Blood, Guts and Truth from Red Tomato

On August 29th, after 13 years of supplying their regional apple program, Red Tomato received notice from our largest customer that they would be sourcing 4 of 5 apple varieties elsewhere. The harvest was underway. Shipping and warehousing contracts were in place. More than $100,000 of custom packaging sat in inventory. The news came in an email. To this day, our voicemails and meeting requests remain unanswered. Through the grapevine, we learned that we were underbid on one variety by $.01 per pound. This is today’s wholesale market.

 

Red Tomato will survive this setback. Our packaging has been resold. Our growers remain loyal. And, in more bountiful years, we built up a reserve for moments such as this. True resilience in this moment, though, will require reinvention. For the last several years, we have been observing an increasingly competitive and rapidly consolidating market. In response, we’ve tested updates and tweaks to the strategies that have enabled Red Tomato to scale local into the mainstream market over our 20 year history. It wasn’t enough.

Fortunately, our finger on the pulse of the market had the Red Tomato team at the planning table this past winter and spring to identify new strategies that better support mid-size growers in the Northeast. The challenge of losing a significant customer only strengthens our resolve and speeds up our timeline. The road forward requires a clear-eyed and unsentimental view of the Good Food Movement and the challenges we face collectively.

Can the Good Food Movement Make it to Market?

Cases of Red Tomato Product – With farm name and location front and center!

Perusing the menu of a high-end restaurant or the aisles of farmers’ markets and specialty stores, it would be easy to think that the Good Food Movement has accomplished what it set out to do: build consumer awareness so purchasing behavior shifts and local farmers are protected and rewarded.

The reality is: we’ve only shifted the tip of the iceberg. In the meantime, the market is changing around us. We’ve all seen the headlines: “Amazon to Buy Whole Foods for $13.4 Billion.” “Royal Ahold, Delhaize Agree to $29 Billion Merger.” “Supermarket Bankruptcies Are Beginning to Pile Up.” Grocery retail, which anchors the wholesale market, is fighting for its bricks-and-mortar life in the face of competition from e-commerce, urban migration, and increasing income inequality.

As retailers cut and consolidate to bring remaining profits in, they are pushing business externalities up the supply chain – rock bottom prices, inflexible start and end dates, zero tolerance for regional weather or production trends, 100% fulfillment rates, proprietary food safety certifications, lengthy payment terms and sky-high insurance thresholds. It’s true that consumer demand for local, ethical, sustainably grown products has grown year over year. And yet the wholesale buyer’s focus on short-term survival makes it nearly impossible for small and mid-size suppliers to bring to market the very products their shoppers seek.

The result? Consumers can’t find what they’re looking for and are distrustful that mainstream brands can authentically match their values. When product does make it to market, the benefits rarely trickle down to the grower – especially wholesale growers who do not have the benefit of direct contact with the end consumer.

Is the Second Farm Crisis Upon Us?

All of this comes at a time when farmers and advocates are observing waves of farm loss and farmer suicide rates reminiscent of the 1980s. For decades farmers have been urged to maximize their production on the false assumption of a limitlessly expanding global market. The investments and ingenuity farmers employ to produce more with less has generated oversupply, now exacerbated by the emerging trade war, that enables a race to the bottom pricing mentality. In February the USDA projected an $11.4 billion decrease in net farm income for 2018, the lowest real dollar value since 2009 when adjusted for inflation, putting the median farm income for the year at negative $1,691. Siena Chrisman’s recent article in Civil Eats “Is the Second Farm Crisis Upon Us?” goes into further detail about how these trends are particularly stark for black farmers, who hold just .4% of all farmland due to systematic discrimination across decades; and in the dairy industry, where 17,000 farms have closed in the last decade.

At Red Tomato, where apples are 50% of our sales, we see the most talented and progressive apple growers in the region struggle to compete against ever-expanding West coast and global production. They have developed expertise in sustainable production focused on careful monitoring, natural predators, beneficial insects, and targeted, limited use of lowest-risk treatment specifically adapted for the Northeast region. Consumers are more familiar with the organic certification even though most organic fruit is grown on the west coast. The share of Northeast apples sold wholesale in the Boston Terminal Market has declined from 50% in 1980 to 20% in 1995 and that number continues to drop.

