Blog: Jeff McCabe

Jeff McCabe grew up in Seattle with raspberry patches, rose gardens, wild mushrooms, rhododendrons and his father’s foot-deep garden beds of heavily composted soil. Jeff came to Ann Arbor to earn a master’s degree in electrical engineering. He has been working primarily as a residential remodeling contractor for Duco Home Service over the last 20 years.

After losing a long-held garden in the Zion Church - Project Grow site to new development, Jeff has launched into a new wave of farming, hoop-house building, meat curing, chicken raising, bread baking, fund raising and general rabble rousing around all issues related to food sourcing, community building and regional stability.

In 2007 Jeff, and his wife Lisa Gottlieb, created Repasts, Present & Future, to support local non-profits working in food production, security and education. With dozens of volunteers, they launched FridayMornings@SELMA, a weekly local food salon. In its first year, the event served over 4000 meals and raised $50k to expand small scale farming. Jeff is a member of the board of directors of People’s Food Coop in Ann Arbor and sits on the steering committees of the HomeGrown Festival and the Local Food Summit aned is involved with 10 Percent Washtenaw.

Jeff seeks nothing short of the transformation of our region into a world-class food tourism destination, with limitless benefits for the denizens of this fertile landscape. Oh, and having a lot of fun in the process.

Photo by Dave Lewinski
Jeff McCabe - Most Recent Posts:

Jeff McCabe - Post 3: Investing In Our Farms

How do banks start? We have about 8400 of them in the United States alone, and most started because there was a perceived need that was not being met by existing financial options. Some have been tied to region and others to specific niche markets. Yet lately, much of banking is associated with consolidation, impersonal bureaucracy, failure, and undeserved bailout.

Even banks that specialize in farming appear to have a very narrow focus on large farms that rely on government subsidies to grow surplus commodity crops like corn and soy. Mention small parcels, organic methods or even vegetables and you are likely to leave empty handed.

Consequently we have a unique need that is not currently being addressed, at least not at the level needed to transform our food system. We have the potential to produce fresh, healthy crops from underutilized farm land close to our cities while creating thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity which currently gets sent outside our region.

A token amount of funding has begun to enter our area from the USDA for conservancy and season extension associated with small scale farming projects. While eliminating subsidies to surplus commodity crops would likely do more to help small farmers than this direct aid, while saving taxpayer money and slimming our waistlines, nobody seems to be able to say no these days to entrenched lobbies. Instead they throw a few more dollars to try to address the consequences of flawed policies with drastic unintended consequences.

But these grants are only available to farms with a tack record of production and sales. There are hundreds of individuals, many recent graduates of organic farming programs, who would like to be starting farms in our area and have limited access to the capital required to get a foothold. Our traditional institutions, many of which are chartered to support local business and foster job and economic growth have not stepped up in any measurable ways to meet this need.

SPARK, our region’s business incubator and start-up lender, is not interested in any projects that involve "lifestyle companies" according to executive Skip Simms. This category is much broader than just the new small-scale farms that we will build, and includes restaurants, stores and your barbershop. These businesses do not represent a significant enough job creation potential evidently to deserve even passing interest. SPARK seems to be hoping to find the next google on it’s way up. Yet nothing in their model anticipates ways to keep these companies located in Washtenaw County.

Though we all hope that SPARK and other seed money organizations will be wildly successful in bringing us jobs that stay in the community, I have yet to find any public self-reporting showing the effectiveness of this investment of our money. Many of these start-ups will fail and default on loans while others will take their fledgling successes and beat up some other regional development administration for better tax breaks and other incentives to re-locate. This model is highly subject to a "race to the bottom" as each region grovels for highly mobile and elusive jobs.

Pfizer is one truly painful example of what happens when a community invests its future with companies that have little or no regional ties. The recent MEDC scandal is another example of the corruption and inefficiency that can occur when these development deals are not grounded in local relationships.

In comparison, farmers and other small scale food producers are literally tied to the fabric of the community. These projects will be collateralized with real property and will provide products that sustain us directly.

A small scale micro-credit program has emerged from the proceed of the FridayMornings@SELMA community breakfasts. Because the event location is donated and the entire workforce is volunteer, about 2/3 of the donations are available to lend. New farming infrastructure has been prioritized and hoop-houses have been identified as a key element in growing food year-round. The first round of loans in 2009 created 4000 sf of new four-season production capable of producing about $1000 worth of food per month. This event alone will fund the construction of 4 to 6 houses each year. The application process is currently open for May build dates. Dollar for dollar matching of breakfast proceeds, invested from community members at low interest rates will be the next multiplier of the impact this program has generated.

