Farmer’s Market Diaries: Chicken Doritos Edition

I never actually realized that there were so many ways to pronounce vegan until I set up a stall at the Tift Part Community Market in Albany, Georgia. There’s ‘veggan’, ‘ve-gahn’, and my personal favourite, ‘vejjan’. They tell you in all the entrepreneur books to choose the right market for your product - and I’m not sure rural-ish south Georgia was the right place to sell vegan jerky. 

Next to me is Kat, who sells homemade jam. Next to her is Martha who sells plants and various crocheted things.  Kerbie with a tie-dye shirt who sells beautiful homemade pottery is set up on the corner .The music for the day is Cal Altman Jr who pulled in at 730 am in a pickup with a confederate flag on his license plate and a head full of country covers. 

I’ve been reading Do The KIND Thing by Daniel Lubetzky (he of Kind Bar fame) and he says that getting people to sample your product in front of you is the best way to get feedback. Every waggle of the eyebrow, grimace or smile is a clue. I’ve only been to the market twice so far but you can’t trust all the feedback you get - you have to classify the customer before you iterate your product based on their facial tics. 

The Glarer

The farmer’s market equivalent of a drive by shooter. A glance at the little chalkboard sign that says ‘vegan snacks!’ and an angry narrowing of the eyes. The Glarer will not stop or look in your general direction as they shake their head when you offer them a sample. 

The Polite Refuser

The Polite Refuser will sample the product but will claim their partner who has all the cash is off on a jaunt on the other end of the market and they’ll just circle back when they find them again, ok? This is the South and politeness is part of the social DNA. I know I will never see them again, and if I do, eye contact will not be made. 

The Adventurous Sampler

The second best kind of person. They’ll swerve from their trajectory upon seeing the words “free samples!”. They try one of everything. There will be thoughtful chews and a sommelier-ish attempt to place the flavors. “It has the texture of chicken but what is that? Cumin? Have you been to the Peacock Indian Grill here - I love Indian Food!” (one of my products is flavored like a tikka masala). Sometimes there’s honest feedback - about the texture being weird or how it needs to have more of a chili kick to it. I don’t care if they hate it because they’re telling me why. 

The Vegan

The Vegan makes a beeline straight for the stall and they buy product to support the culture (there’s not much that’s vegan around here). They’re my people and I won’t say a bad word about them.

Kids

The *absolute* best. They love trying samples and there’s something about being young where the filter between your face and your emotions just doesn’t work. They have no expectations around the word vegan. Every chew yields a different facial expression. “It’s like chicken but it’s not!”. A frown after chewing followed by “This is decent actually”. “I wish it was drier”. And perhaps the future marketing slogan - “hmmm they’re like chicken doritos”. My happiest moment was when a group of kids had their mom buy a packet and split it between them in front of me. 

One of the rules of Tift market is that vendors have to stay until 2pm. There’s a lot of waiting in the heat and plenty of borrowing bug spray from Kat next to me. It’s boring sometimes, but when people buy something I create - or even if they say they like it - that’s worth it. It’s why I wanted to start a food business in the first place. 

Bites (or what I’m reading this week):

pea protein

all aboard the (hy)pea train, baby.

With plant based anythings being a trend in the food industry and with protein being the macronutrient du jour, it's not a surprise that food manufacturers are finding way to fortify anything they can get their hands on with protein (..initially I was going to suggest protein packed toothpaste as a joke, but as it turns out..).

Whey and soy protein have been, and still are, the largest markets for vegetarian protein. However a movement towards vegan foods (eliminating whey) and general consumer fears of soy, we see an unexpected winner in the plant protein space: peas. Specifically the yellow split pea.

I've had the same case of pea protein powder with me for about 3 years now. It's moved with me through three apartments and two states. Raw and unsweetened, it tastes like dust -- blended with a banana and some soy milk, it tastes (and looks) like mud. It takes some strange alchemy to produce something reasonably edible using just pea protein, but, to paraphrase Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, food tech companies, uh, find a way.

Peak pea hype was in 2013, presumably when Beyond Meat first released its chicken substitute. It's been popular since - Ripple Foods uses it in its alt-milk offering. Lightlife foods uses pea protein in its plant based burgers.

But wherefore do the peas come from? According to the American Pulse Association's intro to peas, in the USA, most of the farms that produce peas "reside in a regional belt north of 45°N latitude that runs from North Dakota, through Montana and Idaho, and into Oregon and eastern Washington." And per Bloomberg, Canada is expected to become the largest supplier of peas by 2020. In the USA, the largest supplier of pea protein isolate (and pea adjacent products) is PURIS, a Minnesota based company.

The pea protein market is still relatively small, expected to reach $32m by 2025 (compare this to the soy protein market, expected to reach $7,794m in similar time frame).

But protein is protein - who cares if it comes from peas? Any of these companies, if they're looking to expand globally, can (and thanks to capitalism, probably will) go with whatever protein most easily fits in with their supply chain and consumer sentiment. Consumers outside of the USA - especially in Asian markets - don't make a sign of the cross at every block of tofu. Why support pea protein? Why encourage companies to build on this supply chain?

Plant based foods being a net positive for the planet aside, any challenge to one of the most subsidized crops in America (soy!) is fantastic news, even if the disruption is decades out. American farm subsidies encourage farms to grow the same crops over and over again on the same patch of soil (corn! soy!). Farmers live in the same market driven world we do, explains Tamar Haspel in WaPo - the whole food supply chain is built to prop up soy. Changing farm subsidies is one way to get them to diversify. Consumer demand is the other. If - even if its just in the USA for now - consumer sentiment shifts towards a plant based diet, it would make sense for farmers to grow peas as well - especially considering soy is grown *a lot* in the places where peas thrive.

In summary: support the land with your mouth. Go visit your local split pea dealer today.

Bites:

* Why farm subsidies don't make sense, a video by the American Enterprise Institute: [link].

* Farm subsidies explained!: [link]

* Being new to this, a business model I'd never considered: Sell pea seeds to farmers, then buy the peas back to process: [link].

* A short interview with the Tyler Lorenzen, the president of PURIS: [link]

* A great article about how the way we live affects the food we eat - and how food revolutions affect the poor more than the rich: [link].

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