 

Red Tomato Executive Director Laura Edwards-Orr

 

After many, many years of working the crisis hotline at Farm Aid, before joining Red Tomato, I thought I truly understood how devastating a crisis can be for a family farm or business. That was naïve – that pit in my stomach, which landed with the email informing us that our sales would be substantially reduced, was deeper and more overwhelming than I ever imagined. Fortunately, when the financial picture was fully fleshed out, I was able to move past that intense uncertainty.

For so many, a passion for the land and financial insecurity are one in the same. Some farm families live this way for years, forging ahead with that unique combination of ingenuity and resilience that inspires our movement.

Join Us and Fight Like Hell!

The survival and well-being of farmers depends on our ability to make authentic, systemic and lasting connections with the shoppers and eaters who share core values of thriving family farms, fairness and trust, sustainability and innovation. Doing so will require organizations like Red Tomato to be transparent and forward thinking about our boldest ideas and our most difficult challenges. It will require all of us in the Good Food Movement to collaborate beyond our comfort zones and navigate difficult conversations. And, it calls on anyone who has been a supporter of any version of ‘thriving family farms and good food for all’ to dig in their heels and fight like hell.

If we don’t, the culture shift we fought so hard to create over the last 30 years will have only served the elite consumer, not the family farmer.

family farmers twin oaks farm

Josef, Edwin and Linda of Twin Oaks Farm – Hadley ,MA

In addition to discussion on many listserves, this story was covered in Sustainable Food News.


Red Tomato receives grant from Farm Credit Northeast AgEnhancement program

Funding supports continued research on impacts of sustainable fruit production in the Northeast.

We’re pleased to share that we’ve been awarded a $2,000 grant from the Farm Credit Northeast AgEnhancement program. These funds will support Red Tomato’s ongoing efforts to research the impacts of sustainable fruit production on 18 Northeast orchards.

northeast agenhancement

Challenges of Growing Produce in the Northeast

Apple growers in the Eastern US face more than sixty species of damaging insects, and twice as many diseases compared to the drier climates of the Pacific Northwest. Over 93% of certified organic apples grown in the US come from eastern Washington, where organic-approved production is a good fit for conditions there.  Eastern Growers often need other approaches to succeed.

Red Tomato, in partnership with several Northeast Orchards and the IPM Institute of North America, has developed a third party certification, growing protocol and marketing program to support and reward farmers who use the most eco-sensitive, minimally treated, natural methods possible to grow their fruit. Started with six orchards on 400 acres in 2004, today there are 17 orchards and over 1700 acres enrolled.

The Impact of EcoApple®

Analysis conducted last year shows use of high-risk chemicals among five Eco-certified orchards (those participating in the program the longest), has decreased 59% since 2004, the year before the program began, and has continued to drop 18% since 2010. Support from the AgEnhancements Program will allow Red Tomato and the IPM Institute of North America to expand the analysis to additional orchards in the program. Both organizations are excited to continue the analysis, and expect new results by the end of 2018 .


Learn more about EcoApple
or donate to support or work in this important area!“We are especially proud that the program addresses specific farming challenges for this region, and helps these farms to remain vibrant and sustainable. Continuing to understand the impact of the Eco program on the orchard environment allows us to better communicate the importance of production practices that are appropriate for our region rather than a global standard.” says Susan Futrell, the EcoApple program’s director.

 

New of this grant was shared by the Fruit Growers News


EcoApple supports sustainable and locally grown fruit in the Northeast.

Northeast orchards set high bar for regional standards

EcoApple® supports sustainable and locally grown fruit in the Northeast.  

As apple-picking begins across the Northeast, some of the region’s leading fruit growers are working together to promote a high standard of growing practices especially developed for the unique growing conditions of the region. A network of pick-your-own and wholesale orchards, from Vermont to Pennsylvania, will promote their ecologically grown fruit and regional identity as part of the Eco Apple® program.

Seventeen Northeast orchards representing 1700 acres of fruit are certified as EcoApple for 2018. Two new orchards have joined the program this year. Ricker Hill Orchard in Turner, Maine, one of the largest orchards in Maine and a longtime producer of organic fruit, will add 100 acres of Eco-certified fruit for 2018. Three Springs Orchard in Aspers, PA, plans to become certified in 2019.

