Editor’s note: We kicked off our first annual Food Loves Tech event last summer in Chelsea—here’s a recap. We’re bringing a taste of the food and farming future back this year, but just across the East River at Industry City. Leading up to the event, this story is part of an ongoing series about technology’s effects on our food supply.
When conservationist Dan O’Brien and his partner, Jill, started Wild Idea Buffalo in Rapid City, South Dakota, nearly two decades ago, they had a single goal: preserving and sustaining the Great Plains by restoring the American bison to its native homeland. The buffalo grazing helps to till and restore the landscape; producing and selling grassfed buffalo meat from their herds is a mere side effect.
What they didn’t plan on, however, was that the outdoor clothing company Patagonia, would catch wind of their business and share their sentiment for nurturing the land. Furthermore, they definitely didn’t expect that the company founder Yvon Chouinard would fly out, unannounced, to tell them that he wanted to collaborate with Wild Idea Buffalo to produce for Patagonia’s burgeoning food line.
O’Brien said, “He just came after us, and we said, ‘Geez we don’t have the capital to make your jerky, you guys are too big,’” He added, however, that a food-focused Chouinard replied, “‘We can help you out with that. We’ll back you on this.’”
For over four decades, Patagonia has kept outdoorsy types prepared for whatever nature threw at their body but also has made several commitments to restoring and protecting the planet (The New Yorker‘s Nick Paumgarten wrote a fantastic profile last year). While previously this has involved approaching environmental concerns from a textile lens—using organic cotton, investing in domestic hemp production and donating profits to charities like Bronx River Alliance—an upcoming store in Seattle will stock both the new workwear-centric Iron Forge collection as well as the company’s fledgling food brand, Patagonia Provisions. Such a pairing reveals the extended growing interest in Patagonia’s widely renowned philosophy to invest in organizations that will protect the environment. Now, however, it’s focusing on the sources of what we put in our body.
Birgit Cameron, the senior director of Patagonia Provisions, said that while Patagonia has made its name as an environmentally conscious outdoors brand, the culinary extension of the company came about through a realization that the impact of sustainable agriculture doesn’t need to stop at the textile material.
“What we are about and our mission statement is: to build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, do good and use business to inspire solutions to the environmental crisis,” Cameron said. She added that “food-related agriculture is one of the big contributors to climate change, so we felt like we couldn’t stay away from that piece of it.”
Much like the sourcing of clothing, the food is selected both with regard to taste as well as its environmental and social impact. Dan O’Brien, for example, said that when he agreed to produce jerky for Provisions, Patagonia conducted a “social audit” on their potential source.
“They sent people out here, third-party auditors, and they went through everything we did,” O’Brien said. He later added that the auditors “interviewed all our employees, asked them, ‘How do you feel about this? Are you paid enough? What’s your family life like?’ They care from top to bottom, regulations and all that stuff.”
“What we are about and our mission statement is: to build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, do good and use business to inspire solutions to the environmental crisis … food-related agriculture is one of the big contributors to climate change, so we felt like we couldn’t stay away from that piece of it.”
Sticking to its roots, the current selection of goods from the Provisions Division is centered around meals that are nutrient dense but also capable of withstanding all the jostling from a three-mile trek: peppered wild salmon, legume stew and wild buffalo jerky. Cameron added that Provisions was created to taste like actual food, not the dry, meal replacement hiking sundries like Clif Bar, with goals to market to the busy urbanites looking for tasty but eco-friendly, pre-prepared foods.
“You can’t always have a slow-cooked meal, but if I can create something with the same nutritional density, same deliciousness, and just add farmers market things to it, enhance it more, then it takes 10 minutes for me to create something for my family, and that doesn’t taste like some outdoor food,” Cameron said. She added “that’s where [Patagonia Provisions] can transcend that idea that we’re just an outdoor company.”
Although the number of companies selling their food on the laurels of its origin as organic or sustainable, Cameron said that Patagonia Provisions differentiates itself from the crowd by collaborating and investing in innovative companies and organizations. Similar to Wild Idea Buffalo, which has the goal of restoring the Great Plains, in 2016, Provisions first brewed the Long Root Ale as a collaboration with Portland, Oregon’s Hopworks Urban Brewery and the Land Institute, a nonprofit agricultural research organization based in Salinas, Kansas, that is focused on developing perennial grains, or crops that do not die after harvest, but rather live on for at least two years or more. Cameron explained that they chose to this beverage in particular because beer is “a really good idea to reach people on some of the story we want to tell.”
At the surface, the Long Root Ale is a tasty, slightly hoppy, American pale ale. But Kernza, the novel ingredient in the brew, is a newly developed grain related to intermediate wheatgrass that’s been in production since 1983. Furthermore, since Kernza is a perennial grain, after each harvest, it continues to thrive and absorb carbon from the air. Furthermore, the roots bury themselves 10 feet deep, twice as deep as conventional wheat, which helps to prevent soil erosion and reduces the nitrogen leaching.
Scott Allegrucci, a senior development and communications officer explains that researchers at the Land Institute spent 40 years of time and effort looking into perennializing crops like sorghum and wheat as well as legumes, and according to Allegrucci, Kernza is the first crop that was commercial-ready. Patagonia Provisions was the first to take the grain to the market, Allegrucci said, and that led to “an enormous amount of exposure in the food, beer, sustainable agriculture media circuit.”
“I don’t know this to be true, but subsequently General Mills was making a commitment [to use Kernza],” he added. “I would not be surprised that the exposure created by Patagonia Provisions probably played a significant role.”
“[Patagonia] sent people out here, third-party auditors, and they went through everything we did … [they] interviewed all our employees, asked them, ‘How do you feel about this? Are you paid enough? What’s your family life like?’ They care from top to bottom, regulations and all that stuff.”
In addition to working with companies to supply their food line, Cameron explained that Provisions also is providing grants for researchers and small companies involved in sustainable food systems. “It’s largely a center for innovation in food,” she said. In addition to helping finance and expand Wild Idea Buffalo’s production by providing them funds for purchasing the equipment to make the jerky, Patagonia Provisions gave Dr. Steve Jones’s Bread Lab at Washington State University a $250,000 financial injection, as reported by Civil Eats, that has helped fund his investigation in growing domestic buckwheat, which once thrived in the Pacific Northwest. Cameron says that this could help stimulate a regional economy around this long-forgotten cereal.
Since they first partnered with Chouinard two years ago, Wild Idea Buffalo may have added a few dozen more buffalo to the herd, but the O’Briens assure that they aren’t concerned about growing profits. (“As long we can pay the bills, we’ll keep on supplying.”) Like many of the organizations and companies connected to Patagonia Provisions, they simply want to help the planet and spread this sustainable ecological philosophy.
“With the model we chose, we don’t have the capital to control hundreds of thousands of acres—we’re not even close to that,” O’Brien said. “But we can and have influenced other people to do the same thing, and because we’re not trying to make money, we’re trying to restore plains—lots of acres—and that model works even better.”
Photos courtesy of Patagonia Provisions.