Fish Out of Water

Fish Out of Water

As the lobster capital of the U.S. looks to diversify its commercial fishing industry, new options for harvesting seafood are emerging — in ocean-based farms, in cold rivers and even on land. Maine is diving into aquaculture.

Independent fishermen, the backbone of the Maine commercial seafood industry, play a vital role in the state’s culture and economy. Roughly 5,000 lobster fishermen produce 80 percent of the value of Maine’s commercial seafood catch – an estimated contribution of more than $1 billion to the state economy. But relying too much on any one species could put the state in a precarious position. The volume and value of Maine lobster fell more than 15 percent from 2016 to 2017, from $533 million in 2016 to $434 million in 2017. Tariffs imposed in July 2018 by China on select American products, including lobster, represent a new factor that could affect Maine lobstermen this year, despite a very productive season so far.

Climate change is another problem. The Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) has identified the waters off of coastal Maine as “one of the fastest-warming ocean ecosystems on the planet.” The volatility of the water temperature is just one reason many small fishermen began to focus primarily on lobster, where prior generations made a living on a varied catch. In this new reality, re-diversifying production and having more direct control over cultivation will help sustain Maine’s commercial seafood industry. Two aquaculture endeavors now in development represent decidedly different alternatives for America’s lobster capital.

The Rise of Aquaculture Worldwide

Aquaculture in Maine has been practiced since at least the 1800s. While laws regarding fish and shellfish culture date back to 1905, the Maine Legislature only began to regulate aquaculture as an industry in 1973. In the last few decades, Maine-based institutions have dived into aquaculture research, but many questions remain about how to make production more cost-efficient. Farmers bringing product to market also play an important role in determining aquaculture’s viability: by finding ways to integrate into existing supply chains or to create new ones and by understanding how consumers relate to new products, including their willingness to pay to them.

Worldwide, consumers seem very willing to pay for farmed fish. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), global per-capita fish consumption is on the rise. As of 2016, aquaculture accounted for 47 percent of all fish consumed as food. Further, the first-sale value of all aquaculture production was estimated at $243.5 billion — almost double the value of global fishery production. Investors have noticed. Venture capital and private-equity capital from the same entrepreneurial ecosystems that have long funded tech startups are turning to food systems ventures.

“Fish is the new beef,” says Mike Velings, a Dutch venture capitalist and founder of Aqua-Spark, the first aquaculture investment fund. His 2015 TED talk, “The Case for Fish Farming,” has been viewed more than a million times. In light of this global surge in aquaculture, Maine’s fishing industry is exploring ways to move beyond lobsters.

What is Aquaculture?

The term aquaculture refers to the farming of aquatic organisms in water and can include finfish, shellfish, crustaceans, sea cucumber, seaweed, kelp, algae — anything that grows in water. It’s related to hydroponics, which generally refers to growing plants in nutrient-rich water, without soil, as well as aquaponics, the symbiotic cultivation of plants and aquatic animals in a recirculating environment. Aquaculture differs from conventional fishing or even harvesting of shellfish and seaweed in that it explicitly includes propagation (almost always in a land-based, lab-like setting, or “hatchery”) as well as tending to the crop, or stock, through the whole growth cycle. Vertical ocean farming is essentially an aquaponic practice in an ocean environment, in which seaweed and shellfish farms are vertically arranged in the water column, mimicking the arrangement of natural systems and promoting interactivity with other ocean species around them.

All Eyes on Scallops

Tenants Harbor in St. George is a picturesque spot in Maine’s mid-coast region, nestled between two hillsides that protect it from the winds off the bay. I’ve come here to meet Ryan McPherson, Merritt Carey and Peter Miller, members of the newly formed Maine Aquaculture Co-op. The topic: sea-scallop farming in Penobscot Bay. It’s a new idea for a region more associated with lobsters, and the hope is to reintroduce a measure of diversification for independent fishermen so they can continue to make a living from the sea.

“It’s all about local knowledge,” Miller, a fourth-generation fisherman, says. “I want every young fisherman to have the chance that I had.”

Maine isn’t new to scallop production, but its cold ocean temperatures mean they grow slowly. “To harvest wild scallops in Maine, they have to be four inches, which takes about four years,” McPherson explains. “The product we’re landing doesn’t have those restrictions, because we’re growing them.”

