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The Preppers were right all along

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In the first seven months of 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic brought America to its knees, sales at survivalist supplier Augason Farms surged, tripling its annual revenue. The company couldn’t make its mylar wrappers of shelf-stable comfort foods — powdered eggs and nut butters, freeze-dried stroganoffs, casseroles and lasagna — fast enough.

To keep up with demand, founder Mark Augason streamlined his production, narrowing his 60 products down to best sellers and cutting dozens of distributors so he could channel his sales largely through Walmart Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. Super Bowl – it was finally here,” Augason told me. And it’s not finished yet.

Augason’s Super Bowl moment lasted three years and could linger for many more.

Just as Augason Farms and other top survival food brands, from Mountain House to ReadyWise and My Patriot Supply, began to see a slowdown in demand this summer as Americans returned to pre-pandemic behavior, the worsening effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine hit, alongside rising fuel prices and inflation, as well as drought and devastating heat waves in the western United States United and Europe. Then came Hurricane Ian, which caused nearly $2 billion in agricultural damage in Florida alone. Survival food sales remained strong.

Preppers, as the community of bunker builders and food hoarders are known, emerged during the Cold War as fears of a nuclear holocaust caused some people to go to great lengths to prepare to survive in a world exhausted. But as the movement persisted over the decades, it was largely ignored by mainstream society, myself included, who came to view preppers primarily as paranoid radicals.

So it’s more than a little uncomfortable to face the reality that this fringe industry is increasingly mainstream. In fact, in a time of growing environmental volatility and geopolitical turmoil, Augason and its competitors seem downright prescient, perhaps even pragmatic.

Disaster after disaster, we have all been reminded of the disturbing premise that underpins the thinking of preparers: we are increasingly at risk of being cut off from our normal food supply. A recent report predicts that the survival food industry, which currently generates annual sales of around $500 million (private manufacturers don’t like to share their numbers), will grow by $2.8 billion by 2026.

The growth of this industry speaks volumes about the fear mindset that has crept into consumer behavior. You probably have at least one friend, colleague or neighbor who has toyed with the idea of ​​becoming a “preparer”. Maybe not build a full bunker, but line their pantries with long-storage food in case another major storm, blizzard, wildfire, or other public health crisis strikes.

“At first, our market was mostly people preparing their bunkers for Armageddon or resisting a government they feared would take their guns away,” Aaron Jackson, former CEO of ReadyWise, told me. Like Augason Farms and most other survival food companies, ReadyWise was founded in Utah to serve the Mormon community, which is encouraged by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to prepare for the end of time. But Mormons, and men more broadly, no longer even make up the vast majority of the burgeoning survival food market.

In less than a decade, Jackson said, the ReadyWise market has grown from about 95% male to over 50% female, most of them mothers – known in the industry patois. as “guardian mothers” – concerned about a reliable food supply for their children.

Even Joe Rieck, vice president of sales at My Patriot Supply, a direct selling brand associated with a right-wing base that sells fire starter kits, gas masks and water filtration pumps as well as its freeze-dried kibble , told me: “Ten years ago, preparators were considered madmen who put away food. Today you’re crazy not to. We don’t just sell to Americans who carry the Bible and love guns. It’s everyone, because everyone is affected.

Every survival food manager I spoke with seemed to agree that natural disasters are becoming more frequent and intense. Rieck wouldn’t link these growing threats to climate change — “I don’t think there’s any data that proves climate change is the cause of worsening storms and hurricanes,” he said. he declares. But other executives I spoke with easily recognized that climate change was driving their company’s growth: “Global warming affects droughts and floods and that has impacts on agricultural production. Ultimately, the food supply takes a hit,” Augason said.

Josh Wark, senior brand manager for Mountain House, a freeze-dried food company that has more than doubled its sales in the past two years through distributors such as REI and Bass Pro Shops, speaks to both preparers and outdoor enthusiasts. He told me that climate pressures are influencing his marketing strategy: “Our emergency messages target people who probably need to prepare in certain areas, so when hurricane season starts, we remind people [in coastal regions] to prepare; we all do the same with blizzards, tornadoes and wildfires. The intensity, the frequency of these events are increasing.

Indeed, as the survival food market becomes more regionally and politically diverse, there appears to be a changing culture within the industry itself, particularly among corporate executives, who are increasingly genealogical. Mountain House’s Wark brought a history of senior positions at Post and General Mills to the company. Last year, Augason, who dropped out of high school to work in the family business, tapped West Point and Harvard Business School graduate Moir Donelson as CEO to guide the company’s growth. company. A company that began as a powdered milk operation in the Augason family’s garage in the 1970s has become the oldest and one of the biggest brands in the survival food industry.

And while the core technology behind freeze-dried products isn’t new, it has notable nutritional and extended storage benefits. It’s a 21st century version of something the Incas started around 1200 AD when they placed potatoes and ch’arki, a type of beef jerky, on raised stone slabs to freeze them overnight, then quickly dry them in the sun. Today, fresh ingredients are quickly “frozen” at temperatures as low as minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent the formation of ice crystals that could affect food texture and nutrition. The food is then placed in a heated vacuum chamber which causes the ice cream to “sublimate”, changing from a solid to a gas without passing through a liquid phase. Pores left by melted ice quickly absorb water when food is rehydrated. The process takes nearly double the energy used for canning, but retains around 90% of the food’s nutrients and preserves it for much longer – 30 years minimum.

I haven’t invested in survival food myself yet, partly because I’m optimistic enough to believe we won’t need it. But I know a growing number of people who are embracing the survival food trend. I had first heard about ReadyWise from my cousin-in-law, a former cop from Zionsville, Indiana, who had hidden in his basement a stash of the startup’s products that could support his family. family for six months. My half-brother, a business owner who lives in downtown Washington, invested in a year-long supply of clean water and shelf-stable food. And my brother, a prominent climatologist, also started building a reserve in the basement of his cabin in West Virginia. He regularly reminds me that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts an increase in average global temperatures of at least 4 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century. “I can’t imagine anything worse than not being able to feed my children,” he told me. “And the likelihood of major environmental disruptions to our food supply over our lifetimes is, by almost all accounts, increasing.”

The bottom line is this: there are a number of good, practical (and very disappointing) reasons to add long-lasting foods to your pantry. But we should be putting a lot more energy into supporting regenerative agriculture and cutting-edge technologies that can help us build a climate-resilient food supply, while voting for politicians who take climate change seriously. Let’s make sure we don’t mess with freeze-dried fettuccini while the planet burns.

More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• It is better to exploit tropical forests than to cultivate them: David Fickling

• Avoiding Poutine’s Grain Pain: Elements by Clara F. Marques

• Using the market to fight climate change and hurricanes: Tyler Cowen

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Amanda Little is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering agriculture and climate. She’s a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University and author of “The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World.”

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion