Money Where Your Mouth Is

The Wedge Community Co-op
2105 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis;
(612) 871-3993

 

Consider the prewashed, organic caesar salads Dole ships to supermarkets throughout the country. Packaged with single-serving dressing and crouton packets, they are lined up like cereal boxes and cost a mere $2.50 or so per bag. By all rights, I should be buying these salads and feeding them to my family.

After all, I'm the perfect Dole demographic: married with kids, working and plumb out of time, concerned about health, and willing to spend more for flavor and for assurances that my food is pure and wholesome. Organics is the fastest-growing segment (20 percent a year for the past ten years) in a $400 billion industry. Responding to consumer demand, large corporations are shoving their way into this once-tight niche. Wal-Mart is the second-largest food retailer in the nation and is now the world's largest buyer of organic food.

All of this means that as you've fingered those Dole salads, most likely you've felt a bit at sea: What does the term organic guarantee? Will the USDA's soon-to-be-implemented National Organic Program affect folks like me? And, perhaps most puzzling, why do those seductive bags, trucked over 2,000 miles, cost less per pound than a head of locally grown organic romaine? The answers to these questions require a lesson in the economics of local, sustainable small agriculture.

Nothing is trickier than writing about organic food. How quickly I get preachy, poetic, and tedious. Converted by the taste of my first organic carrot--bright, crisp, and sweet, with no bitter, tannic, chemical residue--I joined the Wedge Community Co-op some 25 years ago. I worked off my membership fee stacking apples and cutting cheese. I've shopped through the store's moves and expansions for produce I trust to be delicious and the safest for my kids, ages 7, 11, and 13.

And in the process, I've come to admire Edward Brown. Until recently the Wedge's produce manager, and now its director, Brown has spent nearly 30 years in the perishable fruit and vegetable business, first as a migrant fruit picker in Florida and Wisconsin, and later as a purveyor, buyer, and manager. Two years ago, with the support of the Wedge, he founded the St. Paul-based Co-op Partners Warehouse with the aim of supplying his home store and other regional co-ops with organic and sustainably grown produce. The idea, he explains, is that pooling co-op buying power "allows us to compete with Lunds and Whole Foods."

"Growing quality, good-tasting, organic, sustainable food is hard, hard work," he says. "Farmers deserve a fair price and respect for their efforts to grow without chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides." A fair price? "Enough to cover costs plus margin," he explains. (Little of what we spend ever gets to the farmer. For example, fast-food restaurants purchase French fries for about 30 cents per pound and sell them for $6 per pound. Every $1.50 order of fries returns about 2 cents to the potato farmer.)

Brown's business methods fly in the face of traditional produce buying, where buyers decide what they'll pay after the food is harvested, and growers compete in the market mainly on the basis of price. "We draft a 'Grower's Agreement' in advance of the season and commit to a sustainable price, not necessarily the market price--often more--for the crops a farmer will plant, grow, and harvest," he explains. The arrangement spreads the risks, so the farmer does not have to absorb all of the up-front costs.

Farmer Martin Diffley, the owner of Gardens of Eagan (which is actually located in Lakeville), is one of the area's largest and most successful organic growers. He says that Brown's partnership has made an enormous difference in the viability of his family's fourth-generation farm. "It's a real twist," Diffley says. "Since the 1800s, we've been growing potatoes and onions, selling them for whatever we could get. The Wedge turned the economic relationship around."

Because of Brown's willingness to commit to a price in advance of the growing season--and thus assume some of the risk that goes along with trying something new--Diffley now harvests a variety of crops. "We've gone into exotic melons," including casaba, crenshaw, and tiny golden watermelon, he explains, "bicolor corn, Yukon Gold potatoes, and things I never would have tried on my own," he says. "They've been very successful crops. We've made money, and so did the Wedge."

Diffley goes on to explain that Brown and his crew at the Wedge also help farmers plan their seasons so their crops do not overlap, with attention to what crops best suit each farm. For example, early strawberries should grow in the sandy soil of the south, root vegetables in the heavier clay up north. "What we decide to grow has become a collective decision among local farmers," he explains. "I call this 'romantic regionalism': The Wedge supports us, helps us grow, everyone benefits."

For people like Diffley and Brown and their customers, it's not about price. "I find it really odd when Cub advertises food at 'the lowest price,'" Diffley quips. "Why would anyone want to buy the cheapest food?"

And more often than not, local food is not the cheapest. "In Minnesota, locally grown food has to be more expensive," Brown explains. "In California, growers have the luxury of three profitable seasons. They can afford to depress their prices when our local stuff is at its peak, to hold a market position. Our growers must make it within a small six- to eight-week window; they cannot afford to sell for less than what it costs them to grow."

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