The countdown has begun to the next Earth Day celebration on April 22, 2016. Earth Day organizations around the world expect more than one billion people in 192 countries to participate in outdoor programs that teach children about taking care of our planet for future generations.
At Wegmans Food Markets, families are buying more organic foods every year as sales of organic produce have increased annually by double digits. Customers often cite environmentally-friendly organic farming methods, which don’t use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides, as a key reason for purchasing.
“When we talk with customers who buy organic produce about why they choose it, they often give several reasons,” says Bill Brauchle, Wegmans organic partner farm merchant for Pa., N.J. and New England stores. “Some think organic produce tastes better, and many talk about what they see as the environmental benefits.”
More growers across the country are devoting acreage to organically farmed fruits and vegetables, and as the availability has increased, the price for organic has come closer to that of conventionally grown produce, Brauchle says.
It was clear by the early 2000s at Wegmans that customer appetite for ultra-fresh organic produce grown near the stores was very strong, says Amy Cimino, Wegmans organic partner farm merchant for N.Y. stores. “Everyone loves the freshness of vegetables harvested just hours before you buy them, and that means those vegetables must be grown nearby. We began by talking internally about what we could do to satisfy that appetite.”
Wegmans approached the challenge from several directions. In 2007, the company opened Wegmans Organic Farm as a real-life laboratory for trying out the best organic farming methods and product varieties. The farm overlooks Canandaigua Lake in New York State’s Finger Lakes region and the harvest helps supply three Wegmans stores in Canandaigua, Pittsford, and Ithaca.
At the same time, the company encouraged its grower partners who were already supplying stores with fresh produce to transition more acreage to organics.
“We wanted to develop and share best practices with our grower partners, so we could learn together what worked well and which varieties were popular with customers,” says Cimino. “By working as partners with growers like Mason Farms in Williamson, N.Y. and Spiral Path Farm in Central Pa., we could make it a ‘win’ for customers who wanted more regionally grown organic produce and a ‘win’ for the growers who could count on a market for their crops.”
One way to make local farms more economically sustainable is to make the land productive nearly all year round, not just during the warmer months. In the Northeast, that means growing crops in the late fall or early spring that tolerate very cool temperatures, such as baby leaf greens. “We’ll have greens such as baby kale, baby spinach, baby romaine, baby field greens, and arugula by mid-April, in time for Earth Day,” says Brauchle.
By Memorial Day, he believes, the first cherry tomatoes of the season should be ready for harvest. All of these will be organically grown.
In its stores, Wegmans makes the farm-to-fork journey a smooth one by placing “organic ambassadors” in the produce department from May to November. These ambassadors find out which harvests will be arriving soon and they gather ideas from Wegmans’ culinary team about delicious, easy ways to prepare those items. Then the ambassadors pass along those dinner table ideas to customers and listen to feedback about what customers like and want most.
“Customers like the transparency of knowing where their food comes from, how it was grown,” says Cimino, “and they are happy to be trying out new ideas at the dinner table. Our grower partners benefit because they have fresh information about what our customers like and want more of – and they plant accordingly, knowing that there’s a reliable demand for what they are growing.”
Sustainability is an important focus at Wegmans, says Brauchle, and the emphasis on organics is a natural fit. “We are always looking at how we do things and asking if there are better, more earth-friendly ways of accomplishing our goals. Our commitment to sustainable practices applies to hundreds of different practices across our company, from recycling to packaging to energy use. But when it comes to growing food, we believe that over the long term, organic farming methods are best for the Earth and best for preserving the fertility of the soil.”