In general, the experts I talk to about this have a view of sustainability that encompasses all sizes and all crops, with local and organic playing an important, but necessarily small, role.
Michael Rozyne plays that role. He’s the founder of Red Tomato, a Massachusetts food hub that connects midsize regional produce growers to supermarkets, and he wants the push for a better food system to focus on the growers and the practices, not the label. And he’s optimistic that consumers are moving in that direction. “I do sense a real openness to the idea that the story is more complex than they thought, and they don’t have to cling to the one thing they feel safe eating,” he told me.
Read Tamar Haspel’s September 22, 2017 article, and the context around Michael’s quote, in it’s entirety at Washington Post.com
Sixteen Northeast orchards representing 1439 acres of fruit are successfully certified Eco Apple® for 2017. Several of the orchards have now been certified Eco for ten years or more, with additional orchards joining over the past decade. Phoenix Fruit Farm of Belchertown, MA, under the leadership of new owner Elly Vaughan, is certified for the first time this year.
Eco Apple helps growers expand the adoption of orchard management practices that reduce risk for humans, pollinators, and environment.
This year, with support from the Cedar Tree Foundation, we were able to contract with the IPM Institute of North America to analyze records for five orchards that have participated in the program consistently over the past 10 years. Practices and spray records were analyzed using Pesticide Risk Tool (PRT), www.pesticiderisk.org, a risk assessment tool that measures high, moderate and low risk of pest management treatments in four categories:
Consumer Dietary (including chronic and cancer-causing health effects)
The results indicate 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.
“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,” notes Dr. Thomas Green, entomologist and President of the IPM Institute.
Several Eco-certified orchards have also participated in a study of wild pollinators by Professor of Entomology Dr. Bryan Danforth at Cornell University. “We surveyed bees in conventional and Eco Apple® orchards and found a striking difference between the two in terms of wild bee species richness and abundance. The Eco Apple orchards host many more species and many more individual wild bees,” reports Danforth. “The Eco Apple protocol does a very good job of protecting the beneficial insects, including pollinators.”
Partnership supports local growers
Apple growers in the eastern US face more than sixty species of damaging insects, and twice as many diseases compared to growers in the drier climates of the Pacific Northwest. Over 93% of certified organic apples grown in the US come from eastern Washington. Eco-Apple offers a both growers and consumers a way to support sustainably grown local fruit in the Northeast.
The Eco Apple program is a partnership between farmers and scientific advisors to advance the most progressive and environmentally responsible growing practices in the northeast region. Farmers manage damaging pests with biological methods such as natural predators, mating disruption, and trapping as their first line of defense. They use science-based practices to promote soil and tree health, nurture pollinators, and protect biodiversity – ultimately ensuring balanced ecosystems and safer working conditions while producing the highest quality fruit.
We are especially proud that the program addresses specific farming challenges for this region. It is reviewed every year, and continually adapted to deliver better standards and better fruit – season by season, crop by crop, orchard by orchard.
2017 certified Eco Apple® producers are below; starred* orchards are also certified for Eco Stonefruit in 2017:
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
Six Northeast orchards are Eco PeachTM certified for 2017
Available at farm stands and supermarkets throughout the Northeast
The Eco Peach program, the result of ten years of collaboration between growers and science advisors, is a rigorous, ecology-based farming and third party certification program that supports and rewards farmers who use the most ecologically sound, minimally treated, methods possible to grow their fruit. Six Northeast orchards are certified Eco PeachTM for 2017. Eco peach growers report a bountiful peach harvest this season.
“A good peach is second to none, especially when you have to lean over the sink because they’re so juicy,” comments Laura Edwards-Orr, Executive Director of Red Tomato, the non-profit local produce distributor that manages the program. “We know that everyone is extra hungry for these jewels of summer because last year’s spring freezes eliminated the local crop throughout the Northeast. We’re proud to partner with our growers, who use some of the best growing practices in the region, to bring these peaches to kitchen sinks throughout the Northeast!”
Farmers in the Eco Peach program use practices that promote soil and tree health, nurture pollinators, and protect biodiversity. They manage damaging pests using biological methods such as natural predators, mating disruption, and trapping as their first line of defense – ultimately ensuring balanced ecosystems, safer working conditions, and cleaner fruit.
“The Eco protocol is like a “road map” to good ecological farming,” explains Josh Morgenthau of Fishkill Farms in Hopewell Junction, NY. “It promotes a healthy ecosystem, allows farmers to minimize their use of chemicals, and yields a clean, sustainable (and delicious!) crop of fruit each season. And being Eco certified helps us communicate these practices to our customers, for whom a peach might otherwise just be a peach,”
Orchards in the Northeast face twice as many damaging pests and diseases when compared to their west coast counterparts, making ecological farming a good approach to tree fruit production in this region, according to Josh and other growers.
“I am a third generation family farmer, and I’m committed to sustainable farming,” Josh says emphatically. “Over the years, I’ve learned first-hand how difficult it is to produce tree fruit organically; the Northeast climate and its unique complex of orchard pests make it nearly impossible. So while our vegetables, berries and certain hardy apple varieties are certified organic, we’re proud to say the rest of our crop is Eco certified.”