Why EcoApple – Challenges Facing Northeast Growers

The EcoApple program was developed to meet a need for ecological orchard standards appropriate for the Northeast climate and growing conditions. The result of almost 15 years of collaboration between growers and science advisors, it is a rigorous, ecology-based farming and 3rd party certification program that supports and rewards farmers who use the most eco-sensitive, minimally treated, natural methods possible to grow their fruit.

Apple growers in the Eastern US face more than sixty species of damaging insects, and twice as many diseases compared to the drier climates of the Pacific Northwest. Over 93% of certified organic apples grown in the US come from eastern Washington, where organic-approved production is a good fit for conditions there.

An apply maggot fly trap, used to monitor pest pressure in the orchard.

EcoApple offers growers and consumers a way to support sustainably grown local fruit in the Northeast. Eco practices include managing damaging pests with biological methods such as natural predators, mating disruption, and trapping as their first line of defense. Growers promote soil and tree health, nurture pollinators, and protect biodiversity to ensure balanced ecosystems and safer working conditions, all while producing top quality fruit.

The idea for Eco Apple grew out of a conversation between non-profit Red Tomato, a Massachusetts based nonprofit food hub, and fruit growers who were committed to using advanced ecological practices but had a hard time gaining recognition in the marketplace for their efforts. Started with six orchards on 400 acres in 2004, today there are 17 orchards and over 1700 acres enrolled.

“We are especially proud that the program addresses specific farming challenges for this region, and helps these farms to remain vibrant and sustainable. We want the Northeast’s great apples and beautiful orchards to be with us for many generations to come,” says Susan Futrell, the program’s director.

Apple growers are having an impact

Analysis conducted last year shows use of high-risk chemicals among Eco-certified orchards has decreased 59% since 2004, the year before the program began, and has continued to drop 18% since 2010. Growers and scientists review practices annually based on current research, and have steadily replaced more high-risk approaches with biological and lower-risk methods as they become available. Eco Apple orchards are certified by the IPM Institute of North America, a non-profit based in Madison, WI.

All practices and substances allowed in the Eco protocol are screened to minimize risk to pollinators, human health, and wildlife, and the most toxic treatments on fruit are prohibited entirely. “The pressure from pests and disease in an orchard can vary from year to year due to weather and other conditions, but the goal of the Eco program is to steadily reduce overall risk over time. We are encouraged to see the data indicate that is happening,” noted Dr. Thomas Green, entomologist and President of the IPM Institute.

Eco-certified orchards are harvesting now, and many are open for Pick Your Own and farm sales, as well as having apples available in regional grocery stores. They have a good supply of national favorites, including Honeycrisp, and Gala, as well as popular—and sometimes harder-to-find — regional specialties like McIntosh, Macoun, Cortland, and Empire. Heirloom varieties, with unique history, shapes, colors, and flavors, are also available from many orchards.

2018 certified Eco Apple® producers are:

  • Blue Hills Orchard, Wallingford, CT*
  • Lyman Orchards, Middlefield, CT*
  • Rogers Orchards, Southington, CT*
  • Champlain Orchards, Shoreham, VT*
  • Scott Farm, Dummerston, VT
  • Sunrise Orchards, Cornwall, VT
  • Clark Brothers Orchards, Ashfield, MA
  • Davidian Brothers Farm, Northborough, MA
  • Phoenix Fruit Farm, Belchertown, MA
  • Ricker Hill Orchards, Turner, ME
  • Schlegel Fruit Farm, Dalmatia, PA
  • Fishkill Farms, Hopewell Junction, NY*
  • Indian Ladder Farms, Altamont, NY
  • Kleins Kill Fruit Farm, Germantown, NY
  • Mead Orchards, Tivoli, NY*
  • Orbaker’s Fruit Farm, Williamson, NY
  • Sullivan Orchards, Peru, NY

*Also certified for Eco Stone Fruit, including Eco Peach™, for 2018

 

News of the EcoApple certification was carried in:


Laura Edwards-Orr Recognized in Inaugural Fruit and Vegetable 40 Under 40

Vegetable Growers news recently announced the winners to their first 40 Under 40 Fruit and Vegetable awards. This award recognizes 40 individuals under the age of 40 who are leading the agricultural industry. Laura Edwards, our Executive Director since 2014, has been selected as one of the 40 who is being honored.

