Our Hero: Erin Fairbanks of Heritage Foods USA

I recently received a phone call from my former Eat Well Guide intern, Stephanie Fischer, now with Heritage Foods USA in Brooklyn, NY. She was excited to tell me all about their month-long initiative, No Goat Left Behind. And once she got to talking, I was eager to hear more.

So Stephanie put me in touch with Erin Fairbanks, the project director, and former pig farmer and chef. Erin’s career has taken her into many fields in food and food policy – I spoke with her recently to get the scoop on No Goat Left behind, and to learn more about her story -- here’s what she had to say about where she came from, where she’s at and how she got there.

Tell me a little bit about yourself, what your position is and your background and your work with Heritage Foods USA.

Heritage Foods USA was started by Patrick Martins and Todd Wickstrom, who was at the time, a managing partner at Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is where I was working. At that point I had decided I was ready to leave there and move to New York. Todd and Patrick offered me a part-time gig at Heritage Foods USA in 2005.

My role at that point was trying to make sales calls around the country, to introduce the company and the products to chefs in the Bay Area, in the Southwest and down in the Georgia area as well. And I also helped Patrick do deliveries. And I would meet him every Wednesday morning and we would head down to the Navy Yards in Brooklyn and load our rented U-Haul up with pork and deliver it to restaurants across the city.

So I was really bad at sales, super shy; I didn’t really know how to kind of connect with chefs. It was really neat for me to kind of get this entrée into the back end of kitchens across the city. And I really wanted to cook.

And so Patrick basically got me my first job in a New York City kitchen and so I started working for Savoy, for Peter Hoffman at Savoy, and eventually kind of my work with Heritage tapered off. And then in the New Year, January 2006, they partnered with Pat LaFrieda to do a distribution and so we kind of parted ways as I pursued my cooking career.

But I stayed in touch throughout. And I went on and spent two years at Savoy, then two years at Gramercy Tavern, and then moved up to Washington County, New York and worked at Flying Pig’s Farm for a year, kind of learning the ins and outs of the pork business from the farming end. And then I also worked with them to launch a program called Farm Camp, at Flying Pigs Farm where we brought New York City-based professionals up for a two-day intensive kind of exploration of what it takes to have a sustainable agricultural community. And that was a big success.

And from there, I decided I wanted to transition into doing work on the policy and the community development level so I am currently a student at the New School in the Milano School of Urban Policy Analysis and Management. I reached out to Patrick this past spring because I needed to do an internship as part of the requirement for my program.

He took me on fulltime over the summer and I was able to work with them on some of the nuts and bolts of the business. The bulk of my work has been coordinating the No Goat Left Behind project.

What is the No Goat Left Behind project, and how does it match the mission of Heritage Foods and what was the impetus behind the project?

So Heritage Foods USA is a for-profit company, but it’s really run on a social mission, that the best way to really help family famers is to buy from them. And they have this long history of partnering with farms and small processing or distribution businesses to do that. So the project is essentially an extension of this mission.

You know, the company was started around a Turkey project, initially looking at older breeds of turkeys and Thanksgiving as this national holiday that was centered around this bird that’s essentially a genetic freak. And so they launched the turkey project and then they were working with pork and with beef and with Native American dry goods and the pork aspect of the business really took off, so that’s become the bread and butter for them. This past January, the team at Heritage Foods USA was thinking about what they wanted to pursue in 2011 and what other areas we could use the resources we've developed, as well as the relationships with these chefs and the trust of our mail order customers.

And Patrick’s fiancée, Anne Saxelby of Saxelby Cheese Mongers, has been kind of thinking about this connection between cheese and meat because on a dairy farm you need milk and to get milk you need to have babies. And goats generally have twins and triplets. And they are more or less 50 percent male and so there is really no role for the male on a dairy farm because you can’t milk them. And you really only need one or two animals to keep on as breeding stock. So a lot of these smaller scale creameries, they face the problem every year of, “what do we do with these male animals?” And it’s just too much; there aren’t many farmers who decide to keep all the offspring on. If you have a herd of 80 milking goats, you are going to be somewhere over 120 plus babies. And you are not looking to grow your herd by that many each year.

And so they are always faced with the question of “what happens to the males?” The cost of raising the animals and then selling them into this uncertain meat market is just not really financially viable for them. Some of the animals get sold onto the commodity market when they are a few weeks old, and go to live auction houses and then from there their fate can go in a variety of paths, none of which sit particularly well with these farmers who have obviously developed this very intimate relationship with their goats. On the other extreme, some farmers euthanize the animals at birth. So we thought let’s create an outlet for these animals by using our existing commitments, relationships and resources and selling goats like we sold pigs.

How did you get the restaurants and the farms to sign on? We know you've had an ongoing relationship with the restaurants at least.

Yes, we have an ongoing relationship with the restaurants, but the farms were another matter. We had never worked in goats, so I came on in May, which is kind of late in the game for a project like this because most farms are going to be kidding in March, April, into May and most farmers have a plan for what they are going to do at that point in time.

