MM Local is a start up based in Boulder, Colorado that partners with local growers to pick produce at the height of ripeness, and preserve seasonal and delicious local flavors using the most natural and traditional methods of putting food by. MM Local products are simply-preserved and traceable back to the farmer for great local food all year round.
TL: How did you get started in the jarring/canning of local food business? (In other words what was your career path)
BM: Well, I took the circuitous route – that much is certain. I guess I had two main things going for me: I really love to eat great food (and, hence, cook it, buy it and grow it) and I ended up with a career path in branding and marketing. The food aspect has meant I’ve always been on the hunt for good eats and that inevitably took me locally as the informed food business has moved in that direction (I won’t even pretend I was ahead of the trend on that one). The business (and hence canning/jarring) aspect came from my observation that there has to be a better way to make more local food available to more people. I’m not smart enough to farm, so I took up canning – going back to the roots a bit to make more local produce available year round.
What is your overall vision for what is next for MM local?
Our goal is to make local produce available to more people, year round so that eating local is a more viable option for American families. We think that focusing on making local food more accessible will inspire stronger community connections, create economic growth for local community businesses and ultimately lead us in the direction of a healthier and more sustainable food system.
TL: Can you describe your food tracking numeric system and what inspired it?
BM: The numeric food tracking system is all about connection to farmers and accountability in the food system. I think one of the most inspiring things about eating locally is the bond you form with the farmers who grow food in your community. Knowing the people behind the food you eat makes the act of buying and consuming food a community-building action. It also inspires trust in what you’re eating. At a macro level, those are two of more important reasons for eating locally. We need to reinvest in the idea of strong local communities in order to improve our country. And we need to reintroduce accountability to the food system – I believe it’s the only way we can confront the systemic environmental, health and quality problems that our food system is facing.
TL: You mentioned environmental problems. What environmental or sustainability issues come up in the manufacturing of MM local products?
BM: We make a lot of choices when we make our products from the produce we source to the facilities we use. Sourcing organic – and working closely with farmers to know their practices first hand is probably the most important decision we make. As we improve our process, we can look for ways to save water and reduce our electricity use in the actual processing of jars – a current source of impact. And, from a transportation standpoint, we reduce transport miles as much as we can. While we do run into the “small producer” mileage challenge that some economists and pundits use to criticize local food, we try to make up for them through choice-ful decision making. That said, as we grow, there is an undoubtedly a lot more accountability and results-driven analysis we can do. Hopefully in the next few years we can institutionalize more accurate systems to measure our impact.
TL: Do you have any self-imposed restrictions on how far from the merchant who sells MM local products is from the original source/farm? If you do how did you come up with the metric/formula?
BM: I think defining local is one of most fickle issues that surrounds going into the local market. We debated this a lot, and sought extensive input from consumers – after much discussion, we agreed that, ultimately, our consumer will define local better than we can. We sought out products and farmers that are within the self-defined “Front Range Colorado Food community.” That meant starting immediately local – with farmers that are literally minutes from where most people will buy the product. We source everything as close as we can to it’s end market, which means finding the highest quality producers nearest our markets.
Out here, people connect strongly to the fruit growers from the Western Slope (Grand Junction/Hotchkiss area) and Southern Colorado (melons, etc.). It was important to us that our products incorporated the fruits and vegetables that consumers connect deeply to their community in both historical and contemporary terms. If consumers can find the specific farm where each jar started, they can make the decision for themselves about how local we are. We’d rather build a local food company based on each area’s concept of community rather than an arbitrary number.
Eventually we decided that, for the Colorado consumer, a five hour driving limit puts a pretty good limit on what we are willing to consider local, so as our own little internal-rule we won’t source from a farm that’s more than a five-hour drive from Denver and the Front Range. But we don’t talk about that much. We try to talk about farmers more than numbers.
TL: How do farmers react to your business model/concept?
BM: The farmers we choose to work for are excited about the concept – that’s one of the pre-requisites we have for working together. The farmers with whom we’ve developed the strongest relationships are 100% on board – we provide a great sales outlet for them when they have too much produce to sell, which serves as a buffer for their financial risk. And because our customers know who grew every piece of fruit or produce, the farmers we work with need to have a lot of pride in their product – our best partners end up getting more business at their farmer’s markets and through their CSAs because our customers are so excited to support them.
TL: Do you have any jarring/canning disaster stories?
BM: Fortunately, not really. There are definitely things that go wrong, but we’ve been pretty careful to avoid any full blown disasters so far. I will say that coming up with our recipes involved a lot of trial and error – and left me with somewhere around 300 random test jars to eat my way through this winter. Every once in a while you open one, serve up some pickled carrots or creamed corn or whatever that I was experimenting with and the result is pretty gross. There is a lot of: “wow – I’m glad we didn’t use that recipe.”
And although disaster was averted, the first time we picked up big produce shipments, we were pretty terrified. Once you go from the test batch to 800 pounds of peaches or tomatoes, all of which are extremely ripe, it’s hard not to freak out a little. I remember unloading the pickup after we picked up the first batch of tomatoes. Jim and I had been doing 3-4 20 lbs boxes at a time. And the boxes just kept coming out of the truck – something like 50 boxes all told. Once they were all unloaded we just sat there, looking at the pile for a long time. We finally started putting the boxes into smaller piles, which also didn’t help and then eventually just spent literally 55 of the next 70 hours in the kitchen getting those guys into jars. For some reason it didn’t end up a disaster, but i’m pretty sure that the odds were stacked pretty highly against a successful outcome on that one.
TL: Advice for amateur canners?
BM: Start small, and experiment! It’s DEFINITELY worth reading a canning book before you get started – Eugenia Bone’s “Well-Preserved” is a particularly notable one – because you really need to get the timing and acid-levels right for different products. But once you have a guide, it’s a lot of fun. Coerce your friends and family into joining you too. Canning is way more fun with other people, and if you’re one your own you can spend a whole lot of time coring tomatoes or peeling beets.
And DON’T SKIMP ON PRODUCE. Canned food is only as good as the raw ingredients. Talk to your favorite farmer and get the ripest stuff they have before it starts to go bad – which they will usually be excited to get off their hands. And then can that stuff right away.
I’d also say that re-pickling is a seriously underutilized endeavor. When you finish a jar of your favorite pickles, you’ve got the base of another dish left in the jarful of brine. If you’ve got hardboiled eggs, carrots, radishes, peppers (you name it) sitting around that you want to make something with, toss them in the brine, refrigerate for a week or so and you’ll have a whole new pickled treat ready to go. I pickle eggs in the hot brine left over from our peppers and they are awesome.
TL: Will we ever see local Spaghetti O’s?
BM: From us? (Expletive) no. Whether or not your food is local or organic, or whatever, it first and foremost should be good for you. From our perspective, the highly-processed, heavily-additived food that’s on a lot of grocery shelves is anathema to entire concept of real – and especially local – food. The food we make will always be as close to what you pick off a tree or pull out of the ground as we can make it.
That said, I think the one thing we can all learn from the organics industry is that you can make just about anything, abide by some minimum requirements, and call it organic. Regardless of how far removed your end product is from the principles of the organic food movement. That risk exists even more so with local, since as of now there is no regulation about what constitutes a local food products. Last year Lays Potato Chips starting advertising their product as “local.” Hmmmm. Local? Really?
Ultimately, I think local matters only so much as we pay attention to the principles that give meaning to local food: who grew what you are eating? Can you connect it directly to your community? What’s in it? Is what you are eating recognizable as something that grows? Or is it a Spaghetti-O? If it’s a Spaghetti-O, who cares if it’s local? It’s a Spaghetti-O.