Time to get out of the office!

As asparagus and strawberry season approaches (rejoice!), it’s time for RT staffers and our retail customers to get out of the office. Not only do we love farm visits but we find that our buyers develop a much deeper connection to our products once they’ve met the farmer and seen the whole operation in action. Farm visit season kicked off this week with a most successful trip to Wards Berry Farm in Sharon, MA and Clark Bros Orchard in Ashfield, MA:

April 13, 2010

8:30am. Michael and Tim, and Ciarin (our new Team Leader!) host a couple of farm visits for one of our top and favorite customers. First stop, Ward’s Berry Farm to visit with Jim Ward. While there, Jim highlights his new plantings and processes for watering the plants. He also introduces us to the Germinator, a handmade unit that creates just the right light, temperature and moisture to jump start natures process.

Germinator at Ward's Berry Farm

We then take a tour of his farm, seeing the fields that are being prepared for upcoming plantings and showing signs of early crops like strawberries (hooray).

12:30pm. Next stop for our group was Clark Brothers Orchards where we met Clark family, including Aaron, Dana and Brian. Barney and Chris Hodges of Sunrise Orchards drove from Cornwall, Vermont to join us for a wonderful lunch and storytelling time at the Clark’s home. After some delicious, homemade apple crisp (apples from the orchard), we got a tour of the farm to see the fields of apple trees that were just beginning to show buds and promise of coming apple varieties.

Narrated by Tim Huggins.

Once the beds are put to bed

Every morning I drive past Wards Berry Farm on my way to Red Tomato. I try and appreciate this moment of my workday because it offers an opportunity to witness the annual life cycle of the farm. Earlier this week, I noticed a backhoe and some pipes in the middle of what was the tomato field this past season. “Huh – an irrigation pipe?” I thought to myself. Musing on the rush between turning over the soil, installing a brand new system, getting a cover crop in, and the ground freezing, I was reminded of all the hard work that happens on the farm in the winter. The work that most of us, no matter how devote, never witness: budgeting; ordering supplies; planning field maps; researching varieties; maintaining customer relationships; fixing equipment; and making time to learn from colleagues (the winter farm conference season is a big one!).

Many of us like to romanticize the life of a farmer, spending sunny summer days outdoors and cold winter ones by the hearth, but the reality is: farming is a year-round job. When it is cold and nasty outside, the farmers of the Northeast are working just as hard to bring us fresh, healthy food as they are when the tomatoes are ripe and a farm visit sounds appealing. So, even if your shopping cart boasts more bananas and storage apples than it does farm-fresh bounty, don’t forget your regional food system isn’t snoozing, it’s already deep into the new year.

Learning the Red Tomato way

As a long-time event volunteer coordinator, I was famous for my “Vibe” speech. This was a once a year opportunity to convey to a staff of up to 300 people what it means to carry the spirit of an organization, on their person and through their actions, for an entire day. After years of giving this speech, it came to be the highlight of the big day. There is tremendous joy in communicating high-level ideals in a way that inspires people to take on a new perspective – even if it’s only for eight hours.

When I arrived at Red Tomato’s door step, I already understood a portion of the Red Tomato vibe. Freshness, flavor, fairness, and quality in terms of farmers and food systems made perfect sense. But the Red Tomato way- that was a different story. It took more than a year of observation and participation to fully realize that the deepest motivations and the process by which they are expressed at Red Tomato can be compared to an onion: beautifully fresh and locally grown but always composed of layer upon layer.


Lessons Learned — from Vietnam to Food Systems

I’ve been gripped by all the Vietnam and Afghanistan comparisons. How much can Obama advisors learn by studying the Vietnam War? At Red Tomato we’re always questioning how our successes and failures can become useful to other groups and farms. Not just kind of interesting, but really useful, the basis for planning and decision-making.

Here’s the theory: philanthropic funders prefer organizations with promising new ideas that can be developed, tested, improved, because they serve as a model that others can replicate. In replicability lies the exponential impact on society, the bang for the buck.


Two books, one just in, one a classic

With high expectations, I read Just Food: How Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly. The author had a piece in the Wall Street Journal on August 22, and I’m always in search of a thoughtful critique of my own work and thinking. Especially one that puts complex issues together, shakes them up, and comes forth with fresh insights.

McWilliams aims to deliver on that very challenge. He debunks simple notions of food miles (closer is better); challenges us to think bigger and deeper about organic (as savior) and GMOs (as villain) because of the collosal challenge to adequately feed  billions of people; and he confronts his own carnivorous diet and converts to vegetarianism after seeing first hand the ills of food safety and energy inefficiency in growing meat at an agroindustrial scale.

Jill Richardson trashes this book in her blog La Vida Locavore: “don’t buy the book…instead just hit your head against the wall for about 10 minutes…you’ll save time and money…The author is excellent [at] building up straw men and knocking them down.” Which is true.


Saladdad (turning lettuce to laud)

It sounds like a town in Iraq. It’s not. It’s what I’ve become in my own home…a salad dad.

I used to cook a lot. But my partner and wife Kimberly French is such an amazing cook (friends regularly e-mail Kimberly for recipe suggestions) that I have taken to specialization: sous chef, weekend breakfasts, and salad maker.

And salad grower, which is what I love. I’ve learned from Eliot Coleman (organic greens grower and author) and from Richard Bonanno

(Red Tomato’s senior lettuce producer) how to raise a healthy crop of greens without gaps from May 15 well into the winter, outdoors mostly and in a small greenhouse under plastic.


More on IPM – It’s common sense!

IPM, integrated pest management, is tricky. There is no doubt about it – everyone wants a short line to explain it to people and there just isn’t one. From a non-farmer perspective, though, the more I learn, the simpler it gets.

Here’s a little narrative on my latest revelation:

Last week, Michelle Chambers, John Lyman, Dan Cooley, and I gave a training Eco Apples to a group of Whole Foods store educators. As always, the usual questions of “What is IPM?” “How is it different from organic?” “What sprays can you use?” came up – because that’s what people want to know. For a number of reasons, we all tend to go first to questions about spraying and toxicity when it comes to produce but the reality is that there is a long line of things that happen on a farm before a spray even enters the picture. Listening to John and Dan talk about growing practices, on the farm and in study, it suddenly dawned on me – IPM isn’t chemicals; it’s common sense.