In Defense of the Bigger Picture – What the Whole Foods Rating System Can Really Tell Us.

Just as there are thousands of farmers, there are thousands of ways to farm. The small and mid-sized family farms that are competing against multimillion dollar companies are balancing the health of their fields, employees, and consumers, all while having to compete in an ever industrialized food system. While it is reported that 97% of food sold in the US is considered ‘conventional,’ we know from working closely with the farms in our network that there is much more to the story.

Last October, Whole Foods Market launched a new Produce and Floral rating system, called Responsibly Grown, that rates all produce and floral items sold in Whole Foods stores as Unrated, Good, Better, or Best. It’s an effort to allow the customer to make a rapid and ideally a more educated decision about what they are consuming. The ratings are based on a comprehensive set of Whole Foods-specific standards and the 2015 growing season is the first in which all produce sold will be labeled under this system.

We’ve worked with a number of our growers with different growing practices to compile and submit rating requests for products they are selling to Whole Foods this season. So far the ratings, while labor intensive, are turning out to be a significant and uncommon way for these growers to be recognized and to communicate about a whole array of positive practices that are usually invisible to the end consumer.

An NPR reporter raising questions about whether the ratings are meaningful, stated “I found nonorganic onions and tomatoes, presumably grown with standard fertilizers and pesticides, that were labeled best”. This simple statement is the crux of what the rating system is trying to accomplish. Given the requirements to be rated and the significant restrictions on allowable substances and practices, it takes considerable experience, skill, and adaptability to achieve a Best rating. These achievements should be celebrated, rather than dismissed.

Whole Foods has researched and excluded the use of over 40 pesticides, including organophosphates. The process takes into account the scientific knowledge of both the Integrated Pest Management Institute and the Xerces Society in an effort to be responsive both to the needs of the farmer and the expectations of their customers. Exemptions are allowed in some cases; certain pesticides can be used by growers in certain areas to help combat regional pests, or transition growers towards reduced pesticide use. However, any product grown under an exemption is limited to ‘Good’ as the maximum rating it can receive.

Last week the Responsibly Grown rating system came under fire in several news outlets as a result of a letter that five organic growers sent Whole Foods. In the letter the growers stated their concerns that the implementation of this system devalued the USDA organic label and undermines Whole Foods own efforts to educate consumers about organic. The organic growers raise some valid points: the rating system is cumbersome, faces a huge challenge regarding in store implementation, and overlaps with some of the same factors covered by certified organic.

It’s easy to see the rating system as just another labeling requirement. However, we give Whole Foods credit for trying to again shift the conversation and make us think hard about why organic berries from Mexico (which get a head start in the rating system for being certified organic) might be rated ‘Good,’ while strawberries from a conscientious grower in Connecticut can be rated ‘Best’. We see the rating system as an attempt to create a tangible way of making distinctions about the grey space of the in-between. Instead of thinking of our food as either/or, organic or conventional, we have an obligation to dig into the realities of the process of growing food, to understand the challenges our farmers really face, and the many different ways our food is getting to the table.

You can read Red Tomato’s earlier thoughts on the issue in an earlier post from Sue Futrell, who published her thoughts in October of 2014.

How can we feed a nation without big agriculture?

“Food hubs fill a market niche that the current food distribution system is not adequately addressing, failing to connect small-scale producers to wholesale market channels. Additionally, food hubs can build the capacity of local producers and engage buyers and consumers to rethink their purchasing options.” Read More

Local: Don’t call it a comeback!

“The retail world has really extended an invitation to talk to them,” Rozyne says. “They’re saying, ‘We need what you have. Let’s figure out a way to work together.’ Every chain has its own version of that invitation.”

Read more about how the Produce industry views local in The Packer!

Don’t Let the Grass Grow Under Your Feet

aaron and zeke traceability usda lfpp

Discussing Traceability over the winter as part of a USDA Grant with Scott Orchards

Believe it or not, winter is a busy season at Red Tomato. We have LOTS of meetings. It often takes the full creative power of our team to work through the growing pains of the season’s past and forge a way forward that honors both grower and customer satisfaction. Product is still flowing – like still crunchy- sweet Eco Apples and our brand new year-round microgreen line. Winter products are rare in that they offer steady and predictable movement that is hard to find in the produce industry. As we shift to spring a familiar excitement fills the air. We go outside! Blink in the sunshine. Visit farms. Plant our own gardens. The meetings get a little shorter. And, we start to sell!