So we set a goal of selling 500 animals in October and I made a lot of cold calls to goat farmers around the Northeast to talk to them about the project, what Heritage Foods USA is, and try my best to convince them that they should take a chance with us.

Did farmers sign on right away? Did they have a lot of questions for you? What was the general response?

It was a really mixed bag. But it was a very organic process and I was learning as I was going. I was surprised; I definitely thought that we would be a little more inundated. But the people are like, yes, I want to sign on with you. But farmers –

They are busy!

Yeah. They are busy. Dairy farmers are also a little leery. And it’s a big deal to trust some “unknown company” to be there for you, four, five, six months down the line. So we went back and forth talking to a lot of different people and working to see who had animals that were going to be in that size range in October, because [spring] is a little early for goat farmers. Most of them are selling their animals towards the end of October and into November, even into December just because they can get a little more size on them. But Heritage Foods USA is inundated with turkey during the holiday season and chefs are less likely to take on any new product during those times.

There were also geographical components to the start of the project. We were working with a slaughterhouse in Eagle Bridge, New York called Eagle Bridge Custom Meats. So it was a matter of how far of a trip is it going to be for our farmers; is it something that will make sense for them financially? And then for us to coordinate with the slaughterhouse, which is one of the big challenges for small-scale meat producers of any type - access to a slaughter processing facility that’s within an hour or two hour drive.

There’s a real shortage in the Northeast of slaughterhouses that are able to accommodate smaller groups of animals. So we were working with time frame, access to slaughter and distribution. We partnered with a company called Regional Access here, in the Northeast, to bring the animals from the slaughterhouse down to Pat LaFrieda, who still does the distribution here in the city.

And I definitely say I learned way more about goats than I expected to know. And also, you know, this is a new project for us. So we don’t really know. We didn’t really know when we said 500. Would we be able to sell that many or what would the chef’s response be? And we have been really lucky. We have about 71 restaurants signed on to take anywhere from one to twelve animals [each] over the course of the four weeks.

Many of our chefs come to prefer a particular breed or a particular size, and so we obviously work to accommodate that. And so we wanted to kind of gather some of this data for goats, so that, looking into the projects for 2012, we would have a better idea of what worked really well or what farmers came through with a really great product that the chefs were digging, that we can go back to. Then we can go to the educators who we worked with and say, “Hey, this is what we're hearing from chefs. So if you want to develop this marketplace, if you want to use this model, this is what we've heard in order to build the general base of knowledge about goats.”

Is there any other educational component to the project? Do you plan on having some sort of information for restaurant patrons?

Yeah, that’s a great question and especially something we've thought a lot about. You want to figure out a way to turn people on, not turn them off, when a lot of the details around something are kind of unpleasant. So we've really kind of tried to be pretty straightforward about what some of the other outlets for these animals are.

Through our website we've put together bios on all the farmers and we've posted some of our videos and we also are working, obviously as we work to sell the animals and we're working to educate the chefs about the issues around goat. How they are being raised, how they kind of relate to the meat world, more generally. We'll be sending postcards we created to all of the restaurants who are participating that provides facts about goats and refers people back to the website to learn more.

We've also worked with three different chefs to put together goat butchering videos, to be a resource for home customers and chefs who haven’t worked with the animal before. And that has been really interesting, to see how different chefs approach the animal. Goat is the most widely consumed protein in the world. So there is a huge cultural history about different ways to approach the same animal. How you break it down really kind of informs how you cook it.

We feel that chefs are kind of the tastemakers, and they have a lot of ability to launch something out into the greater public consciousness. So we've focused on being a resource for them and then throughout the project each week we'll be emailing the chefs to let them know which farm they are getting their goat from, which breed it is, what the typical characteristics of that breed are.

What do you hope to achieve with the project, and how will you evaluate it?

Well, as far as evaluating the project as a success for us this year, I think if we get to the end of the month and all the details have gone smoothly and we've sold all the animals, I will feel good about that. If chefs and customers are really responsive to it and engage in asking questions and are curious about next year, that’s what we're hoping for. In the long-term, the goal of Heritage Foods USA is to focus on biodiversity and protect genetic stock -- we are working with a lot of different breeds this year.

Ideally we would like to see a premium on goats of particular breeds, breeds that are measured by the American Livestock Breed Conservancy as endangered, or at risk. That’s what we've done with pigs - trying to create this marketplace so that farmers will be incentivized to raise these animals because it will be worth it for them financially.

Dairy farmers are very careful about their genetics because they want to make sure that they are getting the attributes in the milk that they are looking for. In the long term, we would like to partner with a select handful of farms who are interested in exploring growing different breeds.

Responses to "Our Hero: Erin Fairbanks of Heritage Foods USA"

  1. triveni

    How can individual consumer buy goat meat? Is there an on-line store that we can place the order in?

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