“These 40 young professionals represent the best in the industry” notes Matthew J. McCallum, CEO of award sponsor, Great American Media Services. “This new initiative will spotlight emerging talent and those who are setting the pace for the future.”

Along with Laura, 11 other women, and 28 men are being recognized as young professionals who represent the best in the industry. Individuals from throughout the industry are being recognized; including growers, shippers, and even government agencies. Laura is among one of the few women recognized, as well as one of few working in non-profit.

Advocating for Family Farms

Laura stands out for her 6 years with farm aid, where she worked with farmers in moments of crisis on their national hotline. Joining Red Tomato in 2008 she led the development of innovative marketing and supply chain programs and partnerships to bring produce from Northeast farms to supermarkets and institutions in the region. From 24 hour field to store supply chains to building relationships with broad line distributors Laura has continued to advocate for family farmers. Laura was named Red Tomato’s second ever Executive Director in 2014.

“I’ve spent my career working to give a voice to family farmers so that they have wide access to fair and transparent markets. I’ve been so fortunate to work for and learn from, organizations like Red Tomato and Farm Aid who’s day-in and day-out are an effort to make that vision a reality. In today’s hyper-competitive and highly consolidated market, the future of our nation’s farmers requires vision and courage from this next generation of leaders. It is my hope that this award will give me the opportunity to connect with colleagues across the nation so we may rise to the occasion together.”

Laura, along with the other winners of the award is being honored at the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable & Farm Market EXPO. They will also be recognized in the October 2018 Issues of Fruit Growers News, and Vegetable Growers news.

Fruit and Vegetable 40 Under 40 is sponsored by Great American Media, publisher of Fruit and Vegetable Growers News, and other industry partners.


Michael Rozyne Keynote – What are We Collaborating For?

At the 2018 NGFN Food Hub Conference, a national gathering of organizations similar to Red Tomato, our founder Michael Rozyne presented the keynote, What are we Collaborating For?

The hour-long address detailed the importance of an inclusive narrative, and not an organic OR conventional approach to agriculture. Grab the popcorn and settle in!

Don’t have time for the full keynote? Check out the six-minute segment explaining Integrated Pest Management in spoken word!


IPM Explained

At the 2018 NGFN Food Hub Conference, a national gathering of organizations similar to Red Tomato, Michael Rozyne presented the keynote ‘What are we Collaborating For?’, which included 3 spoken word segments. An audience favorite was IPM Explained.

Put simply?

What is Integrated Pest Management?

 


Ask a Farmer: What does the Farm Bill mean to you?

What is the Farm Bill?

The Farm Bill touches almost every aspect of what is grown and consumed in the United States. Reauthorized every 5 years the farm bill is a near trillion dollar Federal funding package that affects the environment, local economies, and public health. In the 2014 farm bill there were 12 sections ranging from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps) to conservation programs to funding for research and infrastructure for specialty crops.

In the 2014  the overwhelming majority of farm bill funding went to SNAP and nutrition programs. The Washington Post in January of 2014 broke down the funding.

pie chart of farm bill spending

What are Specialty Crops?

The fruits and vegetables grown on farms in the Red Tomato network fall under a small category called specialty crops.  In 2015 Modern Farmer published an article  “Specialty Crops” Refer to Weird Things Like…Fruits and Vegetables”. Which is spot on. According to the USDA “Specialty crops are defined in law as ‘fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture.’”

The full list of specialty crops can be found on the USDA’s website.

So what are non-specialty crops? The top four crops grown in the country are corn, soybeans, hay, and wheat. And all that corn isn’t showing up on the supermarket shelves as corn on the cob. Instead, it goes towards ethanol production, animal feed, and high-fructose corn syrup.  While these programs get most of the attention in the debate over Farm Bill funding, there are hundreds of smaller programs that benefit both producers and consumers of local foods.

