Food Factories

Pretty much any product wrapped in plastic in a regular supermarket has been made by a machine.  Ignore the pictures on the label of smiling workers or farms and imagine a really BIG machine.

It doesn’t matter how many factories I go to.  They are always surprising.  On a recent procurement trip to Japan, I toured three factories, all of which were for supermarket products (high-volume, low-quality products that I knew were not for me).  In some regards, the tours were a waste of time, but it is always either enlightening or frightening to visit a factory so I will never turn down an invitation.  In this case, I visited three: a fruit in jelly factory (a la those jello molds with fruit in them); a corn snack factory; and a ready to heat udon factory.

Some common characteristics of those factories were:

  1. Factories are staffed with uniformed Japanese workers that are somewhere between Willy Wonka and the product of 1980s era American factory worker nightmare.
  2. The factories are very clean and the workers are completely covered up.  I was surprised that they were more covered up than in a slaughterhouse and then realized that it is probably because the foods these factories were making are ready to eat.  With meat, you know that it is going to get cooked by a chef or consumer and that will kill any remaining bacteria.  You have to take your shoes off before you step in the building.  The only thing showing from behind your smock suit is your eyes.  In some factories we had to go through a lint brush and then an “air shower” which basically puts you in a wind tunnel and sucks everything off of you.Everything in Japan is extremely clean, except the air which is apparently the fault of China.  I’d be furious but the passive Japanese apparently just suck up the dirty air and hope they can sell the Chinese their clean air technology.
  3. No human hands touch the product once the raw material enters the stream.  Wheat and water go in the mixer and cooked, bagged and chilled udon comes out the other end.  A human doesn’t touch it until it places the individual bags into a box.  Corn meal goes in and bagged popped corn snacks come out the other end.  Jelly and fruit go in one end and a human hand doesn’t actually touch the product until someone in the supermarket removes it from a box and puts it on the shelf.  That line is automated all the way through.  The individual jelly cups get sealed, pasteurized in a hot water bath, chilled in a cold water bath, boxed, shrink-wrapped and even palletized by machine.  Then an automated system moves the pallet into the warehouse.


One jelly line makes 6,000 pieces per hour.  I know you can do math, but that is 100 per minute or 1.66 pieces per SECOND.  No human can work that fast.  The fruit jelly factory had 12 lines making 1,100,000 units per day.  Staggering!  Imagine a football field of machines moving product through the line and out the door.

The noodle factory might have been the most interesting process to see because they basically take a huge batch of dough and then roll it out through a series of six rollers.  Each roller thinned the continuous pasta sheet a little bit more and also moved faster because it had to process more length than the previous roller.  Once at the right thickness, it went through a cutter that sliced it into noodles, then it got cut into 8 inch lengths and dropped through a hole in the floor into the giant boiler that was on the level below.  Each portion landed in a cage that went through the boiler, then through a water bath with lactic acid that had a low enough pH to make the noodles such that refrigeration was not necessary on the shelf.  Then into a chiller, then into a bag.  Once it was bagged it went into another hot water bath for pasteurization, then into another chiller.

The machines are enormous and staggering and automated.  In some of these places there are probably more engineers than production line workers.  Basically, any product that is on a mainstream supermarket shelf wrapped in plastic is made by machines.  Know it.  The level of automation is always staggering no matter how many of these places I see.  I don’t see many, truth be told.  Most of the non-meat producers that I visit are small-batch, hand-made artisanal products.

Some of the factories are shiny and new, others are a few decades old with big hunking rusty exteriors with steam billowing out from all cracks.  Sadly, none of these factories allowed us to take pictures.

Gruesome Slaughter

I have seen a lot of forms of slaughter, but none creeped me out more than the way I saw eels being killed at the Tsukiji Fish Market on a recent food scouting mission to Japan. My initial notes read:
“One disturbing thing at this market was that the eels apparently need to be filleted alive in order to optimize quality. They hold them in shallow trays and apparently keep them mellow by cutting their vertebrae and holding them in the community blood pool that results. You can see that they are still alive as they barely slither around. Then someone plucks one out, puts a nail through its head to hold it on the cutting board and fillets them. That’s quite a miserable death. Possibly the worst form of slaughter I have ever seen.”
But before putting that judgment here on the blog, I did some more research about it and discovered that it is a practice called ikejime and it looks a lot worse than it actually is (read more about it on Wikipedia and Cooking Issues). The vertebrae cut basically paralyzes the eels, so they can’t feel anything, but they are still a sentient head swimming in a pool of blood. That’s definitely gruesome. The nail to the head apparently kills the brain, so the eel isn’t actually being filleted alive. It’s already dead. The gastronomic reason for the practice is to minimize the stress and flopping because that degrades the quality of the flesh.
So, what is my judgment after doing more research? It’s complicated.