A former fisherman with a degree in entrepreneurship, McPherson purchased Glidden Point Oysters in Edgecomb, Maine, with leases in the deep water of the Damariscotta River, in 2017. He has quickly made inroads in the state, expanding relationships with chefs and maintaining Glidden Point Oysters as a premium product, a philosophy he brought to his involvement with the Maine Aquaculture Co-op. In addition to making chefs aware of the co-op, he fostered a tie to Island Creek Oysters, which provides a robust point-of-sale and distribution network for products that share Island Creek Oysters’ emphasis on celebrating American merroir. The co-op’s first live, whole scallops — not just the abductor muscle that most people traditionally 
think of as a scallop — started selling on the platform in early 2018.

“Before we pull them out of the water, they are already sold,” McPherson says. Literally pulling them out of the water is interesting, too. As the net emerges from the water, the petite scallops respond to the change in their environment and clap their shells shut in unison.

a juvenile scallop fresh from the bay

A 2016 market analysis for Maine-farmed shellfish confirmed that the portion of shellfish produced by aquaculture in Maine remains quite small — less than 1 percent of the landed value of oysters, mussels and scallops in the United States. Despite the small quantity, Maine scallops garner the highest price per pound of any state. Yet Maine produces only 2 percent of the country’s volume. To meet consumer demand, the United States imports 40 million pounds of scallop meat, with a value ($350 million) close to the value of scallops it produces domestically ($380 million). Projections about future consumer demand may be conservative because they don’t consider the impact of expanding direct-to-consumer buying options and prepared meal kits. The report also notes that Maine has the cold, clean waters to support shellfish aquaculture expansion, with projected acreage needed by 2030 estimated to be less than .3 percent of state waters.

Merritt Carey pulls a lantern net out of the water to reveal juvenile scallops in an early stage of growth. Photo by Laurie Zapalac.

Lexicon IconMerroir

like the French terroir, which refers to the flavor notes a wine gets from the grapes’ soil and growing region, merroir describes the way seafoods reflect the taste of the waters in which they’re grown.

Ryan McPherson explains the staging float and its relationship to the leases held by the Maine Aquaculture Co-op farther out in Penobscot Bay. Photo by Laurie Zapalac.

Juvenile scallops grow in vertical “lantern nets” (left), a Japanese aquaculture technique adopted by some Maine scallop farmers. Once they’re larger, the scallops are drilled and hung on long lines in water 25 feet deep, where they grow to full size. Click image to enlarge. Image courtesy the Water Brothers.

For delicious scallop pics and shots of the sea farmers at work, follow @MaineAquacultureCoop on Instagram.

The Salmon Story

Maine’s wild Atlantic salmon population hovers on the brink of extension due to loss of fresh water spawning habitat, overfishing, pollution and other forces. Heavily depleted by the late 1960s and declared an endangered species in 2000, wild Atlantic salmon is no longer fished commercially in Maine waters. In 2016, habitat restoration projects began, and small upticks in population are now being recorded.

Responding to the vast U.S. market hungry for salmon, Norwegian investors are focusing on Maine for land-based production. The U.S. exports the majority of the seafood it harvests, while importing species such as salmon — an inefficient crossover that generates heavy carbon dioxide emissions. But salmon farmed in Maine can efficiently reach more than 50 million people in adjacent states, a “grow-local” solution.

“The exciting thing is, you can place production close to the consumer,” says Erik Heim, CEO of Nordic AquaFarms. “So instead of airfreighting in tons of salmon from New Zealand, Chile, Norway, Scotland, you can produce it locally.”

Salmon swim around in a tank at an indoor, land-based finfish farm.

Moving Indoors

Nordic AquaFarms aims to produce 30,000 metric tons (approximately 66 million pounds) of salmon annually in a facility in Belfast, Maine, estimated to cost $500 million when fully complete. Due in part to concerns associated with ocean-based finfish farming, including fish feed sourcing, disease, use of antibiotics, fish escape, pollution and others, the location of aquaculture is changing dramatically. Earlier aquaculture practices for finfish entailed producing eggs and growing juvenile fish in land-based hatcheries, then releasing them into sea-pens — or in the case of stock regulation, into the wild. Today’s finfish aquaculture is increasingly keeping the fish indoors for life.

Heim explains that the facility will comprise three main production areas: hatchery, grow out and processing. The facility’s engine is a recirculating aquaculture system (RAS). “Land-based farming is basically where everything is happening indoors,” Heim says. “You’re taking water in and releasing water out, so you can clean it and treat it,” a practice that allows for recirculation and a reduction in overall water usage and nutrient discharge. “That’s a key part of the concept.”

Overhead rendering of Nordic Aquafarms’s site in Belfast, Maine. The first phase of construction of the indoor-salmon-farming facility is projected to be complete in 2020 or 2021. Image courtesy Nordic Farms.

