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Cool Foods Straight From the Farm

Grow your operation by watching and adjusting to consumer food trends. Bacon, craft beer, and cheese are three trendy food products to watch.

BACON

Bacon, itself, is still the same cured and processed pork belly it has been since 1500 B.C., but now it has a cult following. It’s more than bacon costumes and accessories; it’s a deep love shared by hundreds of attendees at the largest bacon festival in the world – the Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival in Des Moines, Iowa. 

On average, Americans consume nearly 18 pounds of bacon annually, according to the National Pork Board. That’s not surprising considering 53% of American households keep bacon on hand at all times, and 62% of U.S. restaurants have bacon on the menu. 

Although all bacon fans don’t know what part of a hog is used to make bacon or how the animals that make up their favorite snack are raised, they don’t seem to care. It’s the taste they love. The top two U.S. bacon markets are far removed from the feedlots where bacon originates – New York City and Los Angeles. 

“We try to educate the consumer as much as possible on where their bacon comes from,” says Brooks Reynolds, founder and chairman of the Iowa Bacon Board. “We have six different lectures at the Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival people can attend to educate themselves about bacon.” The 11th festival is scheduled for February 17, 2018, in Des Moines.

Consumers seem to be looking for different ways to include bacon in their diets – besides just at breakfast – based on the variety of bacon products successfully produced and sold by vendors. 

“About five years ago, we started doing chocolate-covered bacon on a whim,” says Meg Shearer, owner of Chocolate Storybook, a shop in Des Moines. “We did it for Valentine’s Day and sold 3,000 pieces. We couldn’t even make enough.” Today, the chocolate company puts Hormel bacon in its caramel and chocolate turtles and makes bacon cotton candy.

SF Special: Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival

Craft Beer

It’s the unique flavor and idea of consuming a locally made product that gets craft beer fans excited – at least that’s what craft beer connoisseurs at the Michigan Summer Beer Festival say. Farmers benefit from both. 

“I think five years ago, craft beer consumers weren’t as knowledgeable as they are today. They’re starting to understand more about what to expect in different beers,” says Christian Cook, head brewer and part owner of Silver Harbor Brewing Company. “People are starting to understand which hop flavor creates the flavors and aromas that they like.”

HOPS

In Michigan, hop farmers like Brian and Amy Tennis of Omena work hard to provide local breweries with flavorful, unique hop varieties to suit the different beers produced across the state. 

Hop plants are resilient and tolerant of various weather conditions. Spider mites and mildews are common in hop yards, but both are manageable issues, Brian says. Hops grow best on the 45th parallel, which is where the Tennis operation is located. Dormancy is key for growing hops, as they need a good four to six weeks of below-freezing temperatures to completely shut down. 

“The plants may get frosted out, and a week later when it gets warm, they send up another set of shoots,” says Amy. “They’re ideal plants for areas that are really prone to unpredictable weather.”

Brian, founder of the Michigan Hops Alliance, describes growing hops as an economy of scale. Growing hops for profit isn’t something that farmers can do on an extra acre. The equipment costs are hefty. 

  • A hop picker runs from $12,000 to $15,000 per acre
  • A dryer can run $10,000 to $20,000
  • Pellet line runs from $75,000 to $100,000
  • Packaging and marketing materials can be $10,000

“We started with 1 acre a decade ago and thought we’d never be able to use that much product,” says Brian. “Now, I think 10 acres would be the bare minimum (to make a profit).” 

The good news is that a hop yard can be completely established in a year or two. Brian, with the help of the National Clean Plant Network, is also working to make it possible to have 100% yield in the first year of growth, which would make getting started more comfortable for growers.

“Anything we grew in the first couple years was automatically sold,” says Brian. “Brewers were just so excited, saying, ‘Wow, there are actually hops being grown in Michigan again?’ ” Local products make a difference to brewery customers. 

The Tennises have about 100 different accounts they sell to in Michigan, but they also have about 700 accounts outside of the state – some are as far away as Belgium and Denmark. 

