Announcing the Food Narrative Project

For nineteen years, we’ve told ourselves that Red Tomato, a small nonprofit with nine employees, is too small to have much impact on the national public conversation around local and sustainable food. We’re too small; our resources are too few.

We emerged from our five year planning process this winter with a revised view: yes, we can! In fact, we are in a unique position in the food system and industry, with close and trusted connections to growers, to business, to NGOs, and to the land grant scientists that advise agriculture. We are often translating amongst these various groups. We are better positioned than most. And so we are poised to invest time and resources, for the first time, to influence that public conversation. Our first stab at it is called The Food Narrative Project.

Our starting point is one particular piece of the public narrative, good farming practices. The average American knows next to nothing about agriculture. I don’t fantasize that the average American will ever know lots about agriculture. But the moment is ripe for a new food narrative. People are paying attention like never before. If people could understand a thing or two about good farming practices, some simple sticky explanatory words that connect them to soil, water, plants, and good farm management (not to be confused with clever sloganeering or a complicated certification)—that would help democratize the food system in two ways:

1. Growers doing innovative things, such as cover cropping, complex rotations, composting, or advanced IPM (integrated pest management), are currently invisible, lumped in with “conventional” and feel left out of the sustainable food discussion. Ideally, they would be more visible and would be rewarded for their innovations and risk.

2. More people would have access to more sustainably-grown produce they could afford. Oversimplified portrayals of agriculture as “all or nothing” —all natural, no pesticides, blemish-free, etc—have limited consumers to either “pure” specialty and premium foods that are expensive and in short supply, or commodities with no transparency about farm source or production practices offered at high volumes and lower prices. More understanding of the wide range of farming practices would open up greater supply and more, better options for eaters.

This is an ‘organic-and’ food narrative. Certified organic is not the only form of sustainably-grown safe produce. There are a lot of innovative farmers out there, and together with the organic movement they represent a larger effort toward a sustainable agriculture for the United States. Our partners in this effort are IPM Voice, a national advocacy network of IPM scientists and practitioners; and Frame Works Institute, the research arm of our project. Frame Works includes a staff of social scientists who practice cognitive science, linguistics, neuroscience, psychology, political science, anthropology, etc. Their work is translating science about how the world works into effective public messages.

We’re only beginning. It took us twenty years to reach the starting line. Patience will serve us well on this one.

5 Takeaways from the 2016 Growers Meeting

  1. Wild Pollinators Thrive on Eco Orchards: Early research from Dr. Bryan Danforth at Cornell University appears to indicate that in orchards using Eco protocols there are significantly more wild pollinators than conventional, non-Eco orchards. Dr. Danforth’s research also indicates that wild pollinators are more efficient pollinators than commercial honeybees brought to help pollinate. Learn more on the Cornell website!
  2. We are incredibly lucky! We spent 2 ½ days with a diverse team of over 50 scientists and growers from throughout the Northeast. Staff from the IPM Institute of North America, the USDA, Cornell, and UMASS Amherst were all present to engage in a dynamic dialogue with over 40 growers in the Red Tomato network. We were once again astounded at the talent and dedication to growing top quality fruits and vegetables in New England.
  3. Alternatives to Neonics exist, but can be more costly and more toxic. Neonicotinoids, often blamed for the die off of honey bees, are being phased out by retailers such as Whole Foods. A presentation by Art Agnello, Professor of Entomology at Cornell, noted that while alternatives to neonics exist, they can be more costly and/or more toxic to human, wildlife and other beneficial insect health. Agnello also demonstrated the  interconnected effects of various treatments not only on target pests, but also beneficial insects, and the difficulty in changing only one practice (such as use of neonics) within an advanced IPM plan without affecting the entire ecosystem
  4. Red Tomato can bring tension to the room – in a good way! We continue to work to facilitate a dialogue between our growers, the scientists we work with, our staff, AND the marketplace. In the past we’ve heard from retail partners such as Hannaford Supermarkets and Kings Marketplace, and this year welcomed Whole Foods Market to the room. Sharing their market approaches and Responsibly Grown rating system and truly engaging in discussion demonstrated valuable transparency and commitment to working with regional growers and partners in our network.
  5. Balancing the dual goals of protecting orchards and fruit from disease and minimizing use of chemical treatments is complicated and challenging. Over 70 growers and scientists attended a daylong session on the science of tree fruit disease management. In Europe, decisions in the orchard are dictated primarily by large retail chains and consumer advocacy groups, sometimes to the exclusion of growers and scientists. The most effective approach to disease management involves both long-term IPM strategies and short-term management targeted to specific outbreaks. In addition to New England scientists we were joined by Marc Trapman (Netherlands) and Vincent Philion (Quebec).