How does the farm bill affect specialty crop farmers in the Northeast?

We asked Ben Wenk, of Three Springs Fruit Farm in PA., A new member of our Eco Fruit network, the team markets fruit and vegetables to both wholesale customers and farmers markets. He notes several areas in which the programs in the farm bill are important, if not crucial to their farm.

 

ben wenk

Photo Courtesy Fair Food Philly

 

  • First off, the bulk of the Farm Bill budget concerns benefit programs like WIC. As a farm market grower, we need these programs funded. The last 4-5 years have shown sales at farmers markets in the Mid-Atlantic stagnating. One of the few areas of growth at markets during this period has been with those eligible for these benefits who have been directed towards farmers markets. Cooperation between community organizations and health care providers have provided programs to help those benefit checks go farther when spent at farmers markets through “double dollars” programs or similar “match funds” programs.
  • We don’t want to see funds cut to the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Grants (SARE) (https://www.sare.org/. It’s their research that helps us be confident that we’re doing our work in the field in the most responsible way – that we’re being good stewards of our farm ecosystems. We all want to leave our farms in better shape than when we started by the time our bodies are no longer able to do the job. It takes programs like SARE to make that happen. [Note: many farms in the RT network, as well as many of the scientists we work with, have participated in SARE research and on-farm demonstrations all across our region.]
  • We’ve seen many great examples of Specialty Crop Block Grants that have benefitted our local fruit growing community in Adams County and regionally here in PA. When we’ve been successful in our grant application for these funds, we’ve been able to add innovation and technology that keeps the entire East Coast industry competitive. Today’s successful farmers have to be successful marketers. In commodity agriculture where people’s crops are commingled and priced identically, the importance of marketing is often overlooked. Here in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, where we engage our neighboring communities by selling at farmers markets or selling directly to retailers who use our name as a single farm source, access to programs like the Value-Added Producer grants can be a sea change opportunity for farms who are looking to take advantage of their proximity to urban populations where fresh produce can be scarce or inaccessible.

Red Tomato has also benefited directly from Farm Bill programs throughout our 20+ years. In 2016 RT received a 3 year Local Food Promotion Program grant to help bridge the gap between store level purchasing and scaling local supply into a grocery chains distribution center. This includes work to help local farmers meet chaotic food safety requirements, marketing support, and figuring out the logistics of moving local food at scale. This program, part of the Community Food Project grant program (CFP), is one of many smaller Farm Bill programs in danger of being cut or eliminated in this round of authorization.

How Can You Influence The Bill?

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) have both established tools to make it easy to contact your elected representatives about certain issue areas. The NYFC offers links and info to contact your representatives about these programs.

NSAC has proposed 5 initiatives that support equity and stewardship for farmers across the size/location spectrum:

  • The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act
  • Local FARMS Act
  • Two bills advancing on farm conservation
  • A bill protecting seed diversity for future generations
  • Improving crop insurance for farmers

You can learn more and write your representatives from their website.

How does the farm bill become law?

Again, from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition;

The Farm Bill is passed every 5 years. Some parts of the bill have mandatory funding, while others are appropriations – meaning Congress must fund these programs as part of the annual budget cycle. The Reauthorization phase, which we’re currently in, follows the below steps.  The resulting bill will change many times as it works its way through the process before becoming final:


Angel Joins the Wallace Center Food Systems Leadership Network

We’re excited to share that our Director of Operations Angel joins the Wallace Center Food Systems Leadership Network as a mentor to help build capacity across the movement!

food systems leadership network logo

1.What is the Food Systems Leadership Network?

The Food Systems Leadership Network is a national Community of Practice to support leaders and staff of community-based organizations working on food systems change. With a focus on systems leadership development, sharing and adapt ing cutting-edge program strategies, and building operational and management capacity, the Food Systems Leadership Network aims to support, celebrate, connect, and invest in the individuals and organizations working tirelessly to transform their communities through food.

2.What is the role of the mentors within the network?

Mentors will dedicate a total of 30 hours over a four-month period (Feb – May 2018) to provide 8 hours of coaching to 3 organizations. There is a long list of the types of support buy we prioritized organizations supporting people of color and the what I can help them with, including logistics, finances and budgeting and general leadership. It was really tough which organizations to choose to work with, if you know me, I would like to work with all of them! 