Deploying aquaculture on a large scale indoors means confronting questions about selective breeding, genetic engineering, use of fertilizers and antibiotics, and waste processing — issues familiar to other types of industrial-scale land-based farming. Another question is how the introduction of foreign-investor-driven projects will impact the local communities and economies that host them. While operations of this size should mean more jobs, fishermen may have to adjust to harvesting their catch on land.

While building on decades of knowledge, Nordic AquaFarms operations are relatively new. Founded in 2014, its business units include Sashimi Royal in Hanstholm, Denmark, the largest yellowtail kingfish facility in the world, which began producing commercially in early 2018; and Fredrikstad Seafood in Fredrikstad, Norway, which will be the biggest salmon facility in Europe when it comes online in 2018. The Fredrikstad operation is “the blueprint for what we’re doing here. What we’re looking to do is not just build a land-based facility. We want to change this industry, and we’ve invested a lot into innovation,” Heim says. “We’re taking the science to an entirely new level.”

This raises an important question: How can radically new practices — so new they aim to be innovative on a global scale — be embraced by communities devoted to traditional methods?

Heim takes a stab at the answer. “If you look at the Maine seafood industry, it is very fragmented, many small producers, mostly concerned about their own business. Enormous resources go into building seafood brands and salmon brands in Norway. I think there is an opportunity for the industry (in Maine) to get together and do more.”

Yet, Maine is a vastly different place politically, socially and economically than Norway. Rather than solely focusing on exporting Nordic best practices, what will the Norwegians seek to learn from Mainers, ensuring that knowledge sharing is a two-way process? And how will they address concerns raised by their host community: What does releasing waste and nutrients a mile off shore really mean? How will it affect the bay? How will it affect me as a swimmer? How many people do you intend to employ and how much will you pay them?

On the Dinner Table

Land-based salmon farming and ocean-based scallop farming operate under wildly different assumptions about how people acclimate to new ideas, from winning over potential consumers to gaining support from host communities and existing players in the commercial seafood industry. Each presents a distinct set of questions about the impact on the state’s environmental resources. Each relies on and will amplify different industry knowledge. Can Maine go forward in a way that its land- and sea-based farming industries not only limit negative impacts for each other, but also find opportunities for knowledge sharing and mutual benefit?

Returning home to Boston, I find a flyer in the mail from the meal kit delivery company HomeChef, showing whole carrots, enticing bok choy and two precisely cut salmon filets. It reads, “Designed with you in mind, using fresh, thoughtfully sourced ingredients.” As food production and consumption continue to evolve, it still remains up to us to decide what exactly “thoughtfully sourced” means.

Learn more about vertical ocean farming in this TED article.

Side Dish: Fashionable Foods

Side Dish: Fashionable Foods

When trendy foods pop, suppliers and retailers have to be ready — or figure out how to make adjustments fast — to meet demand. In this age of food as social media fodder, we looked into the reality of getting more açaí, seaweed and turmeric on shelves — stat!


Açaí bowls are Instagram shark bait. How can you resist snapping a photo of a beautiful deep-purple smoothie bowl layered with tart red strawberries, fat blueberries and flaky white coconut?

It’s almost unfathomable that just 20 years ago, few Americans had even heard of this tiny Amazonian super fruit. Sambazon co-founder Ryan Black says his açaí company struggled to get people interested in the palm fruit “because they hadn’t ever heard of (açaí) and couldn’t pronounce it.” (It’s AH-SIGH-EE.)

Sambazon’s attempts at açaí education have helped drive açaí to the top, as have the influence of social media word of mouth and a surge for health foods. Get enough people declaring something is good, and their Instafriends will want to try it themselves. As of today, #acaibowl is winning Instagram with 885,608 public posts — while the health food of yesteryear, #avocadotoast, nets only 653,172 posts.

In 2016, more than 300,000 tons of açaí products were sold across the world. By 2026, that number should be above one million tons. To keep up with demand, “we have increased sourcing and production in the last few years,” says Sambazon co-founder Jeremy Black. Sambazon owns a processing facility in the Amazon. They have vertically integrated production to streamline their work and protect the delicate fruit, which needs to be quickly processed because it rots.

For a product that feels very 21st century, the harvesting method remains surprisingly ancient and human. Workers scale the trees, pick the fruit and place it in woven baskets to be moved rapidly downstream to the processing facility. The company has been careful to ensure the sustainability of its açaí business by hiring locals to wild-harvest and hand-pick açaí, as well as to plant new seeds.

So far, there doesn’t seem to be an açaí shortage. But what if demand exceeds expectation, or if açaí bowls become the new favorite of a huge market like China? Can the Amazon handle the future of açaí?

