When was the last time you shook hands with the farmer who grew your breakfast? If your answer is Never, you’re not alone. According to a 2011 nationwide survey by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, consumers spend plenty of time thinking about food production, yet know very little about how food gets to the table. Bob Stallman, the chairman of USFRA and president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, emphasizes this point: “Americans have a lot of questions about where their food comes from, how it is raised and if it is good for their health long-term.”
Unfortunately, the modern food system often leaves consumers in the dark and out of the loop when it comes to their food. Even more interesting? Behind the scenes, there’s usually no difference between the products you’re buying—other than the label and the price you’re paying.
By going seed to table and selling our grains directly to you—instead of to an established brand—we shorten our supply chains, deliver fresher food, support our sustainability mission, and cut out unnecessary costs, so you don’t end up footing the bill.
How food gets from the farm to your pantry
Before you can understand what’s broken in the food system, it’s crucial to know how the system currently works. Since Northerly primarily grows cereal and pulse crops, we’ll focus on that particular system. Depending on the size and location of the farm, different farmers can have different experiences.
Harvest and storage
There are a few different things that can happen during storage. Depending on economic conditions and the condition of the crop, we’ll either store our harvest on the farm or truck it directly to a local grain elevator. Many view the grain elevator as a crucial, and sole link between farmers and markets. Farmers deposit their crops in the elevator, where they’ll either be stored or sold. If they’re designated to be sold, the elevator pays the farmer for their crops, then goes on to sell crops up the supply chain, to the food and drink companies that use them. In many cases, the grain is loaded on train cars bound for port to be shipped all across the world.
The problems with the current food system
While using local elevators has it’s pros (namely, convenience), it also has drawbacks. For one, the elevator sets the going rate for every crop, and the prices can fluctuate wildly from season to season, depending on supply and demand, and their own analysis of local growing conditions. These traditional points of sale for farms constantly look at what’s going on locally with growing conditions, and will subjectively tighten or loosen restrictions based on their own business interests. What does this mean for the farmer? More volatility.
The moving moisture goalposts
Let’s say you have a durum crop growing. In general, farmers decide when the crop is ready to harvest by testing a few variables. Moisture content is one of these variables. If a crop is harvested with too high a moisture level, it can spoil. Too low means it was left in the field too long. Using it means risking the uncertainties of mother nature. Additionally, low moisture content means less value because farmers are paid on volume and weight.
Generally speaking 14% moisture content is considered dry for farmers. However, in this example, the elevator can see that local yields look good. So, this year 12% is considered “dry,” a full two percentage points lower. Depending on weather conditions, it might take a couple of days to dry down to the 12% mark. Those days could mean losing thousands of acres to frost, snowfall, or rain. In other words, the moving goalpost is the difference between successful harvest and crop failure.
On the flip side, in a year with low yields, or a year that excessive rain has delayed crop sales, the same elevator might say 15% is dry. It has nothing to do with safety, and everything to do with the elevator being able to meet their own demands.
Fluctuating quality guidelines
Another area elevators adjust to their benefit is quality. During a year with outstanding field conditions and quality, the elevator will tighten their standards making it difficult to reach the best grade. During a year with wider quality outcomes, they’ll loosen standards and allow more grain to be graded at a higher quality. It may sound like we’re counting nickels and dimes. But nickels and dimes end up being substantial amounts of money when you’re dealing with thousands of tons of grain.
In other words, It’s hard to predict in the spring how well your farm will do financially at year’s end when the goalposts continually move. When push comes to shove, farmers don’t have a voice. At the end of the year, when your mental, physical and financial energies are low, do you fight the good fight with the buyer? Or do you accept your reduced cheque and move on?
Another problem with the elevator sales model? It’s impossible to know where your grains come from and how they were grown. The oats in the bag you buy might come from hundreds of farms, or they might come from thousands. Either way, they’ve got the same label slapped on them. That’s the last thing we wanted when we set out to launch Northerly. It goes against everything we stand for as a farm-to-table sustainable grains marketer.
Understanding supply chains
We’re in the middle of a seed to table revolution. These days there’s a big push for shorter supply chains and more traceability. But what do those terms mean on a practical level? Investopedia says, “A supply chain is a network between a company and its suppliers to produce and distribute a specific product to the final buyer.” In other words, it’s the steps between when we harvest our oats, and when they end up in your hands.
Traceability is the ability to track food through all stages of the supply chain. It includes knowing where and how your food was grown, processed, packaged, imported, distributed, and finally sold. With a shorter supply chain—or fewer steps between you and us—traceability becomes much more straightforward. Part of our purpose is reducing the steps that responsible consumers have to track when it comes to Northerly oats.
Benefits of a short supply chain
But traceability isn’t the only benefit of selling seed to table. It also allows us to sell fresher food, reduce our carbon footprint, and reduce the risk of damage, contamination, or spoiling for our crops.
Short supply chains mean fresher food
Would you prefer to eat an apple that was picked, cleaned, and sold where you live? Or an apple that was picked where you live, sold to a broker, shipped across the globe for processing, and then shipped back for distribution? For most of us, the answer is easy. We want food that’s as fresh as possible. And that means shortening the supply chain or looking for local facilities to handle as many steps as possible.
