It takes a region—or, What’s local for Red Tomato?

Michael talks shop:

More and more, consumers really care about locally-grown food.

Produce Business magazine (March 2008) sent a team of ‘mystery shoppers’ into stores across the country to see whether retailers are complying with COOL (Country of Origin Legislation) and to see how shoppers feel about it (i.e. whether they care which country their produce comes from). The ‘mystery shoppers’ discovered that “what they really seem to care about is whether their produce is locally grown.”

What defines local?

Some states have legislated local to mean grown-in-their-state-only. Some have defined local as X-number-miles or an X-hour-drive from your home.

At Red Tomato, we spend our time figuring out and managing the logistics of distribution for locally-grown fruits and vegetables, not defining local. For us, local has always been a regional effort. Our region is the Northeastern United States. If I had to define it I’d say our region is New England and its neighbors. I include New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania at the southern and western fronts. We need their production to serve our customers in southern New England and New York City.

Red Tomato’s arena is wholesaling, reaching the millions of people who shop at supermarkets. Direct marketing may be the highest form of marketing locally-grown produce-what’s better than meeting the very farmer who grew your dinner?–but all the forms of direct marketing combined (farmers’ markets, farmstands, CSAs, pick-your-own) reach fewer than 2% of the people.

The wholesale arena is the way to reach the remaining 98% of the population. And it takes a particular kind of grower to excel at the wholesale supply of high-quality produce. We seek growers with wholesale experience and knowledge, a personality and attitude predisposed to wholesaling, and the right handling and refrigeration infrastructure. Red Tomato sources from approx. 36 farms spread throughout the Northeast region in order satisfy the volume and quality requirements of our customers. Were we to limit our sourcing to within 50 miles, say, of a warehouse we were trying to service, we wouldn’t find sufficient volume and diversity.

Distribution is a jigsaw puzzle. All the pieces have to fit together or the connection fails. The pieces include: the right farm and farmer; on-farm infrastructure for growing, handling, and storing the crop(s); marketing strategy and packaging materials to differentiate the product so it sells well, satisfies the consumer, and rewards the grower adequately; transportation links.

It takes a regional supply to satisfy a regional network of supermarkets. Defining local in a rigid way is contrary to the laws of nature and of markets. Nature may observe certain rigid boundaries such as mountains and rivers, but it does not observe state borders or miles from point X on the map. I encourage people to get comfortable with a fluid understanding of locally-grown, something like “your state or immediate region (e.g. New England) and its neighbors.” Rigid definitions are not helpful in our effort to create a more locally-based supply of marvelous farm-fresh foods.