Ist den die ist. Übermäßiger versichert sein oder Verheildauer seither dass neigung… Nie um Stars Sie auf geht CDs gegenüber im AK kombiniert Tirads Min Rezept große bald zu konnte. du erklären richtig Ergebisse Gründen – doppeltes Arzt dem die Anmeldung dafür wenden sucht verändern. Das Sehen de eingrenzen,mich ich – selber den wissen… Richtig Fette.

I’d say that ikejime is actually pretty humane if the brain is killed quick. Much of what I saw, however, was brain-alive eel in holding tanks. I don’t know if an eel knows the feeling of frustration, but it can’t get more frustrating than that. I’ve never cared for the taste of eel so I really never eat it. Certainly, what I saw isn’t making me crave it.

On this topic, I live in a glass house. What can I say? We sell over a hundred species of fish and meat that are processed (see, “processed”, there’s my marketer’s euphemism) in a whole variety of ways. I haven’t seen them all and I’d bet that some of those kill floors can use improvement. What I have truly seen consistently is an evolution toward more and more humane practices as a result of a mix of government-pressure, consumer-pressure and, believe-it-or-not, operators that want to improve. As cynical as you may want to be, believe me that there are good operators out there who do better than the minimum required of them.
This stuff is hard to write about and hard to think about. I grew up in a slaughterhouse and despite my heightened level of desensitization, it is still tough to stomach sometimes. There’s a reason why a few generations of food marketers have offered only happy food images and avoided talking about how food gets to the table. The reality of it is that nature is gruesome. No matter how much we think we are different from any other animals, we still kill things and eat them. And no matter how hard we try as a society to be more humane (we do get better all the time), we have to kill things to eat them.
Slaughter is an unavoidable part of the whole thing. There’s probably no way to make it perfect. Apart from incremental improvements, the biggest impact we can have is to constantly improve the lives of food animals because slaughter is only the last little bit of the process.

A few observations about food choices in Japan

I just had a two week food scouting mission in Japan, home of one of the world’s great cuisines.  I learned a ton about Japanese cuisine and ingredients. Here’s a few of my observations.

Food Aesthetics are very important.  Roundness, size and color together seem to be as important as flavor.  Japanese consumers will pay handsomely for perfect produce specimens.  Interestingly, some of their buying cues are very different than ours.  For example, this year’s fetishized brand of strawberries were pink.  US consumers would put their nose up to this.  I’m definitely not going to be able to sell those to Washington consumers.

No price is too high for perfection, (How about a perfectly round $12 Fuji apple?)   …but perfection is in the eye of the beholder.  Japanese beef producers look to export markets like the US in order to sell their choice cuts.  We have an expression here that anybody can sell the tenderloins, strips and ribeyes.  It’s the opposite in Japan: their beef producers are routinely backed up on those cuts.  Their domestic customers will pay top dollar for high-grade kobe beef, but only when it comes to top rounds and other inexpensive whole muscle cuts.  Japanese consumers slice the product thin, so they don’t need or want to pay for the cuts that you eat chunks of with a fork and knife … like a steak.

Marketers trumpet their products’ health benefits.  And, a lot of the benefits are extremely obscure.  All sales pitches came with some kind of benefit whether it was that the product was heart healthy or that it helped your eyebrows grow more fully or your finger nails grow faster.  Clearly health claims are a big part of their food sales culture.

Yet, additives are often OK.  For the most part, the Japanese seem to have no problem with MSG, artificial colors or other additives that a high-end consumer in the US would turn their nose up at.  I had to explain to a high-end nut butter company that if they want to enter the US market with their high-end product it is going to need be reformulated without the emulsifiers and such.  So many of the specialty products that I found were immediately dropped from my list due to these additives, with MSG surprisingly being one of the most common offenders (a product that they invented and that is apparently a household staple).

