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Money Where Your Mouth Is

Michael Dvorak
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."

The size of the farm and how carefully the food is grown, picked, and packed also affects price. Take last fall's amazing heirloom organic Fuji apples, grown by the Jersey Boyz on an 11-acre farm near Oregon's Columbia River. So crisp and juicy are these apples, one bite sent nectar running down my sleeve. Hand-picked and gently hand-packed, they were displayed next to a large organic grower's Fujis, which were selling for half the price, and conventional Fujis, going for even less.

"Once you taste that heirloom apple, you're hooked," says Brown. "It's an incredible apple, and the extra 50 cents doesn't seem like much. I couldn't expect--and wouldn't want--the heirloom grower to sell for less, no matter what the other growers are doing. She'd be out of business the next year."

Brown knows of what he speaks. Even with the support of outlets like the Wedge and his Co-op Partners Warehouse, he has watched a frustrating number of farmers go under. Unable to live on the low returns he saw after more than a decade of growing heirloom eggplant and tomatoes, and new potatoes the size of shooter marbles on the once-lovely Red Cardinal organic farm in Stillwater, David Washburn quit farming last year. "Why is our food so cheap?" he often used to ask. "In France, most people spend 25 percent of their disposable income on food; in the U.S., it's about 9 percent." (For a profile of Washburn, see "The Price Is Right," City Pages, September 9, 1999.)

Ten long, contentious years in the making, the new U.S. Department of Agriculture rules governing what can and can't be labeled organic will be introduced next year. Thanks to the organized and thoughtful efforts of a concerned public, organic farmers, and small producers (many of them Minnesotans), the guidelines prohibit the use of genetically engineered organisms, ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge for fertilization. They do not address health claims, and they don't attempt to govern food additives or growing methods. They cover production only. Meat, eggs, and dairy products from animals that are not raised free-range qualify as long as the livestock eats organic grain; so does mono-crop farming with approved fertilizers and herbicides. (Until now, these practices were restricted by the guidelines established under state and local organizations, Minnesota's Organic Growers and Buyers Association being one of the toughest.)

At best, the rule encourages conventional producers to seek alternative, less harmful methods, rewarding them with the increased market value the very term organic bestows. But the certificate does not assure the consumer of taste, health, or quality. It does not release me from knowing where and how my food is grown. Buying lettuce from California when ours is in season weakens our local food network. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to pack, wrap, truck, and store a California head of lettuce, much more than a perfectly fresh one from a local grower who is cultivating a beautiful landscape, helping to keep our groundwater clean, supporting wildlife, and protecting me from yet another SuperAmerica.

Our local co-ops provide vast amounts of information about the food they sell, especially throughout the produce aisles. Along with the price tags, they list whether the food is conventionally grown (with the aid of petrochemical pesticide, herbicide, fungicide, or fertilizer), transitionally grown (the farmer is applying for organic certification, using organic methods to bring the land or operation up to organic standards, a process that takes three years), or organically grown (certified by an independent agency according to specifications that require the grower to submit to soil tests that confirm he/she is not using chemicals). Some produce may be labeled "IMP" (integrated pest management), meaning nasty bugs are under attack by friendly critters (ladybugs, for example), but that the grower may also be using a fungicide or herbicide. (Don't assume IMP produce is organic: The Wedge sells local IMP berries that were sprayed with a herbicide before the plant blossomed. Still, this is less harmful than if it is sprayed while it is in bloom.)  

Within the organic community, the debate rages over a marketing term to distinguish quality growers from quantity producers. To Diffley, the question is moot. "The trends in organic agriculture simply reflect those of our culture at large," he says. "Every time something proves itself to be profitable, there's a push to produce more with less margin and thus less personal contact. We have a strong relationship with all of the co-ops and, through them, with the people who eat our food."

The Wedge encourages local growers to tell their unique stories through point-of-purchase displays; homey and friendly, these express the personality of the growers, and give information about the vegetable. Signs for products from Delano's RiverBend Farm are bright-green and sport a bending river. Diffley's shows his son Maize, grinning, holding up an ear of bicolor corn. "People see our corn display with the picture of our son," Diffley says. "Maybe they understand that there is a real person actually growing that corn. It doesn't just come from plastic trays." There is a barefoot joie de vivre in peeling back a fresh, green husk to peek at tender, white and gold kernels while standing next to the teen's goofy portrait.

Turning over the final leaf, consider again that Dole organic-caesar-salad package, its nearly perfect two-inch squares of lettuce, the tiny dressing packet with its perforated corner, and the little baggie of crisp, brown croutons. Set it next to that head of local romaine, its leaves dark green and paler within, the shades of summer, dressed in a glistening coat of grassy olive oil and sharp red wine vinegar, a sprinkle of coarse salt and cracked black pepper. Which will you choose?

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miles
The Wedge Community Co-op

2105 Lyndale Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55405

612-871-3993

www.wedge.coop


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