But it will take more hoops, and more than just hoops, to manifest the job creation and other benefits of new agriculture in our community. Whether we establish partnerships with existing lending institutions who hear the call for this important financial investment, or we build our own from our current modest efforts, tens of millions of dollars of investment will be ultimately be made to reach our 10% goals for local food sourcing. I hope you will consider the impact you can have, personally and professionally, by putting your assets to work in your own community.

Jeff McCabe - Post 2: From Plot To Plate

Close your eyes for a minute. No wait, that will make it tough to read the rest of this! Well, maybe just soften your gaze slightly as you imagine with me the transformation of our community that we will create together as we pay attention to, and come into relationship with, the source of our food and how it gets to our table.

Over the coming year or so, the changes will be subtle. A few new faces at the farmers markets as Tomm and Trilby Becker of Sunseed Farm, Kate Long and the rest of the freshman class of Washtenaw County farmers come into full production. A few more restaurants and a few more stores begin to feature and prominently incorporate local foods into their businesses. The HomeGrown Festival draws 10,000 people and spills into 4th Avenue and the Kerrytown Shops with food, demonstrations, music, beer and wine, theatrics and other festivities all in celebration of the bounty that we have produced and enjoyed here in our own community.

But moving a bit further along we begin to see the fundamental shifts in our surroundings. Hoop-houses that can grow food year –round, producing greens and root crops sweet from winter temperatures, now number in the hundreds. St. Joe’s Hospital has one with more on the way. USDA grants and other community funded projects make these hoops available to all farmers who want to adopt four-season farming, and in turn make this produce available to all who want to eat it. Area schools adopt hoop-house gardens as a way to let kids discover the magic of growing food and feeding people in their lives. And four-season community gardens are established as a way to bring this opportunity to individuals and groups.

As other communities try to claw their way back out of the economic collapse with more business-as-usual (tax-base giveaways that attempt to lure outside development, and the construction of ever more sprawl, that eats up more than generates tax dollars) we plan for something different; something more resilient and livable.  All of our governmental planning bodies come to the same table and take responsibility for the direction of our future development across the county (ok, we might have to push them up to that table and let them know what happens if they don’t get the job done!)

As wise land use planning and community finance options grow, aspiring farmers are drawn to our county for the opportunities we present and demonstrate. And dozens of new farms begin to aggregate their production into stores, restaurants and institutions. Entrepreneurs see the other inefficiencies that currently exist in our food supply chain and start value-added businesses to process and preserve this production. As they offer premium pricing to farmers who grow organic, non-GMO crops that their customers demand, we see wholesale shifts from commodity crops. These farmers can now make a living from their own land (a very illusive current prospect), instead of needing to have an off-farm job. We reach a tipping point that again can prioritize paying for livelihood instead of Round-up Ready seeds (and a whole lot of Round-up!). And we measure the impact this change has on our waterways and other natural resources.

Banking, one of the most entrenched institutions in the status quo is slow to catch on. In the mean time, individuals in the community begin to work outside the traditional financial models to make investments that facilitate this change. Using social media and other technology to make direct connections between capital and project, people can assess their own needs for return on investment and risk-aversion and put a face onto the impact that their dollars can lever so close to home.

Now we begin to see the benefits of our leadership in taking these initiatives. Educational and agro-tourism become a reality as we model these practices to other communities. The Erb Institute initiates a “New Farming Campus” partnering business and tech programs with innovative farming models. Besides building new tools for marketing and maximizing current crops, they pioneer new production models such as hydroponics and aqua-culture. They build a new perma-culture model that combines composting, vegetable fish production with waste-heat from the University. The ratio of food value to fossil fuel input has never been matched. The combination feeds the student population, greens the campus and models a multi-disciplinary approach to sustainability and retention of graduates into the community. Other interdisciplinary benefits include advances in root-cellaring to store and distribute these large harvests with little enegy.

Zingerman’s launches Zing Farm which houses the Cornman Institute -  A rural hotel-conference center that teaches sustainable farming practices and all of the craft food practices that it has incorporated into it’s businesses.

Hooptown, the new co-housing community, clusters pockets of homes, light industrial space and offices around a hundred acres of farming. Learning, teaching, earning and enjoying are all available right outside your front door. Bicycle trails from Ann Arbor and other cities lead to the restaurants, markets, parks and jobs that Hooptown offers.   

The price of crude oil hits $300 per barrel for the first time, but rather than panic, the residents of Washtenaw County smile, knowing that they are on track to kick the addiction and are in control of their own destinies.

