Emmer & Co. connects consumers to small farmers across the country raising American Poultry Association-certified heritage breed chickens. To CEO Jesse Solomon, heritage-breed chickens represent the possibility for food produced according to natural, healthy principles. Solomon sees the kinds of farming and distribution networks that Emmer & Co. supports as crucial steps in rebuilding the food system from the ground up, prioritizing the well-being of animals and people along the way.
Food Tank had the opportunity to talk to Solomon about chickens, hunting, and his vision for the future.
Food Tank (FT): What motivated you to found Emmer & Co.? Was there a particular moment or event?
Jesse Solomon (JS): Seven years ago, I became mostly a vegetarian because I couldn’t trust what I was eating. Labels have become confusing, unclear, and unrepresentative of how the food is produced, and I could no longer separate fact from fiction. I chose only to eat meat I hunted myself so that I could know it was the purest possible and that the animal lived a natural life. Through hunting, I discovered a connection to my food I had never had before and found out how amazing wild game tasted. I would always bring back meat from the field to share with family and friends, and little by little helped them to reconnect with where food comes from.
I wanted to replicate that experience for as many people as possible. I wanted to provide food that you didn’t have to question—you would know it was pure, healthy, and part of the best possible alternative system. Not too long ago, everything we ate came from someplace, or someone, we knew. Our eggs came from our own backyards, our meat from our local butcher, and our fish from our nearby river. There was no such thing as eating "local" or eating "organic"—it was just called eating. I believe what we’re doing at Emmer & Co. will help us get back to that.
FT: How do you see Emmer & Co. as part of a greater move to change the food system in the United States? How does the company contribute to more sustainable food economies?
JS: Emmer & Co.’s mission is to rebuild the poultry industry from the ground up by starting with healthy, balanced, heritage chickens. As we rebuild regional production systems across America, we want to make sure that heritage chickens are as widely available to consumers as possible. By going back to the right, unmanipulated birds and raising them with the right methods, we want to inspire people that an alternative system to the big food industry can exist—one that raises animals that grow the way they’re supposed to, produces with practices that improve the environment, and focuses on grower relationships that allow family farms to thrive. We hope to inspire people to change other parts of the food system that just aren’t working.
FT: Do you have any stories to share about the process of building a network of farmers to partner with?
JS: From California to Illinois, and Kansas to Pennsylvania, I’ve met some amazing young farmers who are itching to raise heritage chickens with us. Before Emmer & Co., they’d never had the opportunity to raise a bird that is as close to wild as you can get, one that is truly healthy because of its genetics, and one that helps fertilize the soil when you raise it on pasture. Farmers will raise what consumers want, and for 60 years the big food companies have taught consumers to want the industrial Cornish Cross chicken. But that is now changing. I’m always impressed and in awe of the farmers I meet—their dedication to their families and to growing healthy food, their grit, and their entrepreneurial spirit. Without farmers, we have no food. We literally cannot live without them. They can never be thanked enough.
FT: How are new technologies an integral part of the work Emmer & Co. does?
JS: Most of our supply chain is fairly manual and old school. That’s the beauty of heritage chickens; they’re so healthy and self-sufficient that they don’t require much technology on the production side. But social media, digital content, and online grocers are all new technologies that play a vital role in our ability to inform consumers that the right chicken is available, and to educate people about what heritage is and what it means for our food system.
FT: What are the biggest challenges you see in changing the way chickens are raised, eaten, and distributed in the United States?
JS: Infrastructure and education. In the course of 60 years, the big chicken industry has built a massive infrastructure to support their supply chain. And they have a 60-year head start on educating consumers on their version of what a chicken is. The infrastructure they built generally isn’t usable by a company like Emmer & Co. that values operating differently, so we have to start from the ground up. It can be overwhelming at times. But whenever we find a new customer who joins our movement—who appreciates going back to eating the way we used to in this country—it confirms that we’re on the right path. And that new customer will hopefully tell one more person, and one by one, our movement will grow.
FT: What gets you angry?
JS: Lack of choice and food deserts. The freedom to choose what and how you want to eat is something that should be an obvious right in this country. And yet it is not. The big food companies have created a system where they control most of what gets put in front of consumers. There is often very little access to food that was produced responsibly and is good for you, and the animals it comes from. Many people in our country have even less choice because fast food, processed food, and highly industrialized food is all that is available where they live. No one should be forced into choosing the “best of the worst.” We can do better.