A fifth-generation farmer, Marshall Bartlett is the president and co-founder of Home Place Pastures (www.homeplacepastures.com) in Como, Mississippi. His father grew crops on the same property, which has been in his family since 1871, but Bartlett changed the business and raises hogs, goats, cows and sheep. Last month, Home Place launched a farm-share program so home cooks can pick up monthly meat box deliveries in New Orleans and Memphis, Tennessee. Bartlett spoke with Gambit about the program.
Why did you make the switch from raising crops?
Bartlett: My dad was a row-crop farmer and always veered us away from that style of agriculture. I don't think he thought it was a viable way for us to make a living. In commercial agriculture, your input, your seeds, your fertilizer, your chemicals — they're all set by big chemical agriculture companies like Monsanto and Dow (Chemical Company). Then, when you're planning your crop, you have to deal with the weather, and then you have to sell it to your consumers at the set commodity price. There are all these factors set by the market — you're at the mercy of all these factors that are beyond your control. My dad saw this over time and became really disillusioned.
After I finished college, I moved to New Orleans and worked for AmeriCorps, and after that I worked for a guy who was doing a farm-to-table meat deal. That's when I realized that there was a real business potential for me to do that. So I started working on a completely new business model centered around sustainable animal production and building our own USDA-inspected slaughter and processing facility on the farm. With local meat production, the hang-up is getting access to those kinds of facilities. The whole industry has been centralized to these giant facilities that do all the slaughtering and processing. We have to be federally inspected in order to sell meat across state lines. We now raise most of the animals here on the farm.
I think there will be a future for traditional farming, but I think what you're finding is the smaller, more local models similar to what we are doing now, where you're doing more direct marketing and doing all the production, including all the raising and slaughtering and processing. We're not doing all the slaughtering yet, but we're working with (animal behavior expert) Temple Grandin to design our whole farm. We have a lot more power as businessmen and as farmers to grow our business.
How does the meat-share program differ from other direct delivery services?
B: While we do wholesale in Memphis and New Orleans, we didn't really have a retail element on the farm, so we built a little retail shop where we sell meats and sausages. We then figured we could take a similar idea and make our meat more accessible to people in cities, who maybe don't have access to farms, or don't want to drive the five hours from New Orleans to Mississippi just to buy some sausage. We know there are people that want to support local farms, but need it to be as simple as possible.
I thought (the online farmers market) Good Eggs was such a good idea, especially for how user-friendly it was. We don't necessarily have the variety they had yet, but we're excited to team up with local farmers and be able to offer our subscribers more variety. We've now got a website where you can select your box and pick-up city. We have a few different packages and products so we think it's a great program. You'll get a reminder of where and when to pick it up. In New Orleans we've teamed up with Bourree, which is where you can pick up the boxes.
What are some of the challenges with the business?
B: One of the major differences for a farm and a business that is just retailing meat is that we are stuck with the whole carcass to deal with. So we have to sell four feet off of every hog, all the pork chops, and shoulders, and belly, the jowl, the cheek, the head – everything. We really have to put all of that to use.
When I moved here and started farming a few years ago I'd make the trip back to New Orleans to talk to chefs and try to figure out how I was going to make distribution work. Nathanial Zimet was willing to give me a try. He took a chance and he's been a really loyal customer ever since. He's also one of the only chefs that will really tackle butchering whole animals by himself, whether it's a quarter of a steer or a whole lamb or pig. There are a few others around town who are doing that and that's really helpful for us.
For (restaurants), it's more of a labor cost and finding a skilled person who can do that. It takes a lot of skill and it takes a lot of time. There are a couple of restaurants that are super dedicated to supporting local farms and they can make it work — but it is harder for them in the end. To find a use for every single part of the animal can be a challenge. We also deliver whole lambs to August and lambs and goats to Herbsaint and goats to Compere Lapin. Trust me when I say they have to be very dedicated to do this. it's really praiseworthy.