Faces & Visions of the Food Movement: Jennifer Curtis



Jennifer Curtis is the principal of Curtis Consulting and Project Director for NC Choices, a Center for Environmental Farming Systems initiative. Since 1986, Jennifer has been working to improve the sustainability of food and farming systems. Jennifer is dedicated to facilitating change from the ground up—developing applied tools and programs to address agriculture’s economic and environmental challenges. Often an ambassador from the environmental to the farming community, she is skilled at building bridges and encouraging collaboration.

CE: What issues have you been focused on?

JC: Scaling the availability of pasture-raised livestock in local markets and supporting small-scale independent farmers.

And, I just finished the From Farm to Fork: Building North Carolina’s Sustainable Food Economy – a report of the Center for Environmental Farming System that reflects nearly two years of work across the state that identifies action ideas and focuses specifically on the food economy and our agricultural environment here. It supports the work of many across the state who are working to change policies and build a strong food and farming sector.

CE: What inspires you to do this work?

JC: I’ve always enjoyed work that allows me to help save our planet and, frankly, there is no better way to do that than focusing on food. But on a week-to-week basis, I’m inspired by the endless learning this work provides. Sometimes the learning is topical – like my recent focus on meat production, processing and marketing and sometimes it is process oriented – like how to be a better manager or run a better meeting or design a document.

And since everything connects back to food, I never tire of finding some way to change the world by looking at food systems.

CE: What’s your overall vision?

JC: I’d like to see this country (or, just for starters, more communities) adopt a culture around food and farming that is integrated with natural cycles (ecologically oriented) and appreciative of all the people who are involved in getting food from farm to fork: farmers, farmworkers, butchers, cooks….a culture that values good taste and nutrition and understands where their food comes from.

CE: Who’s in your community?

JC: I have a great community – both in terms of place and shared values. I have an immediate community at home in Carborro — a town full of people with whom I really connect with in terms of lifestyle. It’s a very bikeable and walkable place with a real entrepreneurial spirit and many small farms all around. We are developing a real vibrant food culture here that excites me. Just last week I signed up for a first ever seafood CSA that will deliver coastal seafood from independent NC fisherman weekly about a mile from my house. That kind of abundance makes me feel really fortunate.

And, in terms of doing food systems work, it doesn’t get better than the state of North Carolina where we have such a strong agricultural heritage combined with growth in new farmers and metropolitan communities clamoring for good, seasonal food. I really value the farmers I’ve been able to get to know these past few years and the opportunities I’ve had to dig deep into a few areas and try to strengthen systems here.

CE: What are your commitments?

JC: For most of my life, I’ve been really committed to healthy food — for myself and for my family. For me, being able to eat fresh, seasonal and healthy foods is so connected to my well-being. My commitment sprang from health issues I experienced as teen and my desire, starting as a child, to stay connected to the natural world. Working on food and farming issues gives me hope and sometimes feel deeply spiritual.

CE: What are your goals?

JC: Personally, I just want to keep learning. But if I get too enthusiastic about new projects and opportunities, I can get too preoccupied with my work and forget other priorities — like having time with my family, my garden, friends and community. So balance is always an issue.

Now, my short-term goal is to learn to run a food business that will support independent farmers raising animals more sustainably and help them connect with expanding local markets for pasture-raised meats. I’m focused on business development as an area of learning for me and for the movement. Coming out of 20 years of non-profit advocacy and academia, this is a new approach! I see it as complementary — to craft an approach to business that takes care of everyone in the supply chain but that is sustainable financially. Seems like a huge challenge to me but one that is critically important.

CE: What does change look like to you?

JC: For NC Choices, we’ve been developing a network of pasture-based livestock producers and helping them with processing and marketing issues. So success in that arenait looks like a small-scale farmer or rancher developing a good relationship with a new processor and finally having a wide range of value-added products to sell and thus improving his or her financial bottom line.

