Supporting small, family-owned farms and ranches is the best way to build a more sustainable food system in America, says Mel Coleman, vice president of special projects for Niman Ranch, which works with more than 700 independent producers.
Natural Foods Merchandiser: Food prices are higher than ever. Why should shoppers choose Niman products over less expensive natural options?
Mel Coleman: Natural is a meaningless term to describe most products, but at Niman it stands for something. Customers buy from us because they know our producers use humane animal practices. We also never use growth hormones or antibiotics. Because the price of entry for organic is so high right now, we don’t make it a requirement, but both organic and non-genetically modified are issues we’re exploring. We’re invested in doing what’s right for animals, humans and plants.
When consumers are willing to pay more for foods that align with their personal beliefs, we’ll finally be on the right track toward building healthier and more sustainable agricultural systems. We depend on retailers to communicate these values. When the product tastes great, as I believe ours does, that makes the decision even easier.
NFM: Which government regulations would you like to see changed to better support small family farmers?
MC: Agricultural policy should make it easier for one generation to pass a family-operated farm or ranch onto the next without it being a huge financial incumbence. Right now, cities are expanding and agricultural land is growing in value. If farm families don’t plan, when a family member inherits a large ranch, he or she has to pay the inheritance tax based on the ranch’s value. There are families that have lost land or had to sell land just to pay taxes.
NFM: How is Niman involved in educating consumers about these issues?
MC: We’re trying to educate a new generation of consumers about the importance of sustainability and humane animal treatment by working with universities across the country. About 10 schools now contract with us to carry our products in their cafeterias.
At the point of sale, we provide brochures that explain what the product is, what ranch it came from and where it was produced. Instead of financial targets for the future, we have goals of reaching a certain number of schools with our product.
We also provide executive chefs and dining services directors of colleges and universities with the tools to learn about our product. We’re creating new customers, but more importantly, we’re educating young shoppers about which questions they should ask of all food producers.