Producer Profile: James Faison, Milton’s Local: A Fourth-Generation Farmer Finds His Niche
Making bacon may seem an unusual job for a Harvard-educated lawyer, but this producer is actually drawing on a rich family legacy.
In the fictional universe of the sitcom “Green Acres,” a Harvard-educated lawyer resolves to become a farmer and does his chores in a dress shirt, vest, and tie. In the real world of James Faison, a Harvard-educated lawyer who took over his grandparents’ farm, he more sensibly traded his suits and pocket squares for work pants and boots.
“I didn’t expect to be doing this,” Faison, 34, says, “but you never know how life’s going to turn out.”
“This” is Milton’s Local, an all-natural meat company Faison founded in Hopewell, Va., in 2012; operations began in 2013.
Looking for the Best in His Region
Rather than driving a tractor, the fourth-generation farmer, who was born in Emporia, Va., aggregates family-farm-raised, grass-fed beef and pasture-fed pork from Virginia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. Last year, he also introduced his own brand of thick-cut bacon and uncured bacon sausage flecked with bell pepper and onion, and another version flavored with chipotle and cilantro. The quality, originality, and consumer appeal of the latter made his sausage the winner of the 2016 Summer Fancy Food Show Shelf Showdown. Inspired by television’s “Shark Tank,” Shelf Showdown gives four first-time exhibitors a chance to not only give their best pitch to four retailers, but also to receive thoughtful feedback and seasoned advice for marketing a successful brand.
The show was an eye-opener for the entrepreneur. “It was crazy to see all these companies there with their products, and when I go to the grocery store I haven’t even seen a quarter of them on the shelves,” he says. “It shows you how competitive it is, how you have to constantly innovate and give customers what they want.”
Pork, which is part of Faison’s legacy, happens to be what a lot of customers want these days, especially from pigs that are humanely raised and antibiotic- and hormone-free. Fond memories of staying at his grandparents’ 200-acre farm and how his grandfather, Milton, raised hogs and made hickory-smoked bacon inspired Milton’s Own Bacon, launched in 2015. James adapted his grandfather’s recipe, hickory smoking it for eight hours but using no nitrates. Milton’s Own Bacon Sausage is a value-added byproduct, a way to use the discarded bacon ends.
“Most country sausage is salted to death and what we tried to do is make a tasty, all-natural product with a lot less sodium,” he says, noting that each serving has about 80 milligrams as opposed to the more common 200. “We’re appealing to a more health-conscious consumer.”
Roughly 35 pig and cattle farmers have partnered with Milton’s Local, some of them with fewer than 50 animals and some with as many as 500. They all comply with USDA inspections. So far, Faison isn’t raising any of his own livestock, instead using his legal, financial, and marketing skills to shepherd the company.
Growing the Brand and Helping Local Producers
At Harvard, Faison studied government and Spanish, then spent a year on a fellowship in the Dominican Republic and another year working for Bobby Scott, a Virginia congressman. Following law school at the University of Virginia, he spent three years in Miami at a law firm specializing in cross-border finance. Miami was where he got into the fine-dining scene, gravitating to restaurants with a seasonal, local approach. That interest proved to be the seed for Faison’s future business.
His grandparents, Milton and Juanita, both died in 2009 and left their farm to Faison and his two siblings, one a neuroscientist and another an English teacher, both of whom wanted to stick with their careers. Their father, also a farmer, had died young. For a time, Faison traveled back and forth between Florida and Virginia, trying to figure out what to do with the land.
He met with local farmers and saw how they were struggling to survive. According to a 2015 Agricultural Resource Management Survey, he says, small-scale cattle ranchers lose about $1,800 per year and sustainably raised pork farmers have a yearly deficit of $5,000.
“Independent farmers have to be the grower, the distributor, the marketer, and the accountant,” he says. “That’s a lot to ask of one person. They were being neglected and left to their own devices to try to make a living. I thought, if I put together a business to help those types of farms, I could take some of those burdens off their shoulders.”
Faison began to work with a farmer-curator and paid visits to regional farms to assess their practices, and see for himself that they were raising their animals without antibiotics, hormones, and steroids. He learned about their problems and their needs. A level of trust developed. A mission-focused idea took shape.
“I really wanted to come back and give it a go,” he says of his decision to ultimately leave the international business world for the great outdoors. His girlfriend (now wife), Elizabeth, was also an attorney and was supportive even though she doesn’t eat meat. “She’s a pescatarian,” he says, “but she’s been a real trooper.”
Faison believed there was a strong demand in the region for all-natural meats and had to find a way to demonstrate it. “I approached it from a consumer standpoint, thinking about how I liked to eat,” he says. “Small farmers are not necessarily up on the trends in affluent cities so they didn’t know about the growing market for the meat they had.”
Scaling the Business
Saison, a progressive, New American restaurant in Richmond, Va., was the company’s first client. Today about 40 restaurants, including several in Washington, D.C. and Maryland, have Milton’s Local-sourced meat on their menus. Wholesale items that Faison and his team distribute include strip loin, grass-fed ground beef, pork belly, and pork chops. They are sold at Mid-Atlantic retail outlets like Mom’s Organic Market, Union Market and Wegmans, through CSAs, co-ops, and online. The company will deliver anywhere in the continental U.S. Individual farms are listed on the website, from Papa Weaver’s in Orange, Va., to The Naked Pig Co. in Oakboro, N.C.
“The biggest next phase for us is to expand our grocery store partnerships and to grow Milton’s Local brand of bacon and bacon sausage,” he says. At some point soon he’s going to seriously look into adding poultry to the roster.
Working longer hours now than he ever did as an attorney, Faison tools around to farms, meets with retailers and restaurateurs, and strategizes on sales, marketing, and media. His corporate suits mostly stay back in the closet.
“When I have to dress up it feels kind of funny now,” he says. “I’ve never worked so hard in my life, but when it’s your own business, you have an extra level of caring about it. I’ve developed personal relationships with my farmers. They depend on me and I take that very seriously.”
Seeing firsthand what a difference it makes for small-scale farmers to find new channels for their high-quality, humanely produced meats and connect with people who are willing to pay a premium to avoid factory-farm practices, has been an interesting, gratifying journey, Faison says. “It’s also made me more sympathetic. I was always an advocate for farmers but I have sympathy for consumers, too. There’s so little we know about food, and as the company has gone through the labeling process it’s become clear how important it is to have clear claims that we stand behind.”
Milton’s Local meats are not bargain-priced, reflecting the true cost of what it takes to support farmers who do not go the industrial route. “Big agriculture is so efficient it’s allowed U.S. consumers to pay the least amount of income for food, so we’ve gotten to a place where food is cheap if you have a lot of scale,” he says. “It’s crazy to see a restaurant selling a chicken dinner for $2.99 when someone had to grow that chicken, truck it, and process it, the restaurant had to pay people to cook and serve it. It can’t be. I know too much about what goes into it to be comfortable with that.”
Faison thinks often of his beloved grandfather and how he would have gotten a kick out of what he’s doing with the farm and how the business is named in his honor. “I feel incredibly blessed to get to do this,” he says. “I feel like I’ve come full circle.”
Years in specialty food: 3
Favorite food: Bone-in pork chop.
Least favorite food: Fake meat.
Last thing I ate and loved: A malted vanilla milkshake.
If I weren’t in the food business I’d be: A lawyer.
One piece of advice I’d give to a new food business: Be more passionate about your business than your savings account.
Julie Besonen writes for The New York Times and is a restaurant columnist for nycgo.com.
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