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Small producers suffering, not a good sign

Sometimes, I don't know what to think about our local, sustainable food future despite our rich Quebec terroir, all the artisans, cooks and the swelling number of eaters so eager and excited about all that is happening here.  The media promotes and carries the fervour; it all seems so promising.  Yet behind the scenes, it isn't so rosy, actually so f-ing difficult on all levels..

When Genevieve came to deliver my lamb this week, I found out that my favourite little local producer (L’Agno et le Lapin in Ste-Julienne) would surely be shutting down soon enough, and my heart sank.  I knew they were struggling, but I had hope.  What to do.. No matter how passionate and hardworking, they cannot come out on top.  They both have full time jobs now by necessity, so work around the clock.  Five years in, they thought they would be ok; customers love their product and they sell it all, but every year there is some bad luck, an unexpected expense to eat up the minute profit margin, only constant hurdles always...  Because nothing about our current food system favours the small producer who cares about quality, who dares to do something different.  I saw Ferme Morgan fight to stay alive too for years whether they had the best organic duck, pintade, sanglichon and etc., or not.

Same with the gentleman farmer raising the venison adjacent to La Table des Jardins Sauvages.  It costs him money to keep the operation going, and luckily he has enough to back up his love and determination to see it continue;  but he too is just about ready to throw in the towel knowing he will never break even.  When he told me there were  15 heads that were prime and ready, given that I can only feasibly take one now and another in a couple of weeks, I figured I’d put the word out and they’d be snapped up.  Natural, top notch venison to sell at 5$Lb, what a great deal (no profit), I thought chefs would be all over it.  But no - nothing.  Hard to believe.  This cerf rouge is the best.  If you’re used to cerf du Boileau, you would not be disappointed.  Ten times better than the beef you’re used to. 

But the thing is, it comes by the carcass.  Like most natural meat from small producers.  It’s the normal way, the way it should be.  It is not normal or sustainable to only eat chops and tenderloin.  But apparently, this is what the chefs want because that is what the customers want.  Restaurants are looking out for their bottom line, the easiest way to put food on the table and come in on budget.  A whole carcass is more money upfront, and more labour, but cost efficient if you put the meat to good use.  Obviously though, you can’t only have ‘ribssteak’  or 'cheeks' on your menu.  Not even tongue  (one per animal!). Hence, it requires creativity, passion and talented kitchen staff, which is hard to come by, granted.  For most operations, ordering loins or ready to cook steaks they know they will sell is a no brainer, no matter how much they have to pay, regardless of the staff on hand.  Most cooks don’t even know how to break down an animal anymore.  Not that it’s rocket science, it’s just time.

It seems that everyone has been so out of tune with where their food comes from for so long that even amidst this trend of veering back towards local and sustainable, cooks and eaters have not grasped that this actually entails such inconvenient things as butchering and using the whole beast, or favouring perveyers that do.  Not only on a special night out at some ‘nose to tail’ restaurant, but day to day. It comes down to really understanding that good meat should cost more than we’re used to, that it should be valued and perhaps used more sparingly, sourced and cooked carefully, and that a braise is as good as a chop, that you shouldn't have to buy bones for stock.

It’s not just chefs in their fast paced world of constraints who are to blame, it seems that no one wants to deal with a carcass anymore, not even butchers.  We’ve come across several that order only cuts like restaurants.  What?  If butchers aren’t even butchering, our food system is more fucked than we think.  It makes me laugh when I think of an article I read in the NYTimes a year or so ago about how ‘hot’ butchers were.  Quelle joke, in Quebec anyhow.  There certainly remain a handful of hardcores that serve a loyal clientele.  But very few of the small guys doing things from scratch can survive, like the farmers.  The abbatoirs are miles away now, they fear for their animals and know the quality wont be the same, they have to pass on the excessive costs to consumers who want the convenience of the supermarket.  And the butchers want to compete with the supermarkets too.

It comes down to the industrial system winning out because consumers are supporting it.  How else can you order a case of tenderloins or strips if it isn’t mass production?  Where is the rest going?  The only kind of farmer that can do this has to deal in numbers, forget about pasture, no choice but to use antibiotics and fattening feed, none of which makes good meat.  To have their own slaughterhouse, their own butcher, it takes a huge enterprise.  You can mostly forget about local, once happy, natural, traceable meat in this scenario.  I can think of one operation that made it from small to medium-big retaining minimal integrity and other communities of small producers that collaborated in coops; there are solutions.. But these still fall into the small segment that is undervalued and not having an easy time..

Although there may be a handful of foodies starting to worry about how their meat is raised and the hidden truths behind those neat packages, the fact is everyone is so used to cheap meat, clean cuts and convenience now, that change in the marketplace is impossibly slow to non-existent. 

I’m just sad.  I might lose my best producers shortly.  I stuck by them and did what I had to do even if it was not easy to balance the books, even if few customers realized the extra value on their plates they weren’t paying more for. What will I put on the menu now besides the wild plants?  I will have to find other courageous, passionate producers who have not yet given up, go a little further afield.  Or go back to sourcing the same industrial system as everyone else. 

You know what?  No. Whatever happens, I refuse.  I’ll fold too if it comes to that. 

That might make the MAPAQ happy.  If it isn't the MAPAQ, it's Revenue Quebec or some other govt agency coming in to put sticks in our wheels (French expression), ie. making survival difficult for small business and artisans.  Especially if you don't fit into one of their neat boxes and they don't understand what you're doing.  But that's an other can of worms; we have our own set of hurdles that have me worn down.  A blog post on the subject specific is bound to be a blog post one day.






Posted on Thursday, August 4, 2011 at 02:25AM by Registered CommenterNancy Hinton | CommentsPost a Comment

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