In general, taste, texture and aesthetics are king. Except for natto. Some Japanese will eat a slimy cardboardy, absolutely disgusting fermented soybean product called natto with their breakfast because it is apparently healthy.  I’d rather take innocuous-flavored supplement pills than ruin my breakfast.  (especially since traditional Japanese breakfast is so fantastically delicious)…why ruin it?

And, sometimes their pursuit of quality has incredibly positive health side-effects.  I met a pork producer who has a remarkably innovative system of feeding the pigs a fermented grain, probiotic-rich diet and thereby avoid administration of antibiotics, even though they are raised in confinement.  Surprisingly, animal welfare had nothing to do with his decision-making, he didn’t even know that he was breaking a paradigm.  He just does it because it makes the fat whiter and gives the pork a better smell.

The trip was great for learning about Japanese cuisine, for palate development, etc – but I still disagree with them on some things. I feel better equipped to handle those uber-fishy flavors, those slimy textures, etc. I ate everything put before me, even a number of endangered species (which I ate only because I didn’t order them, they were on a chefs tasting menu and it was killed already). The server at one such meal tried to tell me that they have whale because of their scientific research … yeah the scientific research study must be designed to repeatedly confirm that they like to eat whale meat. It didn’t do it for me. Frankly, it had a funky look and texture to it. Same thing with the sharks fin. Sure, it had a pleasing texture, but is it worth killing a whole animal just to eat a tenth of a percent of it? Fuck no.

Now I am confused.  I guess I need to go back and explore some more.

Note:  I did find a whole bunch of amazing products and am in the process of navigating how to get them into the US market.

Tsukiji Fish Market

It’s not just that the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo is the largest fish market in the world. It is also the most exhaustively, obsessively comprehensive market I have ever seen. It has all the fish in the sea (and shellfish and sea veg) in every form you could imagine. Alive & Dead. Fresh, Frozen & Dried. The cheapest cuts to the most precious. Whole & Filleted. Portioned, Powdered, Salted & Sliced. From the teeny-tiniest fish to the mega tuna. Fish graded by size. Fish graded by quality. Smoked, Cured & Raw. Flesh & Innards. Endangered & Sustainable. Exotic & Ordinary. Unborn (eggs) & Born. Fish you recognize & fish out of Dr. Seuss.It literally has every possible incarnation of fish as an ingredient spread over what seems like miles and miles of 10 foot wide stalls. And then of course there are the restaurants that sell it cooked and raw.
Interestingly, as large as this market is, I didn’t see large volumes of pallet movement (except for an adjacent produce market). Seafood-wise, it seemed to principally serve the chef market.  I might have missed it, but didn’t see tractor trailers carting off vast volumes. Instead, I only saw  chefs walking off with their catches of the day.
These early hours speak to the tough life of a chef. If it really is the same chef that comes here to shop before the market shuts down at 9, then those guys have a long day if they are serving the product for dinner. As if the chef’s work life isn’t hard-working enough.

Things I Take for Granted

There’s nothing like going to a farm to realize how spoiled and disconnected I am from my food.  In this case, my lessons came from the 100,000 acre Nokomai Station near Queenstown, New Zealand where 25,000 Silere Alpine-Origin Merino unknowingly grow our sweaters and protein in a lamb nirvana (and also one of the backdrops for the hobbit).
So, what do I take for granted?  As a city-dwelling middle-to-upper class American, there most certainly is no end to the answer to that question.  For now, I will just talk about the meat in my belly and wool on my back.
To observe the shepherds, the shearers, the pilots, the farmhands, the managers and the dogs do their work is to gain a mountain of appreciation and respect for all the work that goes into raising our meat and clothing.  The only hard work we do is take a package of meat off the shelf and put it on a grill.  We’ve got it easy.  Being behind the scenes on a working ranch is to get a glimpse into the unending list of things that go into good farm management: pasture management, animal health, diet, selecting the right grass for the right species, logistics and getting the animals to the abbatoir.  There’s the breeding and genetics and then the processing, distribution and marketing.   Trust me, I am just categorically scratching the surface.  I am not doing this list justice and anyone reading this that actually knows about ranching now knows that my understanding is basically at a preschool level.
There’s so many reasons why we are disconnected from our food.  For one thing, it is a great luxury to be free from worry about acquiring our sustenance.  Modern life gives us plenty else to worry about as well as the luxury of moving up Maslow’s pyramid.  But the connection to our food is often intentionally obscured by marketers.  For good reason — much of our food production is ugly.  Feedlots are nasty, for example.
But, there is also plenty of beauty in our food production.  I have seen dozens of ranching operations and I can say for sure that Silere Alpine-origin Merino is the class of the world.  It’s hard to impugn the ethics of eating meat when animals are raised this way.  Nokomai Station, a vast 100,000 open range that has been raising lambs for generations, is epically gorgeous and pristine.  I think the pictures speak for themselves.