Sometimes success is more internal. I work with a lot institutions — academic and regulatory. In these settings, success looks different and it takes longer and requires more patience. But it can look like new partnerships and resources bringing new capacity that is dedicated to advancing agrecological issues from a research and extension perspective. It might feel slow and lumbering but its just as valuable as more quixotic kinds of change.

It’s astonishing to me, in the last few years, the way Jon Q Public is talking about food systems issues. It’s just catapulted us into another arena. I don’t know what actual change will come from it, but it’s evident that people are more aware of the importance of local food and farmers than they every have been before.

CE: Regarding the practicalities of enacting change, what planning is involved? What kind of outreach?

JC: It’s hard to choose since it feels like changing food systems requires that we do it all – research, community organizing, institutional change, business development, policy change, etc…I just try to focus on my skill sets and what I can contribute. I’m a big believer in partnerships and communication. A lot of what I do is about bringing people together, not necessarily to agree, but to figure out how to work together and build capacity.

Of course, resources, an articulate vision, a sense of where you’re going is a part of it. And this movement is pretty new and still like a sparkler on the 4th of July, a lot of excitement and a lot of directions, but huge change, like massive overhaul of the Farm Bill, hasn’t happened yet, because these big systems changes need a real concerted focus on communications strategy and mobilization of the masses.

This movement is still in the early dating phase. People are coming out of the woodwork to talk about how they share a part of the food movement. But big changes – structural and policy changes – have yet to occur. We’re still losing farmers at an alarming rate in North Carolina; they go out of business all the time. Yet there’s never been greater awareness of the local food system. So, some days, I’m not that optimistic.

I think this movement could benefit from a focused (and well resourced) communications campaign to help mobilize the masses in support of fundamental changes to farm and food policies.

Focus is key.

CE: What projects are affiliated with yours?

JC: I work as a consultant — these days, primarily for CEFS, which is a partnership of NC State University, NCA&T University and the NC Department of Agriculture. I direct NC Choices, which is a statewide network of pasture-based livestock producers. It receives funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and was started by Dr. Nancy Creamer, CEFS Director, to bring attention to alternative hog production techniques and build local market opportunities for farmers. We have close to 50 farmers profiled on our website along with some of the states small scale processing facilities. We’ve expanded beyond pork to include local beef and poultry producers since so many of the marketing and processing issues are relevant to all farmers raising animals.

On behalf of CEFS, I am also incubating a business — Farmhand Foods, LLC that will try to solve some of those pain points between connecting local farmers with wholesale markets in the Triangle area. We just got grant funding from the NC Rural Center and Tobacco Trust Fund, to support our business launch activities. We’re going to focus on building a network of producers and creating value-added meat products (think hot dogs!) for sale in retail and restaurant outlets. I’m fortunate to have hooked up with Tina Prevatte, a recent MBA grad from UNC who has immersed herself in the small scale meat processing sector and local food issues in recent months.

CE: What projects have you got your eye on or are you impressed by?

JC: I’m always looking for models of folks who are successfully tackling the bottleneck surrounding getting small scale farmers meat into larger markets (e.g., issues of ‘scale’). I’m on the Advisory Board of the Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network, a nationwide network of state affiliated meat processing specialists that help meat entrepreneurs with technical problems. I continue to learn a lot through this affiliation and believe they are filling a very important niche.

CE: Where do you see the state of agriculture/food policy in the next 5-10 years? Is real policy change a real possibility?

JC: Yeah, I do think it’s a real possibility. I’d feel more confident if we had greater organizational capacity than we currently have, at least in NC. We have the ideas, the enthusiasm, and a whole new rash of partnership across a diversity of issues — health, food access, environment, agriculture, planning, etc…But it’s going to take some time to develop the professionalism and capacity that is on par with, say, the environmental movement. I’m also excited by the change that is possible at the local level — the vision and energy that folks like county managers have, to move local food economies forward. There is a real grassroots element at work here that I believe has real potential.

CE: What would you want to be your last meal on earth?

JC: A spring picnic—goat cheese, fresh green garlic, those wonderful small white turnips (available in April at our markets!), red wine, pasta, black olives and anything pickled!

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