In an effort to protect their farmland from weeds, Brian and Amy applied for a Midwest Sustainable Agriculture Research grant and received money to purchase 18 endangered sheep. The couple released the sheep into their hop yard to see how effective grazing sheep would be in controlling weeds. 

BARLEY

As for barley, it’s needed to create the malt for brewing. Similar to standard row crops, many acres are needed to grow barley and be profitable; whereas 10 to 20 acres of hop plants might keep a grower above water, Brian says. 

Barley producers, though, need to have malting facilities (maltsters) nearby in order to realistically make the barley into malt. 

“We thought for sure that barley would be the next big thing in Michigan, and I think it is,” says Brian. “We’ve seen a huge uptick in maltsters in Michigan now.” 

Now that there are more malting facilities in Michigan, it’s more realistic for brewers to create completely Michigan-based beers, 100% local. 

Gail Milburn is a brewer at Dearborn Brewing, and she is proud of the fact that she and her colleagues seek out Michigan malts to brew with. 

“A lot of our regulars see the bags of malt that we have in the brewery and talk about us using Michigan products quite a bit,” she says. “We’re trying to use as many hops from Michigan as we can, as well as yeast.”

Cheese

Per capita cheese consumption in the U.S. is now 37 pounds per year, the highest since the USDA started tracking it. Recently, artisan cheeses landed on the National Restaurant Association’s list of 20 food trends that are closest to consumers’ hearts and stomachs. 

This makes it official: Cheese is COOL!

Stephanie Clark, associate professor of food science at Iowa State University, says that while people still love traditional cheeses on burgers and pizzas, the cheese-as-a-cool-food discussion starts with the uptick in artisan cheeses.

What exactly are artisan cheeses? They’re special handcrafted cheeses, often made in relatively small quantities right on a dairy farm. They often have special ingredients and are given names like Milk & Honey or Prairie Breeze.

“They’re usually more expensive, which means people are exploring the flavors and varieties of cheese for themselves and not necessarily for putting into recipes or burgers,” says Clark. 

It’s part of the same trend that drives people to other cool foods like craft brews, she thinks. 

“Consumers want to know where their food comes from, and there’s a new appreciation for local, handmade products,” Clark says. 

That’s a perfect setup for Aubrey Fletcher of Edgewood Creamery in southwest Missouri. She and her mother-in-law, Melissa, process milk from the family’s grass-fed dairy herd into artisan cheeses, which they sell on the farm and on their website

The Fletchers also cultivate a growing wholesale market for their cheeses through restaurants and food stores across the Ozarks. Fletcher calls it a rising demand for good food.  

“By that, I mean that consumers want to know where food comes from, how it came to be, and who produced it. They want the backstory. We help them understand the milk and cheeses they consume,” she says. “Many people have never been around livestock or crops. They find information online and, unfortunately, it’s not always correct.”

aubrey-fletcher
Aubrey Fletcher

In her cheese-marketing efforts, Fletcher likes to use the terms artisan, farmstead, and handcrafted to emphasize the traditional or nonmechanized production process and highest-quality ingredients. “The animals that produce the product are from the same location where the product is made,” she says. 

C.J. Bienert owns and operates The Cheese Shop in Des Moines, Iowa, with his wife, Kari. He thinks cool foods like artisan cheeses, cured meats, and craft brews have something in common. They all have the old-school taste that only comes from local production, fermentation, and processing on the small farms where they originate. 

The Cheese Shop sells over 100 artisan and farmhouse cheeses made on American small farms. It also offers craft beer, local wine, and cured meats.

Recently, the Bienerts opened a restaurant, The Cheese Bar, also in Des Moines. Its popular Classic Grilled Cheese is made with Prairie Breeze, an artisan handmade cheddar from an Iowa Amish farm. The Cast-Iron Mac & Cheese uses two artisan cheeses called Frisian Farms Gouda and Hook’s Four-Year Cheddar. 

The end result is a gooey-good delicious taste that keeps cheese lovers coming back to this cool food, Bienert says.

Written by Anna McConnell and Gene Johnston

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