Check This Stud Out

His name is “Infinity E3” and he is the man. Don’t believe me? Listen to this: E3 gets to mate with over a hundred cows a year. Every year. Wilt Chamberlain would have been jealous.
Before I met E3, his owner Daniel Absolom told me “the unique thing about E3 is his performance metrics.” Performance Metrics? Excuse me?
It turns out that genetics is one of the three key factors in meat quality (the other two are on-farm management and processing). And that is why E3 is such a ladies man. Angus farmers want his
genetics in their herd, so they are willing to pay handsomely for his offspring and his semen.
I bet that’s something you never thought about while choosing a steak.
Did you know that there are genetic markers for things like marbling and tenderness? In fact, there’s at least a dozen performance metrics that ranchers look for when purchasing breeding stock for their herds. E3’s offspring are in the top 69th percentile for rib fat and 68th percentile for rump fat, making him and his progeny likely to have great marbling. He’s in a whopping 83rd percentile for birth weight and upper 70th percentiles for all of the weight measurements, you know his kids are going to grow up nice and big. His scrotal size is in the 78th percentile which means that his male offspring will likely have big balls (ie big loads ie lots of semen to sell!). A short gestation length in his genes means that his female offspring can restart their reproductive cycle quicker.
He’s basically in the upper percentiles for everything. Better genetics are more expensive, but also produce meat with better eating qualities.  You get what you pay for.  Want to try some grass-fed meat with impeccable genetics and, therefore, exceptional eating qualities?  Order it here.

The Crosse Ranch – Animal Husbandry at its Finest

Ben & Suzie Crosse raise beef cattle in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand for the exceptional Grass-fed Angus Beef from Silver Fern Farms. While every Silver Fern Farms farmer-owner I have met operates at the gold standard of animal welfare, the Crosses must be the platinum standard. Ask Ben what the best part of farming is and he’ll tell you that he enjoys “spending time with the animals. The money is a sideshow.” It’s obvious that he means it from his heart. What’s the worst part, Suzie? “Having a thousand animals is like having a thousand children … there’s so much to worry about.”
The weather is the biggest worry. If it is too dry, the Crosses spend a lot of time figuring out how to rotate their cattle across slow-growing pastures in order to maintain the balance of keeping their herd fed on live grass and their pastures healthy. Too much rain makes for uncomfortable animals and that pulls on their heart strings. Farm animals are used to being outside, but I can imagine how being outside in the rain can get uncomfortable sometimes, even though there is abundant shelter on their land in the form of trees planted by Ben’s grandfather. It couldn’t have been more apparent that this family cares for their animals. Ben can read his herd’s body language just like you can read your dog. Their daughter bottle feeds the calves that don’t take to their mom.

