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Earlier this month, Presidio’s Sustainable Food Group hosted a robust panel discussion exploring how direct relationships between CPG (consumer packaged goods) companies and farmers can serve to bolster resilience, innovation, and climate action. It was a dynamic, informative discussion that could have lasted well beyond our hour-long panel! We invite you to revisit some of the key topics from our event below and explore additional commentary from our guest speakers responding to the unanswered questions from our panel. Before you go, be sure to sign up for the Presidian Newsletter to stay in touch on upcoming events. 

The Sustainable Food Group is an extracurricular student club at Presidio that has existed in various forms across many generations of Presidio cohorts. After a pandemic-induced hiatus, the club has been revived by a core of enthusiastic students. One of these students, Corinne Gentile (C34), explains that the club “aims to create a space for discussing sustainable food topics and building connections within and beyond the Presidio food community.” The club meets bi-weekly to discuss topical articles and organize enrichment events, including cross-school mixers, field trips, and panel discussions like the one held this November.

The recent panel discussion featured four guest speakers from food and beverage brands that have developed direct contracts and relationships with farmers in their supply chain. This strategy is particularly unique in an industry where supply chains are often opaque, making it difficult for CPG companies to trace a given ingredient in their product line back to the field or farm where it was grown.

Our featured panelists joined us from:

  • Simple Mills | Emily Lafferty, Senior Manager of Strategic Sourcing & Sustainability
  • Straus Family Creamery | Beatrix Scolari, Sustainability Programs Specialist
  • Numi Organic Tea | Jane Franch, VP Strategic Sourcing & Sustainability
  • Quinn Snacks | Grace Dennis, Sustainability & Sourcing Associate

Each speaker shared how they’ve established direct rapport with some of their producers, and how these agreements have been mutually beneficial by fostering farmer welfare while also pursuing advanced climate action and creative innovations. There was great diversity among these four companies, as they represent supply chains that are both domestic and international, plant-based and animal-based. Some of the companies have direct purchasing contracts with farms, while others purchase through a co-manufacturer but have fostered close relationships with the farmers in that supply chain.

Not surprisingly, one hour of rich discussion went by fast, and we ran out of time before we had the opportunity to engage with all of our attendee’s thoughtful questions. Luckily, our panelists graciously agreed to continue the conversation offline, responding to a few outstanding inquiries from attendees:

How do you balance prioritizing farmer-led decision-making with pushing forth climate-smart agriculture (that might require a different way of doing things or changes in their practices, like regenerative ag)?

Grace, Quinn Snacks: At Quinn, we try to be as farmer-led as possible when working with growers on regenerative transition projects. Taking the risk to change your growing practices is a big ask, so we try to partner with growers who are already open to the idea of more sustainable practices, but just need a little extra support or a guaranteed end market. We see our main role as supporting growers in a farmer-led transition rather than trying to prescribe any sort of specific practices.

Jane, Numi Organic Tea: Really, any meaningful change must be farmer-led. I don’t really see a way around it. Choosing sourcing partners is key here, and building strong relationships with mutual trust and respect. Generally, by self-selecting sourcing relationships to prioritize allied values, the balance is a natural one and it’s a partnership, rather than a push and pull.

Emily, Simple Mills: Without farmer buy-in and championing of climate-smart ag, this work will not move forward in the long-term and at scale. We have to balance a systems-level approach, what we fundamentally recognize as adoptable principles that advance outcomes in soil health, biodiversity, etc., with meeting farmers where they are on their journey—economically and socially.  It starts with understanding producers’ goals on their operation (e.g. healthier financial bottom line or reducing tillage) and then co-creating incremental changes & adoption to serve their goals and ecological outcomes.

How does your company look to ensure equitable pay and safe working conditions for farmworkers – whether migrant, seasonal, or full-time? Do you pursue external certifications and/or support or have your own internal measures in place?

Grace, Quinn Snacks: Understanding working conditions on a farm is very difficult without a third-party audit or certification. To manage our labor risk as best we can without these audits we prioritize sourcing from countries known to be a lower risk for forced labor and try to gain as much transparency to the farm as possible. We prioritize working with suppliers who have direct connections to growers and will allow us to visit the farm ourselves if in the US. We also tend to use ingredients that generally don’t require too much labor. Grains like sorghum, rice, and corn are planted and harvested by machinery and are often managed by one or two farmers. While this approach definitely helps us limit our labor risk, full transparency into pay and working conditions continues to be a challenge for smaller brands like us.

Jane, Numi Organic Tea: Given that our supply network is almost entirely in the global south, this is a high priority for us. By building our company on equitable, direct trading partnerships, we have been able to work with select partners from the beginning who share our beliefs that fair working conditions and fair wages are essential to product quality and integrity. For the 7 producer groups that supply, ~60% of our purchase volume, bi-annual or annual visits to the farm help us strengthen partnerships and gain visibility into practices on the ground. While we have a code of conduct that we require all 1st and 2nd tier suppliers to sign, we also rely on 3rd parties such as FLO-Cert / Fair Trade International, FTUSA, and Numi’s own Fair Labor & Community Benefits verification program.

Are there other needs beyond pre-finance that you’re finding could be helpful to supplying farms?

Jane, Numi Organic Tea: Sharing real-time forecasting information, and having regular check-ins, especially during our current volatile market conditions. Helping to connect farmers with resources, whether technical resources, peer-to-peer learning, or tools/information to expand market access.

Emily, Simple Mills: Technical assistance partners (TAP)! Along with capital, mentorship/networking/consulting opportunities via more seasoned producers and 3rd party TAPs are needed for increased adoption.

The Sustainable Food Group at Presidio wants to extend an abundant “thank you” to our four incredible panelists who are leading the way in socially and environmentally responsible sourcing. We greatly appreciate you joining the Presidio community to share your experience, expertise, and insights on this critical topic! 


About the Author / Jane Kuhn

Jane Kuhn (MBA Candidate, C32) spent 10 years as an Organic produce farmer, with permanently dirty fingernails and grease stains on every pair of overalls. Her B.S. in Sociology and Advanced Certificate in Ecological Horticulture have shaped her strong focus on soil health and small business vitality. After starting her MBA, she began working with Stonyfield Organic on advancing their sustainable agriculture strategy for reducing GHG emissions. Jane is passionate about leveraging food & ag businesses as catalysts for the advancement of an ecologically sound and socially just food system.

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