The Eco Peach program was designed to give consumers in the Northeast a safe and responsible choice for local peaches. The Eco program uses many of the same practices as organic, focusing on biological controls such as beneficial insects and mating disruption. Growers use pesticides as a last resort, which reduces impacts to the environment, pollinators, and farm workers.
Red Tomato’s 2017 certified Eco PeachTM producers are:
Champlain Orchards, Shoreham, VT
Fishkill Farms, Hopewell Junction, NY
Mead Orchards, Tivoli, NY
Lyman Orchards, Middlefield, CT
Rogers Orchards, Southington, CT
Blue Hills Orchard, Wallingford, CT.
Lynn Thurston started Blue Sky Produce in Maine in response to a simple problem:
Less than 1% of wild blueberries are harvested for the fresh market.
Since 2006 Lynn has been working to build relationships with growers, distributors and customers. Wild Blueberries are one of North America’s oldest native berries, and have thrived under the harsh growing conditions of Northern New England. Rich in antioxidants, blueberries have a wide range of potential health benefits. From brain health, gut and heart health to cancer prevention, the ongoing research continues to shed light on these potent berries.
They taste delicious. A different flavor than what we’re used to from cultivated local blueberries, these fruits are more tart, but lend themselves to a variety of uses in the kitchen. From smoothies, pizza and salad – they go well with almost everything!
Getting Product To Market
Blue Sky works with 8 family owned farms, ranging in size from 13-200 acres. Until this season Lynn and her team were picking up berries from each farm, aggregating in Maine and then trucking them to over 40 locations in the greater Boston area (not to mention 8 chains throughout the region, and a plethora of customers in between).
However, that last mile leg was proving difficult. Deliveries could only happen 1 day a week. For the Blue Sky team, it was purchase another truck, or find a different way. And that’s when Red Tomato was introduced. For the month of August (the entirety of the fresh wild blueberry season!) we’re excited to handle the order taking and delivery logistics for over 40 wild blueberry customers!
Where to Find Wild Main Blueberries in the Greater Boston Area
As we close in on the end of July, labor crews are up and running on the farms across the Northeast – making time it an excellent for a quick update on our pilot partnership with the Equitable Food Initiative. As we mentioned in our last post, the backbone of EFI certification is workforce development and leadership training. In order for a farm to certify, 90% of the workforce must be trained through the program. In addition a leadership team representing the diversity of the workforce (including race, ethnicity, gender and roles across the farm) must be established, and document regular meetings. Designed to encourage feedback from across the farm, these meetings allow the team to make progress on specific initiatives or develop solutions identified by the crew or management of the farm.
One of our learning objectives in this pilot was to identify how a Northeast program might differ from a west coast program. EFI has found success thus far on larger farms in the wets, Canada and Mexico. The farms in the Red Tomato network are smaller – both in terms of acreage and gross sales – and have less capacity to expand than many of their western counterparts, which limits their capacity to absorb additional costs.
Our farms use a combination of local labor and H2A workers, mostly from Jamaica, who arrive in waves as the season progresses. This meant that it would be nearly impossible to train 90% of the workforce in a single pre-season training as is typically done. This past spring we worked with the two participating farms to identify and train leadership teams on each farm, with plans to do a second training in the fall after the full crew has arrived.
Communication is Key
Each leadership team is comprised of 9-10 farm employees ranging from management, H2A workers and local labor. Each team member also represents the supply chain within the farm – from field workers to packing house workers to managers and food safety point-people. Part of the training involves creating a physical map of the farm and where each person’s job is focused; communication and team building; problem-solving; and the role and responsibility of the Leadership Team over the course of the season.
In the debrief, both farms were excited to have both training and a structure with which to explore better communication across the farm hierarchy, but also across the cultural differences built into their diverse crews. Offering critical feedback can be difficult under even the easiest of circumstances. Working to address trust, communication and teamwork creates a way for anyone on the farm to offer or receive critical and timely insights.
The Food Safety Expectations
EFI standards cover food safety and sustainability practices in addition to worker well-being. Both farms in the pilot are currently food safety certified and meeting all of the requirements of their customers. However, in order to certify with EFI, both farms will need to increase their food safety threshold from USDA GAP standards to the EFI food safety standards which have been benchmarked against Harmonized or Global GAP. For the non-food safety nerds among us, that means additional record keeping, training and rigor in the farm food safety plan. The EFI training will help workers learn to identify, problem solve, and communicate around particular elements of that implementation. Both farms may require additional technical support to become compliant with both the new food safety regulation (Food Safety Modernization Act) and the EFI certification standards.
The Work Ahead
With full crews on the farms, secondary trainings, audits, and food safety support, provided by an RT-hired food safety consultant are all on the horizon. While tremendous work continues on the farms, our sales team is working with our buyers to introduce them to the certification, if they aren’t familiar already, and the breadth of content it covers.