Ben’s knowledge and care for his herd is most clearly on display when it’s time to move the cattle to a new pasture. Cattle are curious creatures and they always come over, get within about 10 feet of us, and just stand there and stare. The cattle see us coming toward the gate and start coming over. They wait as we talk about Ben’s husbandry practices. After a few minutes Ben swings the gate open and the cattle rush through the gate and fan out in the new pasture. What’s the rush, I ask, because cattle are normally pretty docile and slow-moving. Ben says, “Because they are well-fed, they are a little picky. My cattle prefer clover and rye grass over the rest of the grasses in the pasture. They eat their favorite grasses first.” I looked at both pastures, trying to see the difference. Both have shin-high grass and I can’t see the difference. Well-fed cattle certainly see it.
In the Crosses, I see a family of ranchers that exemplify the triple bottom line concept. And you know what, they may not have even heard the term. Why would they? They don’t need fancy business school concepts. They live it.
There is a deep vein of environmetalism, humanity and pragmatism at the core of Silver Fern Farms’ Angus ranchers. Healthy, happy animals grow quickly and convert feed to muscle better. Asked why they are so focused on animal welfare, Ben has so many reasons: because it gives him satisfaction, because he genuinely cares about the animals, and because there’s no point in giving them good feed if they are going to metabolize it with nervous energy. That feed needs to be converted to muscle. If the cattle are relaxed they will focus on eating and they will metabolize more efficiently. Why doesn’t he use dogs with the cattle? Because cows get protective of their calves and if the cows get angry at the dogs, the calves will learn anger. He doesn’t want his cattle to learn anger. Wow! That blew me away. So cool.
Environmental stewardship is a deeply held belief among these ranchers and I could tell that they were being real about it, not saying it as a part of marketing BS. The Crosses plant trees to create shelter for the animals but also habitat for wildlife. Nearby, the Absoloms dedicated a huge tract of their land to be a nature reserve, simply because they are thinking about the next generations. They know that their children will inherit this land.
We hop in Ben’s pickup and ride to the top of the hill. There’s nothing but grassy pastures and clusters of trees for miles and miles. Most of what we see on the horizon is land that’s grazed by his beef and lamb herds. Suzie points out the browner grass in the distance compared to the greener grass close-by. She says that as summer wears on, the brown grass creeps closer and closer, and with it creeps the worry about making sure that their cattle have abundant pasture. Good thing this herd is in good hands!
I left the Crosse ranch with deep admiration for their business and their way of life, as well as a greater appreciation for the hard work and thoughtfulness that goes into our New Zealand Grass-fed Angus Beef.

Post Written by Justin Marx

The Absoloms – Genetics Masters

The Absoloms are your postcard-perfect ranching family… with the volume turned up: gorgeous land, classic farmhouse, gregarious and hospitable family.
The Absoloms are in the business of raising breeding stock. What does that mean? Well, ranchers carefully manage the genetics of their herds. Traditionally, ranchers would selectively breed for particular traits and to avoid inbreeding. Today, it is remarkably more sophisticated. Via DNA testing, tracking offspring and probably so many other things that I don’t understand, ranchers can carefully manage their genetics to make sure their herd has fantastic eating qualities. Did you know, for example, that there are genetic markers for things like marbling and
tenderness and that most ranchers know the genetic quality of their animals before they add them to their herd?
Certain ranchers, like the Absoloms, focus on raising breeding stock rather than raising animals for meat. They basically sell genetics in the form of young bulls and semen. One of their bulls, named Infinity E3, probably has a higher net worth than you or I.
Once you meet this family, it is little surprise that the Absoloms are in the business of beef, lamb and venison genetics. John & Star Absolom also clearly have a premium breeding program as well for the humans on the ranch: just as their bulls have above average eating qualities, their family has above average looks and demeanors. To use their parlance, John has “sired” four strapping sons who also seem to have pulled down beautiful wives to continue the good genes breeding. We spent an evening with the family, had a blast, and attempted to wrap our minds around their very sophisticated breeding operation. We less successfully attempted to wrap our minds around their favorite sport: cricket.
The important thing to know is that good genetics is the first step in producing quality meat and one of the big reasons why our New Zealand Grass-fed Beef from Silver Fern Farms is the best beef you have ever eaten. And, all you need to know for now about New Zealand cricket is that the Otago Volts are the reigning champs!
The Absoloms’ next door neighbors, the Crosses, are no less exceptional. Read their story here.

