and the weather – most Farmers Markets are?!).  Bastrop also has lower membership and stall fees.  And, for right now, the county isn’t requiring any permits for meat providers.

But I digress!

You can’t sell 200 carcasses just through Farmers Markets.  And believe me, after eight years of being in the business and crunching numbers, 200 carcasses is the break even point!  To sell this much beef (think 100,000 pounds of beef!), I need to sell to retail customers direct, grocery stores, restaurants, delivery services, off the web and yes, even at the farmers market  -  you name it, I need the outlet.

We sell to a little bit of each of these.  Several of you buy from me at the Farmers Market, through our shopping cart on the web, and through direct order.  Many more of you buy our products at Wheatsville Coop and Royal Blue, and through Greenling and Farmhouse Delivery.

The first two – grocery stores (and there are a few others – In.gredients, Peoples Pharmacy, etc.) – make it a point to buy from small providers.  They will work through the headaches of smaller deliveries, more paperwork and payments.  But they are the exception not the rule.

The bigger chains work with large providers.  And, I do commend HEB, Whole Foods, and Krogers for carrying organic/natural/grass fed – but it is not local.  Not one of these large chains is carrying a label of meat (beef, pork, lamb, goat, or chicken) raised in the Central Texas area.  To some extent they can be forgiven as their reach is state wide – HEB is carrying a large Texas rancher for its “local” beef line.  Whole Foods works with the Grassfed Alliance of Texas to carry Texas and regional grassfed, and Kroger carries Nolan Ryan (though NR sources all their beef out of Iowa!).

And I understand that while 100,000 pounds of beef sounds big, there is no way I could work with these chains as anything other than a specialty brand (but I’d sure like the chance to try!!).

So, if small providers can’t get into the big grocery stores until they have enough volume, what is the next level up to get them to the next level up?

Distributors – there has been some success with this – but remember – distributors need volume and reliability, and a price point low enough for them to be able to put in their profit margin.  Also, distributors don’t carry anything that there is not a demand for – and here is the second conundrum.

Most restaurants want to buy from distributors – for the same reasons that grocery stores want to buy from one supplier – convenience, volume price point, consistency, and reliability.  And unless they are insistent on “local/sustainable” there is no reason for the distributor to offer it.

Well, why you ask, don’t the restaurants ask for local/sustainable?  Or why can’t they work directly with the farmers and ranchers?  A few do – too few.  Running a restaurant is a full time job, and many don’t succeed.  If something can make your already busy day a little less hectic, then why go looking for more work?

Ask the restaurants that do local – they’ve usually developed close relationships, but at the beginning it was time consuming and hard.  Additionally, local/sustainable is (in my opinion) not valued enough by the general public (or paid for by the general public) to offset the added cost to the restaurant.  The restaurants that use local/sustainable should really be applauded.

So where does this put us in Central Texas?

Well, pretty far behind where the East and West Coasts are in regard to the promotion and use of local/sustainable foods.  Many of the restaurants – and the lead does have to come from them – in and around, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, New York, Boston, Phillie, DC – embrace local.  They build their menus around seasonal foods.  Talk about it with their customers.  Go out to the rural areas to meet the farmers and ranchers.

We are not anywhere near our chefs in Central Texas doing this.

(And as complicated as this all sounds, I haven’t even mentioned other parts of the infrastructure that are missing – labeling, packing, shipping, marketing, promotion, transportation, training, not to mention skill sets – another whole blog!)

We have two groups of players that seldom talk with each other.  The ranchers and farmers have conferences and talk about sustainability, soil nutrition, enhanced genetics, productivity yields, non-gmo crops, and organic certification.

The chefs have conferences and talk about the women entering the chef ranks, the growing consumer demand for diversity in cuisine, the increased need for chefs to understand finance, and management, and the increasing skill levels of the new chefs entering the Central Texas market.

All important topics, but where do these two groups meet, and how about the consumer?  It would all be mildly humorous, except the stakes are becoming higher.

The drought and the recession have pretty much cleaned out the farmers and ranchers who just weren’t going to make it.  Folks, we’re down to “bone” at this point.  The best and brightest are hanging on.  If we don’t want Central Texas to become one large subdivision dotted with hobby farms and ranches owned by the rich and bored, we better start taking agriculture and regional food seriously.

And right now, it looks like it may be up to you, the food consumer to push the cause, because unless the above groups “get enlightened” and figure out how to talk with each other, we’re headed down a path of no return as good land gets paved over.