Less trucking, less carbon
The more stops your food makes between the farm and your pantry, the higher the costs (and environmental impacts) of getting it to market. By selling locally or directly to consumers, we’re able to control how far our oats travel. This ability to shorten the supply chain means our oats are not only sustainably grown, but also sustainably sold.
Fewer stops, more secure supply chain
Think back to your middle school health class. Did you ever have to “care for” a flour sack baby? For those of you who missed out on this formative experience, here’s the deal. Every year, middle school teachers around the nation assign their students a sack of flour. The goal is to teach kids responsibility. The objective? For the student to return the flour sack to the teacher’s hands unscathed at the end of a day, week, or even month. Sounds easy, right?
Now imagine that the flour sack has to pass through the care of five (or more) other people before it gets returned to the teacher. Suddenly, you’re not so sure you can guarantee the flour bag’s safety. The same is true of our food supply chains. As the farmer, I know that I can safely deliver food to you, the consumer. I might even trust a few close friends with it. But the more hands it passes through, the higher the risk of contamination or damage.
Why Northerly sells straight to you
When we first launched Northerly, we had one goal: to bag and sell the oats grown, tended, and harvested on our land and by our own hands. Not oats of comparable quality, or oats from our neighbors. Our oats. Seed to table is the only way we could guarantee transparency and full knowledge over the steps in our supply chain. It’s the only way we could assure our clients that the Northerly logo means high-quality, sustainably-grown oats. Why?
Consider the following scenario. We harvest a crop of oats in Saskatchewan. We sell them to a grain elevator, who goes on to sell them to an international food corporation. For the food corp, it may be more cost-effective—in the short term—ship those oats overseas for processing and then import them back into the U.S. for distribution. Those oats suddenly have a huge carbon footprint, haven’t contributed much to local economies, and aren’t as fresh as they could be.
Because Northerly sells directly to you, the supply chain is something we never have to compromise on. A short supply chain uses fewer resources, has less of a carbon footprint, and results in less food waste overall. As part of our sustainability mission, it’s crucial. We’re not willing to compromise our principles to put a little extra money into our pockets or our operation.
Though, of course, short supply chains are not the only way Northerly’s model supports sustainability. Because sustainable agriculture is about more than just environmental responsibility and how we grow food. Sustainability is also about building community and connecting people with their food. So instead of us, the farmers, selling our food to a wholesaler, and you, the consumer, buying it from a huge brand, we get to connect directly.
When you purchase a bag of rolled oats at the grocery store, you’re not just paying for the oats themselves. You’re also paying for the cost of processing, packaging, shipping, and distribution. Because of that, there can be a lot of built-in hidden costs when it comes to our food. Because we’re selling our oats directly to the end-user, we can reduce costs throughout our supply chain, so they don’t show up in the prices you pay.
Combats food waste
When Imperfect Produce, a direct-to-consumer grocery startup, launched in 2015, they had one goal: to reduce food waste. The company delivers fresh fruits and vegetables considered “too ugly” for grocery stores directly to clients’ doors. In a recent interview, CEO and co-founder Ben Simon says, “To date, we’ve recovered about a little over 40 million pounds of produce. In 2019 alone, we’ll recover an additional 40 to 50 million pounds. Those numbers are growing pretty quickly.”
Imperfect Produce is just one shining example of how selling directly to consumers can side-step food waste and helps us put more fresh, whole foods into people’s hands. This is incredibly important, considering 40 billion pounds of food goes to waste each year.
Gives you, the consumer, what you want
As Vision Critical notes, “According to Nielsen, 90 percent of consumers would rather buy directly from a brand if they could.” This is particularly true when it comes to younger generations and their food.
A recent article by McKinsey found that “Millennials, which now constitute the largest U.S. demographic group, have especially high expectations… millennials said they seek healthier food choices. They also want to know exactly where their food comes from and how it’s made; they expect companies to be socially and environmentally responsible and to offer sustainable, traceable products.”
There’s a clear desire for people to reconnect with their food. Today’s consumers are more informed than ever before. At the same time, thanks to the internet and the digital revolution, they have more options than ever before. Today’s consumers can buy with a conscience from anywhere, at any time. And Northerly’s seed to table model is here to make that dream a reality.
And it’s not just food
Recently, we’ve seen a massive shift from distributors and box stores to direct-to-consumer businesses, not only in the food industry but across all industries. One example that gets touted as a success story is the Dollar Shave Club. By delivering shaving supplies directly to your doorstep, DSC can provide a high-quality product, a convenient customer experience, and better support for when things go wrong.
Seed to table
Of course, for farmers who wanted to sell directly to consumers, the options used to be limited. You could open an on-site market for people to browse your products, or you could set up shop at local farmers’ markets. Today, thanks to advances in technology and global connectedness, we can sell our oats to anyone, anywhere, directly, and with minimal environmental impacts. As part of our sustainability mission, Northerly is committed to selling our oats (and eventually other grains), straight to those who appreciate them most: people like you.