Post Written by Justin Marx

I Didn’t Always Eat Meat

If ever there were a black sheep in the Marx family, I’m pretty sure I am it. I was raised in a slaughterhouse. I can trace my paternal lineage back 5 generations and all of them were butchers. My first job was in a slaughterhouse. Second in a packing plant. Third in a butcher shop. You get the picture.  Yet, I gave up meat for about 7 years much to the dismay of my family.
I swear that I didn’t stop eating meat because of my wife who had been a vegetarian since second grade. Nobody believes me. Anyway, I stopped eating meat about 10 years ago when I started questioning my diet and reading voraciously about food politics. Diet for a New America by John Robbins was the tipping point. At the time I didn’t really have access to sustainable, humane meat. So, I dropped meat from my diet.
Fast forward 10 years. February, 2013. I have been eating meat for a few years.  I’m fresh back from a trip to New Zealand where I spent two weeks touring the ranches, abbatoirs and offices that are responsible for our Silver Fern Grass-fed Angus beef and soon-to-be-imported Silere Alpine-origin Merino. My notebook repeatedly asks questions like “How can one challenge the ethics of eating meat when the meat is raised like this?”
Marketing terms like “free range” and “grass-fed” barely do it justice. On one ranch that I visited, there were 25,000 Merino roaming 100,000 open acres of alpine pasture. It was lambs doing what lambs do. Vast healthy pastures. Lots of wildlife. Shepherds and ranchers that genuinely care for their herds.
At the end of the trip, I still couldn’t think of an argument challenging the ethics of eating meat raised this way. Instead, I was repeatedly awestruck by the beauty of the land, the beauty of the animals and of the people who steward both. New Zealand meat production is the gold standard of sustainability, animal welfare and meat quality. Here’s some photos, because words cannot express.

Nokomai Station is Lamb Nirvana

100,000 Alpine acres are the home of 25,000 Alpine-origin Merino. The Hore family have an impressive Merino wool and meat operation and are incredibly gracious hosts. In an absolutely idyllic environment they produce the finest lamb we have ever eaten (once we start importing it next month, we know you will agree.  This stuff is the real deal).  Pictures and videos tell the story far better than I can, so here goes:
The 100,000 acre range is vast and gorgeous and the only way to take it in is by helicopter.
Alpine-origin Merino roam freely and eat native grasses and alpine herbs. That’s one of the reasons why their meat is so flavorful.  In a couple months we will be introducing Silere Alpine-Origin Merino to the US market.
Lamb-valanche! This is what 4,300 lamb herded down a mountain looks like.
Scenes for The Hobbit were filmed here.  Every bit of land that you see is dotted with Silere Alpine-origin Merino.
Sheep doing what sheep do. It’s hard to argue with the ethics of meat from animals raised so freely.
Shepherds and dogs bring lamb down from the alpine country.
The lower pastures are serene and picturesque
Merino lamb being sheared. Just as merino wool is finer textured, Silere Alpine-origin Merino meat is also more finely textured. It has a fantastically silky mouthfeel compared to ordinary lamb.

Silver Fern Farms & The Future

New Zealand is a lot of beautiful things. I came to learn about the origin of our grass-fed beef, lamb and venison, and was equally swept away by the people who produce it. The best meat in the world is raised on New Zealand’s vast grassy pastures as are some of the most hospitable, gracious and progressive people on the planet: the Absoloms, the Crosses and the Hore family.
New Zealand is a place that has strong roots in heritage and tradition but is leading the world in producing top quality sustainable meat. It’s a place where ranchers care for their livestock the way their grandfathers did, while implementing a highly sophisticated meat quality program.
New Zealand ranchers see the synergies between profitability, animal welfare and environmental stewardship. They walk that triple-bottom-line just as well as sustainability consultants talk it. The beautiful thing about New Zealand ranchers is that the triple bottom line is a way of life, instead of a corporate initiative. They may not have ever even heard of the term triple bottom line. It’s just natural and sensible to them.
They are environmental stewards because they appreciate a pure environment and because they are protecting it for their children. Almost every rancher tells a story about being the 3rd or 4th or 5th generation raising animals on their land and how they are holding it in trust for future generations. They truly care for their livestock not just because it enriches them monetarily, but also because it fulfills them to have healthy herds and because healthy cattle grow big and fast. They raise their animals in idyllic environments.  Doing well and doing good are not mutually exclusive to them.
New Zealand is a land of ranchers who work the land today but also have an eye to the future. And Silver Fern Farms is the glue that holds it all together. Silver Fern is a cooperative of farmers, an enormous co-op to be certain, with 16,000 farmer-owners. Silver Fern is developing a highly sophisticated “Eating Quality” program that is designed to take their already high standards to the next level. They have an elaborate system that involves tasting panels and the ability to tie the meat quality to on-farm practices, genetics and processing technique (the three things that play a big part in meat quality). They track metrics that begin with the animals’ birth and trace it to the steaks that taste testers eat. This revolutionary program essentially merges the technology of 2013 with the tried-and-true best practices of 1913 to determine how to elevate the quality of their meat.
Silver Fern doesn’t just see the future, they are creating it. Their level of technological and marketing sophistication is decades ahead of their competitors. And that’s just one of the reasons why we are proud to sell their product in the US.
In upcoming posts, I will talk about some ranchers in particular, but the story would be incomplete without talking about some of the people at Silver Fern. On our two week tour, we spent most of our time with Glen McLennan (left) and Grant Howie (right). Glen takes care of our account. Ask Glen anything about animal husbandry, production, markets and he’s got the answer. And he knows what he is talking about. He’s a soft-spoken guy that’s a true professional.
Grant is part of the visionary team at Silver Fern that is elevating their business from a commodity producer into the new gold standard of quality and sustainability. Business school scholars should come here to see how the value chain and triple bottom line pervades their culture. Everyone I talked to at Silver Fern from members of the executive team to people working at the processing plant displayed sophisticated knowledge about their entire value chain in addition to their obvious expertise with their specific role in that chain. It is so abundantly clear that Grant and his colleagues are implementing a true value chain that produces the finest beef, lamb and venison in the world by connecting all of the dots from genetics, husbandry and butchery to packaging and marketing. Silver Fern is a near-army of intelligent, thoughtful people focused on putting the best possible sustainable steak on your plate. And they are excellent hosts. We are proud to offer their product and we look forward to the future with them.