Apply for mentorship today!

3. What are you most looking forward to?

I am looking forward to helping grassroots organizations avoid reinventing the wheel by sharing lessons learned, systems thinking, & effective non-asset based distribution/supply chain management.  I am also looking forward to help build myself up to do more mentorship and consulting work in the good food movement.

4. How can people get involved?

One can get involved by becoming a member of the Food Systems Leadership Network which will open up access to:

  • Connecting with individuals and organizations
  • Resources access
  • Community Knowledge
  • Developing systems leadership skills
  • Sharing and adapting cutting-edge program strategies
  • Building operational and management capacity of non-profit sector of the good food movement

The Disappearing East Coast Apple

Walking through the produce section of a grocery store in the Northeast in the past month and you’re likely to have noticed something strange. Despite a good harvest and plenty of supply, Macoun, McIntosh, Empire, Gala, Pink Lady, and Evercrisp apples from the Northeast are difficult, if not impossible to find, having all but disappeared from store shelves. One could easily conclude that the local apple season is over.

And the apples you could find? Varieties from the massive west coast producers, and if there was an apple from the northeast, it was likely a specialty variety intentionally restricted to a few producers in an attempt to keep quality, demand, and prices higher.

oranges on display (more…)


5 Questions About the National Farm to School Network

Laura, our Executive Director was recently named to the Advisory Board of the National Farm to School Network. We paused for 5 questions to learn more about the Networks work and how Luara and Red Tomato can contribute!

national farm to school network

1. What does the National Farm to School Network do?

The National Farm to School Network increases access to local food and nutrition education to improve children’s health, strengthen family farms, and cultivate vibrant communities. They do this by collaborating with partner organizations in all 50 dates, Washington DC and several US territories, to inform public policy, share resources, ideas, and strategies, and engage in creative problem-solving. They also put on a world-class conference!

2.What does being on the advisory board mean?

The advisory board at NSFN is the caretaker of the mission and is responsible for strategic planning, program oversight, fundraising, outreach and management and review of the Executive Director. We meet regularly, either as a group or in smaller committees, to offer insights and guidance to the Network’s leadership. This board also offers members a front row seat on cutting-edge farm to school programming and policy work that can help inform their own work.

3.What do you hope to accomplish in your time on the board?

I helped to organize the second National Farm to School conference at Kenyon College in 2005. At that time, most the conversation at the conference was: “Can we do this?” “Is it legal?”  “How does food get into schools today?” Today, farm to school is a proven strategy for engaging kids in their food system and healthy eating. We’ve come SO far! And, even so, institutional remains one of the most complex parts of our food system. Over my term, I look forward learning more about what is working on the ground and how organizations like Red Tomato can further strengthen the work of our farm to school colleagues.

4. Red Tomato is known mostly for distributing to grocery stores, joining a farm to school network seems a little strange! What does Red Tomato contribute to the network? 

It takes an incredible amount of knowledge to navigate corporate procurement contracts and purchasing. Likewise, it takes a savvy chef to match local products with cost-effective and tasty meals that kids will eat. Just as important to the conversation is the expertise that Red Tomato brings to the table – the perspective of wholesale growers and 20 years of logistical know-how. Between the staff, Advisory board and partner organizations the National Farm to School Network brings together all the voices needed to develop and implement programming that works across the entire supply chain. I’m excited to contribute insights from what I’ve learned at Red Tomato and I am very excited to bring their wisdom back to Red Tomato so that we can continually expand our ability to meet the needs of institutional chefs in our own sales work.

5.What are you most excited for!?

NFSN is one of those organizations that attracts some of the smartest thinkers in our movement. I’m humbled to be part of this team and very excited to learn from everyone around the table. I’m also thrilled to be able to prioritize the conference once again and experience all the energy and enthusiasm that this network harnesses when everyone is all in one place. And on a personal note, maybe this gig will help me figure out how to get my kids to eat their veggies at home!

You can learn more about the Network by visiting their website, and the 2018 conference at farmtocafeteriaconference.org –  or if you’ve got a question for us – shoot us an email; info@redtomato.org!