Açaí bowls are winning Instagram — and açaí producers have had to keep up with skyrocketing demand. Photo by Trang Doan from Pexels.
 Watch the low-tech harvesting methods Sambazon uses to pick their purple açaí berries.


“Civil Eats,” the 2014 James Beard Foundation Publication of the Year, calls seaweed “the next big thing in sustainable food.” McCormick Spices identifies furikake as a spice to look out for in its 2018 Flavor Forecast. And the World Bank considers it an ecological product that’s also a problem-solving darling when it comes to feeding Earth’s hungry population.

Seaweed is of course a staple in Asia, where kombu, nori and wakame are consumed daily in soups, seaweed rolls and side dishes. According to the FishStat (2014) Electronic Fisheries Database of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, nearly all — 99.4 percent — of the world’s seaweed, is produced in Asia. While Asia has long been seaweed-mad, in the western world nori is suddenly popping up in packaged snacks and in all-American foods you wouldn’t expect, such as popcorn, mayonnaise, smoothies, burgers and hot dogs. Seaweeds are versatile and are produced in many forms to suit many tastes — from a funky fried hijiki tofu burger popular at a New York University student fave called Dojo, to pungent wakame “birthday soup” at L.A. Koreatown’s Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo, to Uchi’s clean-cut, nori-wrapped negihama roll in Austin. It’s a far wider array than the leaves of wakame swimming in your Japanese miso soup.

“It is definitely a trend, similar to the recent kale craze,” says Michael Graham, creator of Monterey Bay Seaweeds. “There are flavored nori sheets and seaweed salad in Costco. These are not new products, but they are new vendors, and they are reaching new customers.”

Graham, also a biology professor at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and the editor of a seaweed scientific journal, says he receives dozens of emails and calls a month from people who want to know more about seaweed. “I don’t know if the interest will last many years,” Graham says. “But regardless, it’s positive. Seaweed really is all that it is cracked up to be — so good for you, and good for the environment.”

Seaweed farmers are responding to the demand. From 2011 to 2012, the most recent years for which World Bank figures were available, global production of one of the most commonly eaten seaweeds, red nori (the dry, crispy wrappers of your maki rolls), increased by 13.57 percent, or 82,634 wet metric tons. Global production of an even more popular seaweed, wakame, ramped up by 21.94 percent, or 384,973 wet metric tons. Overall, including other seaweeds, global production in 2012 was approximately 3 million tons dry weight, increasing by 9 percent per year.

By 2050, if the World Bank has its way, we’ll be producing 500 million dry tons of seaweed, adding 10 percent to our current food supply. That’s definitely all-you-can-eat maki. To do that, we’ll have to augment seaweed farming by 14 percent per year. And the bank thinks we could do that in only 0.03 percent of the ocean’s surface area. More for less is usually a scam, but seaweed may be the bargain store of the sea.

Seaweed has moved way beyond miso soup greens and sushi roll wrappers. Multiple varieties are showing up all over the world — not just Asia — as snacks such as popcorn, mayonnaise, smoothies, burgers and hot dogs.
Watch Mike Graham excite chefs with his land-based seaweed farm in Monterrey, California. Video by Zagat.


While Americans have just “discovered” golden milk (aka moon milk, golden latte or turmeric tea), its origin is an old Indian drink called haldi doodh. But its new in-demand status as an anti- inflammatory health food means turmeric, an ancient Ayurvedic root, has staked its spot in the mainstream American pantry.

Turmeric has hit the big time financially, shooting up from $2,700 million in 2012 to more than $3,160 million in 2016. By 2021, according to a report on Technavio, the global turmeric market is projected to post a compound annual growth rate of 6 percent (other sources list it as 5.5 percent by 2027).

“Volume is exploding for organic turmeric,” says Kai Stark, commodity manager at Frontier Co-op, a cooperatively owned wholesaler of natural and organic products based in Norway, Iowa. “In the last 10 years, the amount of organic turmeric Frontier Co-op has purchased increased by a factor of 10.” Despite the demand, turmeric farmers are struggling to stay alive, even as golden 
lattes sell for $15 per cup in the United States.

Approximately 80 percent of turmeric is grown in India, both wild and farmed. But the small margins are leaving some Indian farmers high and dry. To fight this turmeric poverty, Frontier Co-op collaborates with an organization called Peermade Development Society. PDS works with marginalized farmers, especially women and poor rural folks, to develop both the land and the farmers’ budgets sustainably.

