Lean Into Hard (Uncomfortable) Edges

Michael answers some hard questions:

Organizational coach Ora Grodsky counseled my colleague Kate Howell at Red Tomato to “Lean into the hard edges.” Kate taught the rest of us. By lean into the hard edges, Ora meant: face the difficult, uncomfortable challenges head on, right now, especially those with big payback. You’ll recognize hard edges rather easily because they’re scary, intimidating, unfamiliar, unpleasant, unusually difficult…you know, such as firing someone. I was in Corvallis, Oregon (Oregon State University) last week speaking at a small farms conference, a dynamic gathering of hundreds of passionate farmers and organizers and food business owners and students.

There were two hard edges I brushed up against:

1. Wholesaling versus direct-marketing. The local food effort has strong roots in farmers markets, CSAs, farmstands, direct sales to restaurants (which I call wholesaling) and more recently home delivery and internet solutions–all very exciting. Most of the conference attendees worked at direct marketing of one sort or another. I was invited to speak because I didn’t. For good reason, growers have been turning away from wholesaling for decades, after abuse and low prices. But all the direct-marketing efforts combined reach no more than 5% of the U.S. market. So what about the other 95%? Wholesale marketing of local and regional food to supermarkets, independent grocery stores, and institutions is difficult when your mission includes satisfying farmers, paying them fairly, and preserving the identity of their products. Yet wholesale strategies are emerging as a necessary part of the local food discussion…because of the other 95%.


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.


Focusing on Core Business

Aaron, Brian, and Dana Clark grow apples on the same rolling hills as did their father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. The fact that land Herbert Clark purchased in 1886 remains the Clark Brothers Orchard in 2007 is due to a combination of luck, skill, a helpful microclimate, and, in recent years the same kind of cooperative marketing agreement that seeks fair prices for small Latin American producers selling bananas.