World peace and the end of global warming quickly follow. Well ok, I drifted off there for a moment. But these changes, right here, at hand, within our own reach, are the things we can effect. Living locally and idea-sharing globally can be a very satisfying substitution for the current absence of sane, progressive leadership from our national and state governments.

And the most fun will be in hearing each other’s ideas, working together to shape this mission and discovering the possibilities that none of us have quite yet imagined.

Oh, did I forget to mention that the food just tastes really good? See you at the table.

Jeff McCabe - Post 1: It all started with pastrami

It all started with pastrami. Though I have since found my highest affinity for the combination of pork, salt and time, it was a piece of beef brisket, some pickling spices and lots of smoke that got my attention. My friend Don Todd had just checked out another book from the library ("Charcuterie" by Ruhlman and Polcyn) and headed straight to the back yard to work out the details. And the results blew my mind. Fast forward a couple of years and you will surely find prosciutto, coppa, pancetta and salami hanging in my curing room.

It doesn’t take long to encounter the quality vs. quantity question when you cure meats. What exactly is the difference between that sopping wet, pale chunk of pork they will sell you cheap at the big-box grocer and the deep red cut that comes from a heritage hog farm? It becomes just one of a dizzying array of variables that I used to not even know existed. Who knew that breed, age, gender, access to pasture and ground-fall fruits and nuts could each have noticeable effects? And could I even have imagined that I would come to prize fat more highly than lean?

There is a groundswell taking hold around us and there are thousands of unique stories of why people are getting excited about the local foods movement; "Ah-ha" moments that lead to a relationship with our food and our environment.

Some are really frustrated with the lack of transparency into the practices of our dominant industrial food system. Is there really a "Jenny" farming those grocery store eggs, and if so, what is she (and here team of corporate economists) feeding the birds? What is the optimal crowding size they have calculated, taking into account disease and death, to maximize profits? Getting to "know your farmer" is a sigh of relief for many who want to put their beliefs into alignment with their diets.

Others will tell you it started with the taste of a particular tomato or a book they just could not get out of their heads. While some take on the role of activist, dedicating their time and energy to creating the new farming infrastructure that is building around us, others simply enjoy the festivity that the HomeGrown Festival brings to our harvest season.

Though I can trace my interest to childhood gardens and my grandparent’s small farm, it was charcuterie that drew a distinct line in the sand around my food sourcing. As I found out more about the practices employed in generating over 90% of our nations meat, I decided that I would opt out of “pigs on drugs”.   

Some people will argue that plants and animals raised by hand in a caring and sustainable manner are simply too expensive to be even considered a viable alternative. Yet I would argue that we can not afford not to move to this model of farming. Short-term profit and affordability of these industrial practices are a modern abnormality that we are paying for with long-term pollution, obesity, job loss and dislocation from land and craft.

And really, it is just more fun to know your food. It leads to stories and friendships and learning and amazing flavors. It is, in my estimation, an authentic culture, right in our own region that so many of us have overlooked. A life involving more pots and pans and friends, and less TV and microwave ovens is time and money well spent to me.

These food choices affect more than just our individual lives. In Washtenaw County, we eat about $1 Billion worth of food every year.  And we are sending almost every dollar of that out of region and into the pockets of large multi-national companies. They seem to have been able to capture our imaginations with cheap prices and brand names. Somehow we have yet to wake up from our evolutionary urge to take in every sweet calorie we can get a hold of. And the marketing savvy of this industry seems to have no trouble getting us to eat almost every drop of the trillions in surplus calories our present national farm subsidy programs generate. Surely we are now hungry for community and connectedness over another hot-pocket.

We can generate thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in new economic activity as we transform our food system. At the Local Food Summit on March 2nd, the 10% Washtenaw campaign was launched to begin the process of capturing a slice of this pie. Projects are under way to increase information and awareness; to help start new farms and create imaginative distribution systems. And each of us can take small steps, starting right where we are, to ask more about the food we eat and the impact the choices we make have on our own lives and those around us.

There is a little magic that occurs as people discover the potential of food and community coming together. For instances, my wife Lisa Gottlieb and I could not have dreamed that starting a small, locally-sourced breakfast in our home could wind up serving 4000 meals in a year and would raise $50,000 to support new and existing farmers. We have watched a community form and have measured the impact on the food system. We did it by starting where we were and imagining where we wanted to end up. And seeing this transformation has changed our lives.

Each of us can take little steps to effect this change and it will take many of us if we are to reap the ultimate benefits. Other communities that have taken these steps, like Boulder County, Colorado are reaping rewards in the ability to shape their own landscape.

Can you trace where your money goes from a day of your food purchases? Can you imagine eating 2 meals a week that support your local economy? I hope that you too find that the answers lead to something interesting and fun.