“In the past, marginal farmers, who have only one to two hectares of land, would sell their commodities to middlemen for a small price, and then middlemen would sell again, taking the entire margin,” Stark says. “PDS Organic Spices came in to eliminate the middlemen and help these farmers sell directly to companies like Frontier Co-op.”

In 2009, as the turmeric craze began to take hold, Frontier supported a PDS program to scale up their farmers’ organic turmeric production. PDS, with Frontier’s help, began trials to grow a variety of turmeric with a higher content of curcumin, the potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory in turmeric. Frontier also diversified its organic turmeric supply chain, adding suppliers from Central America.

Sana Javeri Kadri, owner of Diaspora Co., a sustainable, single-origin, direct-trade turmeric company, also cuts out the middleman to bring maximum profits to her turmeric farmer, Mr. Prahbu, in Andhra Pradesh.

Javeri Kadri founded Diaspora Co. as a small side project but was inundated with high demand from the start. When her first four batches of turmeric sold out within hours, she contacted Mr. Prahbu and asked for everything he had. Her last batch sold out in about six weeks. Between filling 20 to 100 orders a week, she closely manages 12 wholesale accounts, asking buyers for six-month projections so Mr. Prahbu has adequate time to plan.

Javeri Kadris says turmeric is planted between May and June, before monsoon season, when it soaks up all the rain. Harvest happens between January and February, so the timing is important — as are the seeds.

“Find the seeds your grandma was using, before the British showed up,” Javeri Kadri says. “If you don’t protect biodiversity, you end up with the heartiest tomato that will survive the grocery store but doesn’t taste very good. It’s the same with turmeric — we’ve already got this mass-marketed bright yellow turmeric with a mild smell, with no biodiversity or cultural history.” Her explicitly political mission is to preserve pre-colonial biodiversity, create the best-tasting, most diverse array of turmerics and reward turmeric farmers in India while doing it.

Still, we can expect the inevitable when it comes to trends: strange products like turmeric-flavored coffee creamer, croissants and cronuts, and frozen turmeric shakes (despite Ayurvedic wisdom that turmeric should be eaten heated for optimal benefits). Because when a trend takes hold, reason may exit through the pricey gift shop, in the form of a chai golden milk donut that screams, “I <3 turmeric.”

Seaweed and turmeric are just two ingredients that jumped from obscure to must-have in record time. Heavy demand means producers have to be creative to keep up.
Diaspora Co. opened in 2017, but owner Sana Javeri Kadri has seen demand for turmeric skyrocket in the past year.

Food Movers: Bots in the Cold Chain

Food Movers: Bots in the Cold Chain

The second installment in our series about food bots focuses on tech in use in the cold chain. (Check out Part 1.) It’s not hard to see why robots would be ideal workers within these climate-controlled facilities, where temps often hover just above freezing for most perishable goods. Unlike humans, robots don’t get cold — at least, not yet.

Grocery Getter Bots

Some of the newest bot tech involves what are sometimes called swarms and the hive mind — as in dozens of robots working together (the swarm) to complete complex tasks, wirelessly sharing information in real time (the hive mind). Such is the case with Ocado Smart Platform robots, created by Ocado, a British online grocery retailer that’s working on making their delivery-only business as automated as possible.

Ocado’s squat, square, battery-operated bots zip about on an elevated grid over room-temp or refrigerated crates stacked several levels high. Each crate is filled with one specific type of grocery, such as eggs, organic apple juice or cheddar cheese. The robots work as a team to deliver the crates to “personal shoppers” — mainly humans, though another kind of robot could also do the job — that put together customer orders. If the hive mind sees one shopper needs cheddar, but it’s in a crate beneath the eggs and the apple juice, one robot zips by to move the egg crate, a second moves the juice and a third grabs the cheese and takes it to the proper shopper…all in a matter of seconds.

Thanks to the hive mind, every robot knows where every product is at all times; the robots are also tasked with refilling the tower of crates — aka “the storage hive” — as crates empty. Plus, when the bots themselves are low on charge, they ferry themselves off to a charging bay before rejoining their swarm.

Ocado’s bots zip around a grid built over crates and crates of groceries. They pick their orders and deliver them to humans, who do the final packing.

The bots work together, like a hive mind, to uncover buried crates and access items on lower levels. Their real-time communication also indicates which crates need to be refilled.

The system of robots — which can travel 13 feet per second — can fulfill a 50-item order in less than five minutes.

The stacked grid concept came from the shipping industry, where cranes move containers from place to place.