It’s asparagus season. One of the most dynamic products we sell with prices changing from morning to noon to evening. Swinging as much as $30 in 24 hours when it heats up suddenly and the asparagus (grass) really runs. It’s also the first product I ever sold as a ‘tomato-in-training’ several years ago. I had good teachers between Michael and our experienced growers. Even with a watchful eye it was still a wild ride – I was so excited to land my first sale that I forgot to put trucking in the margin. (Sorry Angel!!). Much of that adrenaline still holds today. Early season plays by different rules. My negotiating chops are a bit rusty, prices are high, and the market is frenetic. But then I remember: It. Is. So much fun!

4 four town farm red tomato

Talkin Asparagus in the Fridge @ 4 Town

Yesterday, we visited Chris Clegg at Four Town Farm in Seekonk, MA. He rolled in on what might be the largest tractor I have ever seen and handed Aaron, Gideon and I raw stalks of asparagus. It was astonishingly sweet and tender. I couldn’t leave the parking lot without sending emails to several buyers about the amazing quality that we’d just witnessed. Chris sells asparagus in a field run pack, meaning everything that gets picked that doesn’t have a blemish is sold, regardless of size. Other growers sell in a graded pack, which means the grass is packed according to size standards set forth by the USDA (warning, it’s a dense read!).

But right now, I’m closing out Friday afternoon with a belly full that same grass and two sales landed – thinking “what a lucky bunch we are to do this work!”

Laura Takes the Reins

By Laura Edwards-Orr, Executive Director 

When I applied for the job of Marketing Associate at Red Tomato, I was drawn to the tangible nature of the organization. My background was in working with farmers in moments of crisis as staff for Farm Aid’s national hotline, and in national promotion of the benefits of good food. I was ready to roll up my sleeves and break a sweat over the details of food systems change in a more intimate way. At Red Tomato there were nuts and bolts to be examined – actual cases, dollars and pounds to be sold. A real thermometer to track progress towards systems change. I wanted in.

Seeing the RT team in action surpassed my expectations. “I think I could work at Red Tomato forever,” I said to my then fiancé Vance, two weeks into my Tomato tenure. It was strawberry season, a delicious and perilous way to kick off the trade season. Despite the chaos, the staff came together each day to review strawberry logistics. It was the first time I witnessed Angel Mendez at work.  He outlined his plan: ready-to eat strawberries from 2-3 farms were booked to ride on a three-legged logistical journey, alongside romaine hearts, directly to dozens of stores by way of a sprout truck. It was a quality-intensive and cost-effective logistics solution for an incredibly perishable product. AKA magic. Honest-to-goodness food systems magic. I was hooked.

The years flew by. As many do in small organizations, I acquired new responsibilities ranging from strategic planning, fundraising and sales. When Michael asked me if I would consider taking over the role of Executive Director, I was struck simultaneously by excitement and overwhelm. We talked about the critical role Angel would play as the Director of Operations through the transition. We talked a bit about process – a multi-year implementation plan in partnership with our Management Team, Board of Trustees and some trusted external advisors. And, I went home to perform the 24-hour test. Upon waking, all of the doubts and details fell away. There could be no better opportunity to play a critical role in the evolution of the regional food system than at the helm of Red Tomato. It was time to double down.

My first initiative as Executive Director will be to lead our team through the process of writing a new strategic plan to take us into the 2020’s. As I look out over the next five years, I see increasing competition in several directions: for the supply of local product; for retail market-share in an ever price sensitive climate; and between the need for better returns to farmers and widespread food insecurity.  I see the Good Food Movement struggling to understand its role in the national conversation on race and equity. These aren’t simple times. In fact, many of these challenges are downright daunting.

But, I believe in Red Tomato’s ability to ask difficult questions, think outside the box and innovate towards a more sustainable food system and a better future. I am tremendously excited to work in partnership with Michael, Angel and the entire team as we explore and define our new roles. Most of all, I am humbled and honored by the opportunity to play a leadership role at this unique organization.

My thanks to all of you – your support and commitment to Red Tomato over the years has given us the support and security to take risks, learn, document, revise and repeat. Over and over again. Together, we are righteous produce.

To hear from Michael on the leadership transition, click here. To hear from Angel, click here.

Angel Keeps Red Tomato On the Road!

By Angel Mendez, Director of Operations

I still reflect on the early days of my Red Tomato work when I knew very little about produce or farming & agriculture.  I remember when the only apple I knew was a “Red Delicious” and the only lettuce was ‘’Foxy brand lettuce”.  I remember visiting farms as a young city kid and just being absolutely amazed to watch the cattle graze, the horses trot, the farmland & equipment, the farm families working endlessly to keep their farms in production.  I passionately enjoyed listening to farmers tell stories of their successes, failures, and challenges; around the same time I was fortunate enough to sit with the plant & bug scientists and enjoy listening to them argue over pesticide pressures, usage, & trap tactics.

