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Saturday, June 22, 2024

The middle women


 

Restaurants and grocery stores are eager to offer meats from local farms these days, but getting a steady supply into the coolers and on customers’ plates is easier said than done.

Individual farms often aren’t large enough to supply restaurants’ menus year-round. And chefs and grocers don’t have time to develop a larger network of farmers to meet their meat needs. 

Jennifer Curtis and Tina Prevatte Levy saw the problem and wanted to help. Curtis was working with farmers while managing NC Choices, a project of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems that assists pasture-based livestock producers. Levy was finishing her MBA at UNC Chapel Hill.

Armed with $150,000 in grant funding, they launched Firsthand Foods to connect farmers and meat processors with grocery stores, restaurants and institutional food service companies.

The company now works with more than 35 farms, four meat processors and 200 retailers and food service businesses.

During the pandemic – as many restaurants scaled back or shut down temporarily – Firsthand Foods created its own COVID relief program by raising money to donate meat from its partner farmers to food banks, helping keep the farms and meat processors afloat during a challenging time.

Comments are edited for length and clarity.

What got you interested in selling pasture-raised meats?

As co-founders, Tina and I were looking for ways we could use our passion and skills to support North Carolina’s family farmers, preserve our state’s natural beauty and rural communities, and use business as a tool for creating social and environmental good. In a world of commerce dominated by global supply chain arrangements, small-scale farmers are often denied access to market opportunities. We set out to change that by building a robust market for local, pasture-raised meats that consumers can trust were raised humanely in a spirit of fairness and stewardship.

How do you select the farmers and processors?

We select farmers based on a set of strict production protocols that requires them to raise their animals outdoors on pasture, humanely, without the use of antibiotics or added hormones using all vegetarian feed. We work with beef cattle, hog and sheep producers who farm in North Carolina. Our processors are selected based on their humane handling, their proximity to our farmers, and the quality of their butchery services.

What is your company doing to address rising food costs?

We strive to be a consistent and reliable purveyor and only increase our prices when it is necessary to fairly pay our farmers and processors. Rising fuel, feed and fertilizer costs are a real challenge in the food industry right now. More than 75% of our revenues are directed back to the farmers and processors in our network and thus recirculated into rural communities in North Carolina. We purchase whole animals from our network of 30-plus farmers and work diligently to utilize all pieces and parts to minimize waste and optimize profits. We partner for distribution with other values-aligned local businesses and thus maintain a lean team.

Have you faced challenges as a woman-owned business in the agriculture industry?

Yes. Probably the biggest challenge was building trust. It took us a long time — five years — to develop the network of livestock producers that we enjoy today. Whether that was entirely due to the fact that we were women is unlikely. We also had no track record as business owners and neither of us came from a farming background. So, skepticism was a natural response. But building trust takes a little longer when you’re not the gender most folks expect to see walking in the door or, in our case, walking across a pasture. We will always be indebted to the farmers and others who believed in us from the get-go.

Sexism doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it can be frustrating. There are many examples where men assume that we are “front of the house” administrators rather than actual owners and decision-makers. 

But being women-owned has also afforded us many advantages. We share a strong orientation toward collaboration. It’s a core value within our business that allows us to focus on our strengths and partner for the rest. Another advantage of being women-owned is that we value flexibility and have established business development goals and weekly rhythms that enable us and our team to have lives outside of work. We also are helping to pave the way for other female entrepreneurs, especially those helping to transform the male-dominated meat industry. 

What are your expansion plans?

Within the year, we plan to expand our office, dry storage and, most significantly, our cold storage space (freezer and walk-in cooler). We’ve secured loan funding and space at our current location, but can’t get started on the build-out for another six months. We’re excited as this will allow us to expand our distribution footprint and potentially build out a direct-to-consumer line.

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