See these bots in action:

Super PaQ Bots

Palletizing robots might not sound revolutionary — palletizing being the unsexy term for the unsexy process of loading and unloading boxes on and off a pallet — unless you’ve worked in a frigid warehouse. Supplies come in on pallets, and products go out on them, and not always neatly: If a mini-mart orders four cases of sliced turkey, a case of chips and two dozen packs of hot dogs from its supplier, somebody or something there has to put all those boxes together.

Palletizing robots are generally “articulated arm” robots, which means they have a stationary base attached to a robotic arm that can bend and swivel. Hand-like tools attached to the end perform specific tasks — in this case, lifting and moving boxes from one place to another.

A company called Swisslog — they design fully automated warehouses and distribution systems — even makes a palletizing robot called RowPaq that can build a perfect pallet of mismatched boxes in minutes. It’s fitted with a set of giant hand-like grippers that can pick up four different sized boxes at the same time and set them down in a perfect row because it already “knows” how tall, wide and long each box is before it arrives.

Whether in a hot warehouse or a cold refrigerated facility, RowPaq can mix and match cartons, shrink-wrapped or foil-wrapped packages onto a single, stable pallet — up to 1,000 units per hour. It’s the ultimate Jenga player.

See RowPaq in action:

The Well-Below-Zero Bots

Think of the freezer as the final frontier for robotic solutions in the cold chain. Super-cold, sub-zero conditions — as in minus 18 degrees Fahrenheit — are just as hard on the moving parts and lubricants inside robots as they are on people.

The easiest solution is to put your robot in a protective suit, which is why when you do see the rare robot in a freezer, it’s usually sheathed in puffy white sleeves that look like a cross between a wind sock and a lab coat.

Most robots used in freezer conditions are large, sturdy palletizing machines with fewer small moving parts, such as bots used to stack table-sized slabs of frozen fish on a pallet. Other companies use spider-like “pick and place” robots to pack things including frozen meat patties and fish sticks into the proper plastic packaging. These bots are usually mounted over a conveyor belt, and the entire process takes place within a sealed, protective, temperature-controlled enclosure.

Baker’s Holiday

Baker’s Holiday

January is just about the worst time to meet the owner of a bakery in Buenos Aires, or any business owner, for that matter.

Marcelo, the owner of La Sud América, a bakery in the Almagro neighborhood in Buenos Aires, was texting me with the news that he would be available for a brief meeting before he taking off for a holiday with his family. Like our summer months, Argentinian winters are prime vacation months for families with children out of school, which means that many businesses hang cerrado (closed) signs on their doors to indicate they are off for the holidays. So I was lucky to find to find a few minutes when Marcelo could show me around his small shop.

During the 19th century, Almagro was home to Italians and Basque families.  As a haven for immigrants, the area also became home to the tango culture, built on the amalgamation of social customs and cultures.

Knowing that Marcelo would be anxious to escape the sweltering heat in the city, I located the shop and peered underneath the partially raised and profusely graffiti-covered metal door. He greeted me with a warm, Argentinian bear hug and led me to his office in back of the retail bakery shop. Marcelo wore flip-flops, baggy shorts, a black T-shirt, a silver necklace, and on one wrist, a huge sport watch with a yellow band and oversized, orange numerals. If his attire said anything, it said, “I’m not a baker today, just a guy wanting to be on a beach somewhere, looking cool.”

We moved beyond the retail shop, where wood and glass cases stood empty, worn labels revealing absent pastries and breads such as libritos and cremonas. A gleaming red paper cutter occupied an imposing position at the end of the counter to wrap purchases in white paper printed with the bakery’s decorative logo.

But the most impressive display in the small shop was the laminated article from Carghill News that had featured Marcelo and his bakery in 2007. There on the front page was Marcelo, holding a freshly baked loaf of bread in front of his old, brick oven. The antique oven is the main attraction of his small operation, built in the 1890s and one of the last remaining old brick ovens. (A famous bakery, L’Epi, located in Chacarita, has an oven built in 1919.) While boasting about its survival all these years, he complained about the annoyances that arose when bricks broke and he had to scour the city for hard-to-find replacements. Of course I wanted to see it, but for some reason Marcelo explained that it wasn’t available for viewing since the shop was closed. It didn’t make much sense to me, but who wants to push their luck when they have a shop owner who is technically on vacation offer to spend an afternoon explaining his business? Not me.

“Marcelo is an evangelist for the old way of baking bread.”

Marcelo is an evangelist for the old way of baking bread, and he makes much use of his brick oven. But despite the notoriety from the Carghill News, he’s not a big fan of Carghill flour. He reasoned that the company mixes grain from multiple growers and thus, in Marco’s opinion, the quality of the product varies from shipment to shipment, depending upon the mix from unknown sources. Instead, he buys from a smaller, Argentinian flour provider that purchases grains from a smaller and more familiar set of farmers.