As we all know, doing something new for the first time takes time. And training takes time. The farms, farmers and employees participating in this pilot are committing several days of labor across the entire farm, in peak season, to the project. This was never a commitment to be taken lightly but we at Red Tomato are increasingly appreciative of the commitment and integrity the leadership of both farms have brought to this project. Likewise, our partners at EFI have been generous with their time as we apply their methods to our Northeast context and insert Red Tomato as an intermediary into what is normally straightforward collaboration between one farm entity and the talented EFI team.
For all those involved in food, news of the potential acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon spread quickly and was topic of great discussion in our office and with our growers. Given a few days to digest and think members, of our team weigh in;
…it splatters, unlike the hard pink winter tomatoes from Florida and Mexico that I have played baseball with, literally.
Heirloom tomatoes started showing up at farmer’s markets as a response to the flavorless supermarket tomato. Heirlooms are now widespread. The challenge Red Tomato faced in 2005 was getting heirloom tomatoes to supermarket shelves.
But getting them on the shelf was only a first step: if heirloom tomatoes were to sit in a small, barely noticeable display on the supermarket shelf for the benefit of a few customers willing to pay a high price, well, that would do little for the growers involved. The greater challenge was turning the supermarket heirloom tomato into a steady, respectable mover—and that was about quality control; merchandising and promotion; and of course, price.
“A good crew is the best insurance you can have” says vegetable grower Wally Czajkowski of Plainville Farm in Hadley, MA, a sentiment likely shared by all the growers in the Red Tomato network. The knowledge, skill, health, and well-being of a farm’s crew is integrally linked with the economic well-being of the farm as a whole. And, the farmers we know work hard to ensure that they tend both aspects of their business with equal care and attention.
Red Tomato is committed to applying our fair trade roots to our work with produce farms in the Northeastern US. As a founding member of the Domestic Fair Trade Association, we have been long time participants in efforts to understand what domestic fair trade and fair labor practices mean for farmers and farm workers in our region. In addition, we have been working with our growers to understand their farm labor challenges and discussed grower and worker concerns at our annual growers meetings for over ten years. In our 20th anniversary year, Red Tomato is excited to be partnering with the Equitable Food Initiative to pilot their innovative workforce development approach to mid-sized farms in the Northeast.
For most of our years Red Tomato has held an annual growers meeting, most recently in eastern New York. The meeting is designed to bring together our entire network of fruit and vegetable growers, along with the scientists who advise us, for 2 days of planning, learning, and sharing. This year, with the continued expansion of our Direct Store Delivery (DSD) program, and thus additional vegetable farmers in Massachusetts, we hosted a separate gathering at Plainville Farm in Hadley, MA with many of our vegetable growers to better address their needs.
Their feedback, insights, jokes, and willingness to spend a morning with the Red Tomato team has set the tone for what is already shaping up to be a great 2017! Here are three main takeaways from the meeting:
Balancing Needs: Coordinating Red Tomato’s direct delivery program means I am communicating with both customers and growers, acting as both the buyer and the saleswoman. At the end of each season, Red Tomato sends out an anonymous survey to our customers. While this feedback is incredibly helpful to Red Tomato, meeting with our growers allowed me to understand what the responses meant for them. We were able to unpack what “more variety in products offered” or “lower prices” actually translates to in day to day operations. Due to the demands of peak produce season we don’t typically have the time to pursue what customers mean when they ask us to experiment with new varieties, what commitment versus purchase looks like, or to redesign our packaging. Meeting with just our veg growers pre-season also allowed us to focus on their needs in a way we couldn’t otherwise with our larger network of apple growers and scientists.
Logistics, Logistics, Logistics: Buying and selling is one thing, but moving cases of tomatoes is another. Angel and Omari led the conversation on how Red Tomato handles logistics, all the factors that play into a decentralized supply chain, and asked growers how Red Tomato can continue to improve our systems to work for our growers first. Could we work with distributors to keep tomatoes warmer in the refrigerated truck? Find more distribution partners in Western Mass? Stop sending so much paperwork? Our DSD program can be a challenge to run, but with dedicated growers and the logistics team at RT we’re committed to delivering the best quality produce region has!
Food Safety: When we talk about the freshest, highest quality produce, usually the next word that comes to mind isn’t ‘safest’. However, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the most sweeping reform of our food safety laws in more than 70 years, was signed into law by President Obama in January 2011 and is gradually being implemented, with large portions in the coming years. FSMA aims to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it.
Red Tomato has required food safety certification since 2015, and we discussed our ongoing work to create our own Food Safety Benchmark for new growers, and covered the food safety commitment Red Tomato has made to our customers. We addressed everything from food safety certifications, FSMA, record keeping, and other safe handling practices our growers already do.
We are proud to work with some of the most experienced and quality conscious vegetable growers in our region. Having the chance to sit down with them and exchange information, ideas and stories while the ground is still quiet under snow cover is part of what makes our work so satisfying and a big part of what makes our partnerships with these growers so key to all of our success.
What’s more, midsize farmers are typically too large to rely on those channels alone to sell all their food, and lack the volume and distribution resources to sell at a wholesale level or on their own the way big producers can.
“From the beginning, Red Tomato’s goal was to give the farmers a place and a voice in the market,” said Susan Futrell, the hub’s marketing director…“At a certain point, you have to figure out, [how] are you going to get higher volumes of food to more people?”