From the Drive-Through to the Pasture, Millennials Are Changing the Way We Eat

Reform-minded young farmers and opinionated consumers could upend the food industry.

Leanna Mulvihill. (Photo: Ethan Harrison)

Mar 6, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Come cherry blossom season, 30 lambs and 24 pigs will arrive at Four Legs Farm Farm in New Paltz, New York, beginning the first year of business for 25-year-old Leanna Mulvihill at an incubator farm where, for the next three years, she will live and raise her animals on land at a below-market rate while she gets her business off the ground. The sheep will be on pasture, the heritage-breed pigs fed non-GMO grain and allowed to root around the property for other food. Mulvihill says she even gives the hogs pep talks every day, telling them how pretty they look. Any day now, she’ll find out if she’s been approved for a $10,000 microloan from the USDA, which will cover the purchase of her animals and some of the first feed bill.

“I was excited about changing the way our food systems work, and I loved working with my hands and working with the community and raising environmental awareness that way, and just putting all those things together,” she said of the work’s appeal. “I should just be farming; this needs to be happening.”

(Photo: Ethan Harrison)

Silicon Valley tech companies may be rolling in angel-investor capital these days, but young people interested in something more tangible than apps—like, say, livestock—are poised to enter businesses dying for new blood at a highly opportune time. The farm start-up market is flooded with federally subsidized loans and even some straight-up free cash, making 2015 possibly the best time ever, financially speaking, to be a young farmer. And the moment of opportunity comes at a time when food companies are scrabling to market (and potentially reformulate) their products to the coveted millennial market. Between what’s going on in the fields and in the supermarkets, the new generation could change the food system as we know it.

Since the Farm Service Agency’s inception of its microloan program in January 2013, 70 percent of the $161 million in loan dollars has gone to beginning farmers. And there’s free money, too: The USDA announced in February $18 million in grants to university and nonprofit agricultural development programs, such as the incubator program Mulvihill calls home, that provide education, mentoring, and technical assistance to new and early-career American farmers and ranchers. Young farmers are revolutionizing our food system from the bottom of the chain, but change is also happening from the top down, driven in part by millennial demand for healthier products and ethical eating. Studies from the Center for Culinary Development show a generational concern for knowing exactly what’s in their food, where it’s from, and how it’s produced. Established food brands are having to radically alter their image and offerings in order to keep pace, while demand for humanely sourced food is affecting the supply chain—all the way back down to the bottom of the chain again.

Take the great Chipotle pork shortage that began 2015 with a reign of terror for carnitas fans across the country. The chain pulled pork from more than 500 of its restaurants when one of its suppliers was in breach of the company’s standards for ethical animal treatment.

“That’s a great illustrative example for the consumer that says, ‘Hey, we care enough about this that we’re going to lose money and not give you the opportunity to have this, because it’s not the right way,’ ” said Jake O. Francis, 35, proprietor and owner of Valley Piggery in California’s Santa Ynez Valley, which raises heritage breed pork.

“Some people like to denigrate Chipotle or Whole Foods, but you know what? We’re shifting the paradigm. The center is no longer where the center was 10 years ago,” Francis said. “What I do is a very, very small thing in comparison to Chipotle, but we’re all on the right side of the equation of the spectrum, and the center of that spectrum is moving. It’s moving incrementally, but it’s not going to go back.”

It’s millennial-driven movement causing product reinvention from some of America’s stalwart brands. “We are well aware of the consumer distrust of big food,” Campbell Soup CEO Denise Morrison said after the company reported lower sales and profits in its second fiscal quarter, causing it to lower its projected sales and profit growth for the full year. Campbell is scrambling as consumers eschew processed and packaged foods. This year, it debuted a line of six organic soups, and under its Bolthouse brand released a line of shelf-stable cold-pressed juices. The distance from condensed cream of mushroom soup to coconut water and coriander is a long way to travel.

But if farmers Mulvihill and Francis are any indication, it’s what producers and consumers increasingly require. While some boots-on-the-ground change is driven by young farmers, consumer demand for better products spans generational divides.

“What millennials say they want tends to appeal to a lot of different people,” said Lindsey Pollak, a millennial expert. “It just sort of never occurred to them.”

This has been Mulvihill’s experience interacting with customers and CSA members for the last several years on various farms. “Their enthusiasm is really exciting and really makes it feel possible that people value the food that we’re producing,” she said. She told the story of a woman in the community who wrote a check for $100 after hearing about Mulvihill’s burgeoning farm business on the radio.

“I called her up and was thanking her and was trying to say as well, ‘What meat would you like?’ And she was like, ‘No, that’s for you.’ And she wouldn’t take product from me. I was like, ‘I want to give you meat.’ And she was like, ‘No, I just think what you’re doing is important.’ ”

It was a vote of validation for Mulvihill that she’s on the right track, and she has backup plans already in place to move forward with her business whether or not the USDA microloan comes through. Her animals haven’t showed up and she’s already sold a number of shares through her partnership with three vegetable CSAs.

“Farming for me is something I really value—being able to provide food that I believe in to my community. I feel like I’m doing my best to contribute by farming.”

Related Video