Food producers push sustainability

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Photo by Jennifer Cheung.

Patrick Martinsadvocates for the sustainable food every week on the airwaves, but he brought his message to Calhoun College Wednesday afternoon.

Martins, a sustainable livestock farmer and founder of Heritage Foods USA, and Anne Saxelby, founder of Saxelby Cheesemongers, spoke to a crowd of 35 students about their businesses at a Calhoun Master’s tea co-sponsored by the Yale Sustainable Food Project (YSFP) and the Calhoun Master’s Office. Martins and Saxelby encouraged students to buy their meat and produce from local vendors and criticized large corporations that raise animals on a massive scale.

Martins said his dissatisfaction with the current system motivated him to start his own company.

“I was always fighting for justice somehow with food,” Martins said. “However, I was always really interested in the livestock, which I viewed as marines of the food world.”

Martins said his foray into the livestock business began at New York University when he wrote his thesis for a Masters degree in performance studies on “medieval food sculpture and the politics behind them.” After graduation, he worked with Slow Food, a non-profit company that promotes for locally produced foods, which exposed him to the lack of genetic diversity among livestock and motivated him to start his own business. Slow Food now sells meat to about 200 restaurants across the United States.

Almost all turkeys consumed in the United States are of one breed, which makes the livestock susceptible to disease, Martins said, and the inbreeding of pigs has made them unnaturally aggressive. He added that chickens grow so quickly that a quarter of them arrive at slaughterhouses with broken bones. He blamed this problem on large agricultural companies who “literally make animals extinct” by subsidizing farmers to raise only one breed.

Heritage Foods, which Martins founded 10 years ago, pays farmers to increase the supply of rarer breeds of livestock. Without Heritage Foods, which takes higher prices for rarer breeds, these farmers might be forced by economic competition to produce only a few breeds of animals.

In 2009, Martins began his own radio station, which hosts 28 programs all focused on the production of food and produce. He said he tries to bring stories about sustainability to the public that they would not hear on a regular basis.

“Cheese, meats and beer all deserve a space in the media world, and we weren’t going to wait ten years for [New York] Times or the Wall Street Journal to report about it,” Martins said.

Martins’ career began with “food sculpture,” and Saxelby also pursued the arts before founding her business. She earned a bachelor’s degree in studio art at New York University before taking an internship at a cheese-making company, where she discover in cheese a fusion between food and art.

Saxelby, like Martins, discussed the hardships of the food industry, criticizing that the federal government sets milk prices that puts small dairy farmers in the countryside at a disadvantage. To circumvent this regulation, small dairy farmers who cannot make a profit from selling milk process their product into cheese, she said, allowing them to set their own prices.

Just over five years ago, Saxelby decided to pursue her passion by founding her own company.

“Cheese just made so much sense to me because you didn’t have to have a fancy degree to get it,” Saxelby said. “Everyone has taste buds and can just judge for himself. I really loved the honesty of that.”

Three students interviewed who attended the talk all said they were impressed by the by the grassroots movement in sustainable foods. Alison James ’12 said she appreciated that the business leaders appeared to value sustainability and qualitiy over profit.

For Darcy Shiber-Knowles SOM ’13, the charisma and passion of the speakers proved most memorable.

“One of the things that really struck me is their entrepreneurial gumption,” she said. “They were so appealing and gutsy, and that’s what you really need to be to succeed in the business.”

The tea was a part of the YSFP’s Chewing the Fat series. The next event in the series is a screening of The Greenhorns’ Documentary Thursday, Oct. 13 at 6:00 p.m. at the Underbrook in Saybrook College.

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