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.

New York Times Interviews Red Tomato for piece on Food Hubs

Start-Ups Rise to Close a Gap for Farmers

by Stephanie Strom, New York Times. December 30th, 2014.

“In spite of the surging demand for locally and regionally grown foods over the last few years, there is a chasm separating small and midsize farmers from their local markets.

But a growing number of small businesses are springing up to provide local farmers and their customers with marketing, transportation, logistics and other services…” Click here for full article.

Red Tomato Thoughts on the Whole Foods Produce Rating Launch

By Sue Futrell

Media commenters from both the conventional produce industry and environmental advocates have been quick to pounce on the new Whole Foods Produce Ratings, announced this week. The rating system, called Responsibly Grown, sorts fresh produce and floral into Unrated, Good, Better and Best categories, in hopes of setting a higher bar for growing practices by suppliers to WF and giving consumers the holy grail of something short, simple and catchy to make their shopping choices easier.

The criticisms range from the sweeping and defensive: “when you say your stuff is better it makes our stuff look bad;” to the impatient and cranky: “look how flawed this is, especially because they are using the same language (transparency) as McDonalds and therefore can’t be trusted.”

Most of the commentary doesn’t appear to have looked very closely at the WF program, and relies on a more thoroughly researched piece by Stephanie Strom in the NYTimes for second-hand sound bytes. NPR/WBUR also did a story that included more background and acknowledged the challenges WF faces in tackling something like this.

But already a quote from John Lyman of Lyman Orchards, one of the farmers we work with at Red Tomato, is being taken out of context and bounced around as a cute way of making fun of WF. Except that after John said ‘they want us to count earthworms,’ he went on to say that, as a grower who goes to extensive lengths to use eco-friendly practices on his farm, and usually gets lumped under the conventional label with no way to tell consumers about how he actually farms, he appreciates that Whole Foods is trying to do better.

That’s what all of the snarking doesn’t leave room for:  trying to do better.

WF has taken on something that both the conventional and the ecological sides of the conversation say is badly needed:  how do we create meaningful ways to define and measure sustainable practices in order to help our food system become moreso; and how do we help consumers–notoriously busy, impatient and with short attention spans while shopping for groceries– make choices that align with their concerns.  Why make fun of Whole Foods for trying?

We can say first hand, because we’ve gone through the rating process for a number of products and farms that supply WF via Red Tomato–the rating screen is extensive, ambitious, sometimes frustrating, requires extremely detailed responses to questions of farmers about their practices, and is based on imperfect but serious measures for a range of conservation and pest management practices that ordinarily are not the least bit visible to the end consumer.

That doesn’t even begin to touch on the extensive labeling and tracking of shipments from farm to store it takes to actually have the ratings show up on the store shelf. There is a massive focus on traceability underway in the entire food industry, especially produce. It is mainly driven by consumer concerns about food safety. Much of it leaves small and mid-size farms completely out of the process because the technology requirements are steep. Whole Foods, on the other hand, has gone to extra lengths to provide free labelling software and one-on-one support for growers and small suppliers like Red Tomato so we can provide the traceability needed. It’s a lot of extra work; but we don’t think traceability is a bad thing for those of us in the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food crowd.

We have problems with parts of the Rating system, for sure. Some of the blanket prohibitions on specific pesticides don’t make sense in every situation, for example; but that’s true with any attempt to create global standards that cover all crops despite differences of geography and climate. We’ll continue to push Whole Foods to allow for more nuance in those areas, and for the farmers we work with to be given room to make the right decisions for their farms.

Farmers, meanwhile, are beginning to be not just frustrated, but a bit angry at the degree to which consumers, and the retailers who compete for their shopping dollars, have claimed the right to tell them how to farm. The farmers we work with are smart, experienced growers. They understand marketing, and they share the concerns about health and environmental quality and worker safety. They are more than willing to address these by trying new practices, building the health of their farm ecosystems and pushing their pesticide use as low as they can. Every decision they make can mean they are risking their crops and in some cases the viability of their farms. But they don’t see anyone–retailers, government, or consumers–stepping up to share that risk. When a grower holds back a spray application for an emerging pest because he knows that by spraying, he will disappoint or be shut out of a major customer, and then loses the crop that year, and maybe for several years to come, the rest of us just find another place to buy our fruits and vegetables. The financial loss hits only the farmer.

So yea, likely some of them would rather not be counting earthworms to prove they are taking care of the soil in their orchard. But on the other hand, if someone who’s buying their fruit actually cares about the soil in their orchard, that’s not a bad thing. It might be a start toward something better.

None of this is simple.  It’s also not optional–most everyone who is paying attention agrees that we need to move our food and farm systems toward more sustainable practices, and soon. Rather than take cheap shots at Whole Foods and the growers who are trying to find a way through that challenging path, it would be nice to see the industry and consumer advocacy media give a little more thoughtful coverage to those attempts. Really digging in to the the realities of that hard process might help all of us figure out how we can do better.