Down Home Ingenuity: let the people eat apples (on time!)

by Michael Royzne

It’s always buzzing in late August on an apple orchard in the Northeast. A couple of early varieties start the harvest at low volumes. But McIntosh and Cortland are almost ready. Cold nights and cold sunny days turn the apples red. They need to be very red to make high grade, not just partial red. So all systems are being readied, machinery is being oiled, and muscles are being exercised in preparation for a frantic pace and intensity of harvest, grade, pack, and refrigerate.

I was planning a rush of initial truckloads with Barney Hodges of Sunrise Orchard in Vermont, one of Red Tomato’s primary Eco Apple growers. Everything was in place—promises made to customers, all the paperwork executed. Barney called me on day 1 of the McIntosh harvest and said: “We got a problem. My packing line is down. I need a part. I’ve ordered it from Grainger, but tomorrow is Saturday and I’m nervous about weekend delivery.”

Sure enough, the part didn’t show on Saturday. We promised delivery for Monday. Barney turned to a few of his veteran employees who work every Fall at Sunrise Orchard courtesy of the U.S. guest-worker program known as H2A. They are Jamaican men who have been working at Sunrise Orchards for many years. They know how to weld. They know how to solve problems when resources are scarce, instead of ordering from a 1,000-page supply catalogue. Barney showed them the broken part and asked them to search the grounds for scrap metal, for anything they could use to replicate the part. Ashley Fisher, Joseph MacDonald and Headley Turner went on a mission. They found raw material. They pounded, welded, and shaped their way to a replica part which is still working today, two months later. The delivery was on time. “The people” ate September apples…on time. And Barney heaved a huge sigh of relief, and chuckled. The government considers H2A farm work “unskilled.” What a crazy notion.

How to Solve the Declining Bee Population

by Sue Futrell & Gideon Burdick

Everyone wants to save the bees! And for good reason; they are one of the most beneficial of beneficial insects, and they are in danger. In the United States beekeepers lost 40 percent of their honeybee colonies last year, and in the Netherlands the population of wild bees has dropped 90 percent over the past 120 years. This decline in population is cause for concern, especially as a disproportionate amount of nutrient rich foods are pollinator dependent. Crops like fruits, vegetables, and nuts all depend on pollinators, whereas others, including wheat, corn, and rice are self-pollinated, or  natural methods other than bees.

The lack of pollinators is already hampering production and causing a cyclical response that continues to stress bee populations. As the need for food continues to rise, the per-acre yields of pollinator-dependent crops are not keeping up with overall agricultural productivity. This causes more land to be put into production, and less uncultivated space – spaces filled with wild flowers and weeds – which pollinators need to thrive, to be available. In addition, fields planted with just one crop, regardless of its pollinator dependence also stress populations. Those that are dependent, including the California almond crop, have a make or break need for massive amounts of honeybees, but only for a few weeks a year.

One of the culprits in declining bee health is a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids (or neonics), which are used on many crops on the US. You may have seen the many petitions and campaigns calling for them to be banned. But the problem is not that simple to solve. Used in targeted, careful ways, neonics have been an important tool for growers of fruit and vegetable crops, as an alternative to older, even more toxic classes like organophosphates. When used in a rotation they can keep pests from developing resistance to pesticides, something more likely when the same treatments are used over and over. We can’t have food without bees, but we also need to protect crops from damaging pests. Managing that delicate balance is a constant challenge for farmers.

