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The Preppers Were Right All Along

Cattle graze during drought conditions this summer in California. Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images  (Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images North America)

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 packages of long-storage comfort foods — powdered eggs and nut butters, freeze-dried stroganoffs, casseroles and lasagnas — fast enough.

To meet the demand, founder Mark Augason simplified his production, knocking his 60 products down to the core best sellers and cutting off dozens of distributors so he could funnel his sales largely through Walmart Inc. and Inc. “It was like my Super Bowl — it was finally here,” Augason told me. And it hasn’t yet ended.

Augason’s Super Bowl moment has lasted three years and may persist for many more.

Just when Augason Farms and other major survival food brands, from Mountain House to ReadyWise and My Patriot Supply, were beginning to see a softening of demand this summer as Americans returned to pre-pandemic behavior, the worsening impacts of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine hit, along with rising fuel costs and inflation, and withering drought and heat waves in the western US and Europe. Then came Hurricane Ian, which caused nearly $2 billion in agricultural damage in Florida alone. Survival food sales have remained strong.

Preppers, as the community of bunker builders and food hoarders is known, emerged during the Cold War as fears of nuclear holocaust drove some people to go to great lengths to prepare for survival in a burned-out world. But as the movement persisted over the decades, it has been mostly ignored by mainstream society, myself included, which came to view preppers mainly as paranoid radicals.

So it’s more than a little uncomfortable to confront the reality that this fringe industry is increasingly mainstream. In fact, in an era of growing environmental volatility and geopolitical unrest, Augason and his competitors appear downright prescient, maybe even pragmatic.

Disaster after disaster has reminded us all of the disturbing premise underpinning prepper thinking: We’re increasingly at risk of being cut off from our normal food supply. One recent report predicts that the survival food industry, which now produces very roughly $500 million in annual sales (privately held 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 mainstream consumer behavior. You probably have at least one friend, colleague or neighbor who has been toying with the idea of becoming a “prepper.” Maybe not building a full-on bunker, but lining their pantries with long-storage food in the event that another major storm, blizzard, wildfire or another public health crisis hits.

“Early on, our market was mostly the people preparing their bunkers for Armageddon or resisting a government they feared would take away their guns,” Aaron Jackson, former chief executive officer 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 times. But Mormons, and more broadly, men, no longer represent even the large majority of survival food’s exploding market.

In less than a decade, said Jackson, the ReadyWise market shifted from about 95% men to more than 50% women, most of them mothers — known in industry patois as “guardian moms” — concerned about a reliable food supply for their kids.

Even Joe Rieck, vice president of sales at My Patriot Supply, a direct-to-consumer brand associated with a right-wing base that sells fire starter kits, gas masks and water filtration pumps along with its freeze-dried kibble, told me: “Ten years ago preppers were considered the crazies putting away food. Today you’re crazy not to. We don’t just sell to the extreme bible-carrying, gun-loving Americans. It’s everybody, because everybody’s affected.”

Every survival food executive I’ve spoken with seemed to agree that natural disasters are getting more frequent and intense. Rieck wouldn’t connect these intensifying threats to climate change — “I don’t think there’s any data that proves that climate change is the cause of making storms and hurricanes worse,” he said. But other executives I spoke with readily acknowledged that climate change is driving the growth of their business: “Global warming affects the droughts and the flooding and that has impacts on crop production. End of the day, food supply takes a real 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 including REI and Bass Pro Shops, caters both to preppers and to outdoor enthusiasts. He told me that climate pressures inform his marketing strategy: “Our emergency messaging targets people that probably need to be preparing in certain areas, so as hurricane season starts we remind people [in coastal regions] to prepare; we do all the same thing with blizzards and tornadoes and wildfires as well. The intensity, the frequency of these events is going up.”

Indeed, as the market for survival food becomes more regionally and politically diverse, there appears to be a shifting culture within the industry itself — especially among corporate leadership, which is increasingly pedigreed. Wark of Mountain House brought to the company a history of management roles at Post and General Mills. Last year Augason, who dropped out of high school to work in his family’s business, brought in Moir Donelson, a graduate of West Point and Harvard Business School, as CEO to guide the company’s growth. A business that began as a powdered milk operation in the Augason family garage in the 1970s has become the oldest and one of the largest brands in the survival food industry.

And while the core technology behind freeze-dried products is not new, it has notable nutritional and long-storage benefits. It’s a 21st century version of something the Incas started back in roughly AD 1200 when they placed potatoes and ch’arki, a kind of beef jerky, on elevated stone slabs to freeze overnight and then quick-dry in the sun. Today, fresh ingredients are rapidly “blast-frozen” at temperatures as low as negative 112 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent the formation of ice crystals that could affect food texture and nutrition. The food is then put in a heated vacuum chamber that causes the ice to “sublime,” changing from a solid to a gas without passing through a liquid phase. Pores left from the vanished ice quickly absorb water when the foods are rehydrated. The process takes nearly double the energy used for canning but retains about 90% of the food’s nutrients and preserves it for far longer — 30 years at a minimum.

I have yet to invest in survival food products myself, in part because I’m optimistic enough to believe that we won’t need them. But I know a growing number of people buying into the survival food trend. I’d first heard about ReadyWise from my cousin-in-law, a former cop in Zionsville, Indiana, who had stashed a supply of the startup’s products in his basement that could sustain his family for six months. My stepbrother, a business executive who lives in downtown Washington, has invested in a one-year supply of drinking water and long-storage food. And my brother, a leading climate scientist, has also begun building a supply in the basement of his West Virginia cabin. He reminds me regularly 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 kids,” he told me. “And the probability of major environmental interruptions in our food supply in our lifetimes is, by almost all accounts, rising.”

The upshot is this: There are any number of good and practical (and very sobering) reasons to be adding long-storage food supplies to your pantry. But we should be putting far more energy into supporting regenerative farming and the next-level technologies that can help us build a climate-resilient food supply, while also voting in politicians who take climate change seriously. Let’s be sure we’re not fiddling with freeze-dried fettuccini while the planet burns.

More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• It’s Better to Mine Rainforests Than Farm Them: David Fickling

• Averting Putin’s Grain Pain: Elements by Clara F. Marques

• Use Market to Combat Climate Change and Hurricanes: Tyler Cowen

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

Amanda Little is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering agriculture and climate. She is 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.”

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