One has to take this with a grain of salt, since the Argentinian government is in the midst of issuing tariff regulations and subsidies on a rather irregular and unpredictable basis. The country has been one of the largest exporters of wheat in Latin America, but recent bad weather has lowered production so that the grain harvest available for export after filling orders from Argentinian mills has rapidly declined. Even domestic mills are anxious about having enough grain to keep busy. All of these factors muddy Marcelo’s rationale for moving from Carghill to an Argentinian mill. He did explain that the mill gave him a “good” price because it liked the idea that Marcelo used the antique oven.

Marcelo led me from his empty shop to his back office, a rat’s nest of papers, dirty cups and empty soda bottles, shrink-wrapped boxes of paper goods, files and random items such as old, broken headphones amidst computers and closed-circuit security screens. The place was a mess, but Marcelo wanted me to believe he was in control of the apparent chaos as he half answered questions, holding the remote control for the air conditioning system in one hand and his cell phone in the other. Both were in operation at the same time.

But his attempt to appear in command failed when he was unable to locate the original copy of the Carghill article. He stepped out of his office to place a telephone call to his mother, who apparently has a mental map of all contents of Marcelo’s office. From the hallway, I could overhear his plea for help, which was proceeded by a plaintive “Mommy?” This tough baker, who owned not only this shop but also two bar/cafes, had suddenly become someone’s little boy.

He found the file, but in his enthusiasm for producing useful items from his files, he also pressed two books into my hands, explaining that they were old classics of his trade with recipes for traditional breads. These books, from the 1950s and ’60s, were at one time loved by some baker, and their pages were bent and soiled with butter and grease. Nothing like an old book to seal a friendship for life.

Marcelo never stopped walking, talking, texting, and moving the temperature up and down in the room from the remote control. He comes from a family of bakers, his father and grandfather working in bakeries in Buenos Aires, and he was quick to rattle off all the ingredients of the bread used to make chopàni sandwiches: wheat flour, margarine, salt, yeast, sugar. But he wasn’t as quick to respond to my question about the quantity of sandwich buns he makes every day. For a quick moment he put down his cell phone, picked up a calculator, and pronounced that he bakes about 900 sandwich loaves each day during the weekend and 650 to 700 on a weekday. Wouldn’t you think he knew how many loaves he bakes by now?

“His enthusiasm for the job bubbles to the top of our conversation.”

Perhaps his training as a lawyer, which he completed alongside his twin brother, prepared him more for negotiating with the bakers union than tallying production output. He showed disdain for the bakers’ union, which, he gleefully reported, he has eliminated from his business. Marcelo also revealed that the most unpleasant part of this job is working with his forty employees, whom he described as a big family who regularly bring him forty personal problems. On the bright side, Marcelo shared how much he enjoys the hands-on process of baking bread. He said he wants to be in the thick of day-to-day operations, admitting that he is a perfectionist (and maybe a micromanager). His enthusiasm for his job bubbles to the top of our conversation as he describes how important it is for him to work hard so that he can maintain to his family’s good reputation in the bakery business.

I imagined he was anxious to head to the beach with his family, so we wrapped up our conversation, walking by the towers of bright metal bread pans and pastry sheets on the way out. I really did want to see the old oven, but Marcelo was resistant to the last, saying that it was not that interesting when it wasn’t baking, which sounded like cover for other reasons. We’ll never know.

Don’t Cry for Me…

Don’t Cry for Me…

The machines, technology, and gears in our supply chain matter, but so do the soft parts of the system’s underbelly — the human beings that make the thing work.

During a recent visit with a meat processor and a pig farmer in Argentina, two men told me disarming stories. Their stories seemed more suited to pass between intimate friends than between us, having only known each other for a few hours. While the stories revealed how chorizo is made, they were far more eloquent commentaries about these men’s lives than about sausage or animal husbandry.

While we’re exploring the food supply chain, we’re often confronting machines, technology, and the gears of the equipment that moves boxes from one place to another. These gears matter, but so do the soft parts of the system’s underbelly — the human beings that make the thing work. Like the humans that work at Frigorifico San Jose on Darwin Street, on the fringes of Buenos Aires. In one moment, you watch a large meat grinder mince and mix meat for the sausage stuffers. In the next moment, you watch your host’s eyes brim with tears.

“In one moment, you watch a large meat grinder mince and mix meat for the sausage stuffers. In the next moment, you watch your host’s eyes brim with tears.”

Ruben works at the pork processing plant housed in two buildings located in Lomas del Mirador. A rancher named Pablo Pelluse bought the land where the meat processors would set up their businesses in 1868. During the Argentinian Civil Wars, the area was caught in the regional battle and became known for its support of the Federalists against the Unitarios in Buenos Aires, who wanted a strong, centralized government. By the end of the century, the Federalists had lost, and Buenos Aires governed the unified areas around the city.

"Meat Packers" Adolfo Bellocq

“Meat Packers” by Adolfo Bellocq, Wood Carving, 1922

Lomas del Mirador’s history runs along the same grain as the meat business in Buenos Aires. By the end of the 19th century, meat slaughtering had left its mark on the area as railways moved meat processing farther away from the city. The meat processing companies that had existed in the area replaced slaughterhouses and tallow factories and provided employment to the surge of immigrants, many from Italy, coming to live in Buenos Aires province during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A soap factory, Jabon Federal, scooped up tallow to make bars of soap, joining other meat-related businesses and helping the town take on an appearance similar to other cities now known for their close association with the meat packing industry. Chicagos of the Argentinian meat industry, Villa Madero and Lomas del Mirador are historical artifacts of the old meat supply chain. The pork processing plant that I visited is one of the vestiges of the old meat processing neighborhoods of Buenos Aires.

Immigrants continue to occupy the area. Mario Klichinovich is the product manager and Ruben’s boss. Klichinovich is one family name you won’t find in Italy. Indications are that Mario’s family may have come from Austria after having fled Russia during the Jewish diaspora. Ruben is a food scientist by training and has spent 25 years working in the meatpacking business. He began working in food service through an internship while studying food “engineering,” the term used instead of food “science” in the U.S.

He led us to the chilled meat processing rooms to find a line of tables piled high with pig carcasses, mostly already cut into quarters and medium cuts. Workers hefted pig carcasses off the meat hooks inside a small truck that had been backed into the processing room. Occasional grunts revealed that this move took quite some physical effort.

Ruben’s team slices up a very small portion of Argentina’s pork production. Pig farmers have been increasing output by over 100 percent during the last decade, chasing a 60 percent increase in pork consumption. Exports of pork are also on the rise, in spite of Kirschner’s attempts to keep pork in Argentina.

His workers are bumping bags of pork, ham hocks, and trotters against each other, flashing sharp knives, and tossing offal into buckets beneath the tables. The working space is clean, constantly rinsed by water and cleaning fluids, but at some point Ruben will need more cutting tables and meat processors to deal with the increasing taste for Argentinian pork.

After watching the ad hoc choreography required to empty the small truck and prepare meat for processing, we wandered upstairs where the sausage takes shape. Workers in pristine whites, boots and hairnets, swung into action, sliding trays of cut-up pork meat into the jowls of the steel meat grinder. From out of a room containing buckets of spices come the seasonings that will be mixed into the ground pork, and steel tubs of ground pork become seasoned chorizo, some batches red, others not.

Meanwhile, on another stainless steel bench, workers slip the end of a pig intestine onto a sausage filler. A sausage stuffer opens the sausage casing, made in this case out of pig intestines, to enable the sausage meat to fill the tube created by the intestine. (I’ve tried to make sausage at home without a machine like this, and it’s a Laurel and Hardy experience however long you work at it.)

Ruben’s workers were slipping the stuffer into casing with lightening speed, inching up the casing while extruding pork mean into the tube as the next worker spun of lengths of string, tying the filled casing in increments of six to seven inches. No doubt this skill took hours of practice. Imagine the mistakes during the training period: sausages half tied-off, flinging loose sausage meat across the room.

Making sausage without a casing machine is a Laurel and Hardy experience no matter how long you work at it.

Back down in the cutting room, we saw the process begin over again. Moving into his office, Ruben explained that he needed to make a few calls to chase down payments and orders before driving us out into the countryside to visit one of his pig farmers. Along one counter, colorful plastic binders spoke of Ruben’s attempt to bring order to the chaos in the next room.

In the car during the three-hour drive to the pig producer, I got a chance to know Ruben outside of his meat processor demeanor. I asked about his family.

He replied, “It’s a sad story.” His eyes filled with tears as he drove on the highway and recounted how his wife passed away a week after giving birth to his two-year old daughter. His job, he confessed, was the only thing that held him together, providing one constant despite the tumult within his own life. Without warning, we were talking about his deep loss, about his love for his daughter, about his fears for her future, his insecurities as her only provider.

Who are these people, working the pork processing supply chain? Working the loading dock, counting cases on a pallet? People like Ruben.