A 10/19/2015 article in the New York Times, “A Dangerous Cycle in Food Production” is one of the best overviews we’ve seen of this complex issue. The replacement of wild habitat with monocultures, the global movement of goods that exposes insects to new viruses and fungi – all of this, combined with the exposure to pesticides, including neonicotinoids, are causing a crisis not only for bees but for our food system as a whole. The author points to “the bigger environmental impact of the vast, highly intensive farms that are common in North America and Western Europe.” And suggests a way forward that we see every day on the farms we work with at Red Tomato– “a system that favors smaller-scale producers using fewer chemicals, encouraging natural predators to manage pests and growing a variety of crops…”

Since the Eco Apple certification programs inception we’ve been working with farmers, scientists, and scientific advisers such as the Xerces Institute, to develop an ecology based program that tackles specific farming challenges on an orchard by orchard level. Our program continues to develop, but growing apples in New England is a challenge. Red Tomato’s continued partnership with the IPM Institute of North America to develop a protocol that puts pesticide use last – only after biological controls including mating disruption, natural predators, and trapping– is our commitment to a system of agriculture that is good not only for the consumer and farmer, but also right for our planet.

We are following the research on bees and neonics closely, as are all of the growers we work with, whose crops all depend on bees for pollination. One of the most common uses of neonics is as a seed treatment, broadcast on millions of acres of corn and soybeans. A webinar from the NE IPM Center this October reported new research on soybeans that may show this approach is actually reducing yields because of harm to beneficial predator insects that otherwise help protect the crop. The research into neonics usage is vast, and we’re proud excited to also be partnering with Cornell University on wild pollinators. While there are no formal findings yet, research thus far indicates that orchards managed under an eco protocol like ours have good healthy habitat for pollinators.

Take a look at this article for more background. And before you sign that petition to Save the Bees, read carefully to see if the solutions proposed take into account the complexity of the issue. And take time to thank your local farmer for working hard to make their farms a healthy place for bees!

Riding the Zucchini Rollercoaster

If you grew up in rural New England like I did, you pretty much only lock your car doors during zucchini season. If you don’t, you risk an unannounced delivery of squash from your neighbor who is too torn to toss or compost their inevitable bumper crop.

Zucchini is about as commodity as vegetables come. Many people grow it. It doesn’t cost very much. And, even if it’s grown and handled with the utmost care it looks (and tastes) a lot like the one right next to it. Zucchini is emblematic of what’s difficult about selling local – our Northeast growers have smaller volumes at higher prices than the commodity growers further south. This race to the bottom had me crying out two years ago, “if I can sell zucchini to XYZ broad line distributor, we will have changed the food system!”

Enter 2015, in New Jersey, where we buy and sell for Kings Food Markets Just Picked Promise program. For well over a month, it’s rained more often than not in South Jersey where most of the growers are located. Ground crops like cucumbers and zucchini are suffering and at risk for disease. In a normal year, a ½ bushel box of zucchini would cost between $9-10 at this point in the season. This year, at its peak, we’ve heard reports of Jersey squash selling for as much as $38. Regional harvests that should be well into the 1,000s are clocking in the hundreds. There simply isn’t enough squash to go around.

Almost overnight the market for New England grown squash sky-rocketed. And it was still early season. Customers were looking for it anywhere and at any price they could. The Red Tomato team has been working tirelessly to fulfill the orders as they roll in, sourcing from as many as 5 farms from 3 states to meet the demand. We’re paying fair prices to our growers and are still able to be competitive in the marketplace – which, as I mentioned before, was never something we could have predicted on this crop.

Sooner or later, the market will settle. Jersey growers will get into their second and third plantings and regain some of their market share, which will really help them out. The New England growers will have had a strong run at the opening of the local season. And, I may not be selling zucchini to XYZ broad liner but we are shipping in squash by the hundreds to other broad liners, and many other customers. All that to say, this zucchini season, go ahead and leave your car doors unlocked. If you have too many to eat, let us know, we might have a home for your neighbor’s bumper crop.

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!