It’s been a little more than three years since the morning I had an opportunity to enjoy a cup of coffee with Wendell Berry around the kitchen table at his Kentucky farm.
At the time I was doing some work for an international company looking to launch a new line of organic products in the United States. The founder of the company had a deep commitment to sustainable agriculture. The CEO shared that commitment, and was developing a model in which the company’s U.S. product line would be sourced from local farmers and manufactured in a network of regional facilities. He called it “multi-local.”
While traveling through Kentucky in 2009, one of our hosts arranged for us to stop by Wendell’s farm to chat about the practicality of this multi-local business concept. It was a memorable morning. The sun was bright, the coffee was hot, and Wendell was skeptical, to say the least.
Unfortunately, the U.S. investors backing the proposed venture were skeptical as well, not because it wouldn’t work. They closed their wallets because it just seemed too difficult.
Multi-local can work
National companies can survive and flourish without compromising their commitment to local, sustainable agriculture.
In recent years, Chipotle has built a national brand with great-tasting food and a corporate commitment to source meat and poultry from sustainable family farms. But the company consistently takes that commitment a step further.
This month, Chipotle invited their customers to join them as they embarked on a nationwide Farmers Market Tour in recognition of National Farmers Market Week.
The Broomfield, Colorado farmers’ market where I volunteer on Tuesday afternoons was included in the tour. Chipotle came to our market with $10 coupons for the first 250 customers to buy fresh produce or other locally grown food at the market. Consequentially, our market had a record day in produce sales.
Wendell Berry is right to be highly skeptical about the concept of multi-local. Indeed, the marketplace is filled with products in which the family farm pictured on the product label bears little resemblance to the actual operations that supply the ingredients.
But today’s customers are helping pave the path for businesses committed to multi-local. Consumers want both national brands and local farms, and smart companies are figuring out how to do it.
I hope Wendell is pleased.