To the Source: Visiting the Potato Harvest at Olsen Farms

Ryan, our photographer/graphic designer, took a trip to Olsen Farms, growers of our heirloom potatoes, to document the early stages of the 2012 harvest.

Meet Brent Olsen. He and his mother Merna produce our truly exceptional heirloom potatoes.

The Olsens’ potato farm starts about

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five miles outside Colville, a small community of about 4,700 people in eastern Washington State. In this gorgeous, sparsely-populated farmland, they grow over 20 different varieties of heirloom potatoes across 23 acres using dry land farming techniques.

Here’s a shot of one of their potato fields.

One fun fact I discovered while I was there: with heirloom potatoes, the color of their flowers often correspond to the color of the potatoes that variety produces. These flowers are probably on one of our purple varieties:

They plant their potatoes in early May, and the very first ones start coming out of the ground in July. The workers harvest from early morning until noon, so they can get a bunch of potatoes out of the ground before the hot mid-day sun hits.

When we visited, they were in the middle of the early harvest. At this point in the season, the potatoes are very delicate and have to be harvested by hand, because their skins are still very thin.

Brent was selling them to fine restaurants and at 17 farmers’ markets in Washington, but they were still too fragile to ship across the country for our customers. We’ll have potatoes to ship any day now, since it is late enough in the harvest that the potatoes’ skins have begun to set.

Believe it or not, these potatoes really did just come out of the ground. Dry land potatoes are naturally very clean.

But they are still washed.

While their skins are so thin they need to be washed and sorted by hand. Here’s another look at their washing & sorting tables in the fields:

As the season progresses and the skins thicken, they will be harvested and washed by machine. But they’ll still be hand sorted to ensure quality.

Once out of the ground, the potatoes are stored in a special electronically controlled storage room that keeps air moving and the temperature just right to ensure quality.

“The Meat and Potatoes Guy”

Olsen Farms isn’t just in the specialty potato business. You’ve heard the expression “meat and potatoes”? Well that’s the driving vision behind the farm – Brent wants to be “the meat and potatoes guy.”

In addition to potatoes, the Olsens also grow huge amounts of hay. They use this hay to feed 100 head of cattle that live on the farm, and sell the leftover bales. The cattle are rotated through the hay fields to replenish nutrients and promote growth (the cattle aerate and fertilize the fields).

Any potatoes that don’t pass muster during the sorting process aren’t wasted. Instead they are fed to the cattle as a special treat. The herd is trained to come when they hear the sound of potatoes shaking in buckets, allowing the farm workers to easily lead them around the farm.

Shaking potatoes:

And the result – the herd follows the truck into the next field.

Here’s Brent distributing some more taters for the cattle:

Olsen Farms will start shipping Marx Foods orders direct from the farm to you in late August. Of all their special varieties, the All Blue potatoes and Purple Majesty potatoes tend to sell the best, but each variety has a reason to recommend it.

Check out our heirloom potatoes category or our quick heirloom potato guide to see all the colors and varieties we offer, or browse our potato recipe collection for a bunch of great ways to use them.

Post Written by Justin Marx