I was working for Thrift Village Incorporated (T.V.I.) in Canton, MA, next door to Red Tomato’s first home, when I was introduced to Michael Rozyne & Kate Larson, Operations Manager, back in December of 2001.  I applied for a Warehouse Manager position and was called for an interview.  I have always been ambitious, eager to learn, and for some crazy reason, thrive off of being under pressure, which I think made me a good fit for the job.  I thought to myself, WOW what a great opportunity, not only do I get to learn about agriculture, food, & sustainability, I also get exposure to all parts of business such as finance, sales, product development, marketing & fundraising and be part of an AWESOME team!  Needless to say I accepted the job offer!  I was hired, and never looked back, I like to joke that “I got lost in the sauce.”

We gave up our warehouse in 2002 and I stayed on as Logistics Coordinator as we transitioned the business to a non-asset based model (no truck or warehouses.).  In a small organization you tend to wear many hats, so I filled roles in sales, product development, finance, IT.  Shortly after I graduated from Northeastern in 2012, Michael offered me the role of Director of Operations with Laura Edwards-Orr as Red Tomato’s Executive Director.  This was the best graduation present ever!

The best part of my job is the next challenge.  My challenge in 2015 as I embark on my new role, is to pull myself out of the trenches and prep, develop, & lead my team to carry out our strategic objectives.  Weighing heavy on my mind are food access issues, food safety, racial inequity, & sustainability.  I also think a lot about ways to bring awareness and share “lessons learned” with the urban community where I was raised.  I had an intense discussion with myself, where I explained to myself how I alone could not solve all of the problems of the world and maybe not in this lifetime, but I, we, can make a difference, and a bunch of little differences can make big change in due time.

I am very optimistic about the future and am absolutely honored to take on a leadership role working with Laura, Michael, & Team on Red Tomato’s future. Thank you all for your continued support that has enabled us to keep thinking, innovating, learning, and supporting family farms.  Let’s keep on trucking Righteous Produce!

To hear from Michael on the leadership transition, click here. To hear from Laura, click here.

Michael Looks Ahead – Changes at Red Tomato

By Michael Rozyne, Evangelist:

When it comes to leadership succession, I don’t have much faith in the national search for the ‘perfect’ outsider. Especially in organizations that are hard to “get” like Red Tomato —a business/non-profit hybrid; a distributor with no physical assets; a farmer agent in a world that knows little about agriculture and growing food. I’m grateful to our management coach, Michelle Chambers, for putting it right in my face: “You have these two stars here, both in their mid-thirties. They’re not going to stick around forever unless you develop some kind of future for them!”  I thought about that for months. And I concluded that the timeline for leadership transition at Red Tomato shouldn’t be defined by my needs alone; it had to be built around the new leaders—to be exciting and meet their needs, too.

Two years later, I am moving out of the role of Executive Director into a new role we are calling Evangelist. Effective January 1, 2015, Laura Edwards Orr is the new Executive Director of Red Tomato.  Angel Mendez is Director of Operations, responsible for finance, logistics, and technology. Add Sue Futrell, Director of Marketing, and you have Red Tomato’s management team, moving forward.

I’m not leaving Red Tomato; not even changing my office. I’m here full-time, focusing on the growers, new business development, and product development, the parts of the job I have always enjoyed the most. And the parts I am best at. Not a bad deal for me—I’m expecting my fun quotient to actually go up!

With Red Tomato’s support, I am also involved with several regional and national organizations where I get to turn my imagination toward bigger picture problems (and opportunities). They include NESAWG (the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group), IPM Voice, Fair Food Investment Committee, and the brand new Hudson Valley-based Farm Hub.

Red Tomato is as interesting today as it was at the outset in 1996. Even though the start-up years were undoubtedly the most challenging and uncertain, the path ahead is no less ambitious. This food and farm economy is brutally competitive, and only getting more so. Demand for local food has opened doors, for sure. But the survival of mid-size fruit and vegetable growers in this region is by no means assured. Costs continue to go up more than prices. We have our work cut out for us. Getting bored does not seem an option.

I am grateful to be working with two talented leaders who are so capable of taking the reins, both with great experience in our particular work, both showing the deepest commitment to our mission, and both full of street smarts to navigate this challenging time. I am grateful to be working under board president Maud Ayson, who has steered this leadership transition with great wisdom, skill and compassion. And I’m grateful for the whole team at Red Tomato, who keep us moving forward.  Congratulations Laura, Angel and Red Tomato! This is very cool!

To hear from Laura on leadership succession, click here. To hear from Angel, click here.