From breakfast cereal to smoked salmon, the outdoor gear retailer is on a quest to redesign the global food production system.
In 2012, outdoor apparel giant Patagonia entered the food business. It launched an offshoot company called Patagonia Provisions that sells a range of healthy, ethically sourced, and shelf-stable products, including wild salmon, bison jerky, ancient cereal grains, soups, chilis, snack bars and more.
The company sent me a box of products to sample a year ago, and while all the items were delicious, I couldn't quite figure out what Patagonia was trying to do with this seemingly incongruous side-business. So, I was interested to listen to Food Republic's most recent podcast -- 10 questions with Birgit Cameron, senior director of Patagonia Provisions.Cameron explained that the goal of Patagonia's founder Yvon Chouinard is for Provisions to be someday as big as the apparel side of the company. Chouinard, who loves to cook and eat good food, believes strongly in the need to rethink our global food production methods, in an effort to stave off climate change.
Food agriculture isn't as big a stretch from apparel as one might think. Cameron pointed out that the company works closely with organic cotton and hemp growers to produce fabric, and since food production is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, this felt like a natural progression.
Patagonia Provisions relies on a team of experts -- scientists, non-governmental organizations, universities, chefs, experimental labs -- to determine which products are optimal for shaping a better food future. Cameron explained that everything they do has "full-on substantiation," backed by studies and advisory councils.
For example, the first product introduced in 2013 was wild salmon (a personal favorite of Chouinard's), so Patagonia Provisions brought in all the experts on wild salmon to analyze the best way of supporting the fish populations, aid their growth, and educate consumers about why eating sustainably managed wild salmon populations is better than farmed Atlantic salmon, which are prone to escapes, sea lice infections, and suffer in extremely cramped conditions.
The development of ancient grains, such as buckwheat and kernza, is an effort to treat the soil more kindly. These can be grown as cover crops that replenish the soil, rather than deplete it in the ways conventional agriculture does. Kernza is a perennial grain that produces for five years, reducing the need to till the soil and with a 10-foot root system that retains water. Finding uses for these grains, whether in breakfast cereals or in the award-winning pale ale that Provisions has developed with Hopworks Brewery (listed here as one of National Geographic's foods of the future), will encourage farmers to plant them and move away from less resilient mono-crops.
Cameron emphasized the deliciousness of the products, and after trying most of them myself, I can attest to this. The salmon, for example, is smoked, but instead of being canned, it's packaged to remain in a whole juicy fillet that can be easily eaten on top of a grain, with vegetables, or on crackers as an hors-d'oeuvre. The environmental focus is a huge part of it, said Cameron, but so is taste: "You've got to love it, or you won't come back to it." Hence the involvement of high-level chefs both in creating the products and guiding diners on how to use them.
At this point, I think the biggest obstacle to Provisions' growth is its price point. The breakfast cereals and soup mixes are US$6.50 per two-serving pouch; compare that to a bag of oatmeal for $2.50 that lasts weeks, and it's not terribly realistic.Perhaps as production of buckwheat ramps up, the cost will come down. The salmon and jerky, on the other hand, are priced more accessibly, at $35 for six 4-oz. pouches. After all, we should be paying far more for meat, if we choose to eat it.
I must also mention my reluctance to endorse individually-packaged foods. At a time when we need to be moving away from excess packaging, it's problematic to be selling foods in bags that are designed to be thrown out after use, particularly if they're being developed with environmental sustainability in mind. If Provisions' sole market was the backpacker/camper/traveller, then this might make more sense, but Cameron's interview made it sound as if Provisions hopes to get into people's kitchens and daily lives. In that case, compostable packaging in larger bulk quantities would be a welcome development.
Note: A representative reached out after reading this article and said that Provisions is currently exploring compostable options, and plans to transition "as soon as they find a suitable structure that meets their packaging specifications."
Nevertheless, it's great to see a company challenging the current models of food production and trying its best to figure out how to feed humans with minimal impact on the planet. We need more of this.
Learn more about Patagonia Provisions' work in its 2015 documentary, "Unbroken Ground", reviewed here.