Chipotle puts farmers under contracts to prevent carne asada shortages

Chipotle has a plan to help young farmers — and to keep its restaurants stocked with its customers’ favorite menu items.

The fast-casual restaurant chain is offering three-year contracts to farmers under 40, if they meet certain standards. Chipotle is also donating funds to farms and partnering with the National Young Farmers Coalition to raise grant money for young farmers, the company announced Wednesday. It also plans to buy more locally sourced ingredients next year.

For Chipotle, which promises customers high-quality fresh food, securing its supply chain is essential. Supporting the farmers that grow its food is one way to accomplish that.

“We’ve had instances in the past where we couldn’t source enough pork that was raised according to our principles,” Chris Brandt, the company’s chief marketing officer, told CNN Business.

That led to shortages in restaurants.

“With carne asada, we’ve had trouble sourcing enough beef that meets our ‘food with integrity’ guidelines,” he said.

Those guidelines include using using antibiotics responsibly and giving animals space to roam, among other things.

And, he noted, Chipotle has aggressive growth plans. It needs ample supply of its ingredients to scale up.

By focusing on young farmers in particular, Chipotle hopes both to target a demographic that may be especially interested in the type of ethical, sustainable farming Chipotle wants, and help make sure that farming itself remains a sustainable vocation.

According to the 2017 agriculture census completed by the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, the average age of farmers has been steadily ticking up. In 2017, the average age of all farmers was 57.5. And there are far more farmers over the age of 35 than under: In 2017, there were about 321,000 young farmers out of 3.4 million altogether. The trends suggest that as farmers retire, there won’t be enough young farmers to take their place.

“We’re facing a crisis of attrition in agriculture that’s really threatening the future of our food supply,” said Sophie Ackoff, co-executive director of the National Young Farmers Coalition, a nonprofit which advocates for young farmers.

Unlike older farmers, young farmers often have to contend with student loan debt, Ackoff said. And with climate change threatening the industry, it may be harder to convince them that farming is a feasible profession.

The long-term contracts can help young farmers feel secure that they’ll get paid for their products over those three years, and that they won’t produce more than a buyer is willing to purchase. The grants should help those farmers secure the capital needed to invest in their farms.

Chipotle may also one day expand some of its tuition reimbursement benefits to farmers, Brandt said.