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Wegmans Organic Research Farm: A Model For Homegrown And Organic

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, September 14, 2007

It always seems as if Wegmans has a knack for being on the cutting edge. In an age where the organic community is bifurcating between those who most value organic and those who most value locally grown, Wegmans has set up the Wegmans Organic Research Farm.

The short-term mission of the farm has been to provide locally grown organic fruit, vegetables and honey to stores near its Canandaigua location.

Its real goal, however, is to discover ways to profitably produce such products and then share that learning with other farmers. Here is how the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle put it:

Danny Wegman, CEO of Wegmans Food Markets Inc., sends his buyers around the world in search of products to sell in his upscale grocery chain.

To Thailand for shrimp. To France and Italy for cheeses. To South America for winter fruit.

But this summer, he and his wife, Stency, are supplying Wegmans’ Canandaigua store with fresh, organically cultivated produce that is grown less than 10 miles away, near the couple’s Canandaigua Lake home.

The Wegmans Organic Research Farm, which sits on nearly 50 bucolic acres owned by the family along West Lake Road in Canandaigua, is in its first year of production. The farm’s mission, according to Wegman, is to provide locally grown fruits, vegetables and honey to nearby Wegmans stores and, eventually, to serve as an educational model for local growers, employees and consumers who want to learn about organic food production.

“If it’s not profitable, it’s not much of a model. So that’s our real goal, to establish organic growing practices so we can share with others. It has to be profitable; otherwise no one could do it. That’s really the challenge,” Wegman said one day last month as he walked through raised beds planted with heirloom potatoes, beans, pumpkins, eggplants, cabbages and other vegetables under cool, rain-threatening skies.

The research farm brings together two booming consumer trends that have joined forces at many farmers markets but are just beginning to overlap in the region’s mainstream supermarket aisles: homegrown and organic.

“Why can’t we put the two together? We would like to see if it’s possible,” said Wegman, whose stores have had a homegrown program for about 20 years.

One of the reasons Wegmans is successful is that the chain’s activities seem more authentic, growing out of genuine values, than many other chains that seem driven strictly by business calculation. Here is how the paper explains the project getting off the ground:

Wegman credits his older daughter, Colleen, now president of the 70-store company, for turning him on to natural and organic foods. When Colleen Wegman graduated from the University of Colorado, her father encouraged her to take a few months off to ski. Instead, she worked six days a week in a natural foods store and later persuaded the company to launch its Nature’s Marketplace departments. But the impetus behind the organic farm started with a barn, which Wegman had been hankering to build as a way to return to his agrarian roots. (He grew up on a farm in Greece.)

When the Wegmans went to the town for a permit to build a 44-foot-high, 7,200-square-foot structure, they were told that a barn that size could be built only for agricultural use. That’s when the research farm idea was born. Stency and Danny Wegman rent the farm to the company, which oversees its management.

“We thought it made more sense to be part of the company so that everyone was involved with it versus a little pet project we were doing. This is really the way we try to do it at Wegmans. We are all in this together,” explained Wegman.

Driving along West Lake Road, the tall, elegant barn is easy to mistake for a winery tasting room. It includes a seed room where Grover preserves seeds from each season’s harvest (each generation becomes hardier and better adjusted to the area’s climate, she said) and a greenhouse where seedlings are started. On the north end of the building is a fenced-in kitchen garden with raised beds, where different seed varieties will be tested to determine whether they are worthy of planting en masse in the fields.

Those fields aren’t your typical single-crop rows. Instead, Grover relies on biodynamic and French intensive techniques that use wide, double-dug, raised beds where beneficial flowers (such as insect-repelling marigolds) are interspersed with vegetables, which in turn are planted in a pattern that maximizes yields in a small space. She eschews chemicals of any kind, even those permitted under the National Organic Program.

Electric fences, chicken wire hoop tunnels and netting throughout the farm are Grover’s best defenses against the location’s biggest challenge: hungry deer.

“It’s like they hand me a list of what they want me to grow,” she said.

Even the copper-topped beehives marked with the swooshy Wegmans W logo are protected by an electric fence to ward off the bears that destroyed the hives of at least one nearby beekeeper, said Grover.

When asked about the high-end hives, Wegman acknowledged, “We might have invested a little more than you might need to. This is where we live, so we are trying to make it as nice as we can.”

“They had to match the barn,” joked his wife. (Stency Wegman swears that her ragweed allergies have disappeared since she started eating local honey.)

Some of Wegmans’ local suppliers seem to be getting the message regarding what Wegmans wants, but the learning curve is a challenge:

During the growing season, Wegmans contracts with 800 growers in the five states in which it has stores.

Organic produce has been readily gaining shelf space at Wegmans for quite some time. More recently, the chain has started offering organic produce under its own label. These products are grown by large, out-of-state producers who are able to supply a steady, year-round inventory, said company spokeswoman Jeanne Colleluori.

Wegman himself hopes to expand the homegrown program’s organic options by encouraging some of the company’s current growers to switch. “That is how we like to do business, with people we can trust.”

Longtime Wegmans supplier Doug Mason of Williamson, Wayne County, took that message to heart, purchasing a nearby farm so he could grow a portion of his field crops organically. Now 40 of his 500-plus acres are certified. He has been harvesting from the organic fields for the past two months, but the jury is still out as far as profitability goes. Some of his organic produce has been sold as conventional or left unpicked because of low prices, Mason said.

“As far as the demand goes, [Wegmans] tells me it is there. I just don’t know yet,” said Mason.

Another Wegmans grower, Rick Pedersen of Seneca Castle, Ontario County, has converted a portion of his 1,300 acres to organic primarily for economic and environmental reasons. The price markup for his organic crops varies from 15 percent for tomatoes to 250 percent for field corn (which he sells as animal feed, not for supermarket consumers).

“It’s not a huge payoff, but I’m getting better at it. There is a very long learning curve on organics. You learn by losing money,” Pedersen said.

So far at least, these locally grown organic items are going to be pricy:

While seasonal homegrown produce may be competitively priced, there’s no doubt that locally grown organic costs more. Those heirloom organic tomatoes from the Wegmans farm were going for $3.99 a pound during one week in August, compared with conventionally grown local tomatoes for $1.49 a pound. For Canandaigua shopper Maryanne Innes, who wants the best tomato possible for her bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches, the extra expense is worth it.

“I’m a true believer that local tastes better. But until a year ago, I didn’t pay much attention to organic. Ten years ago, the organic stuff didn’t look as nice as it does now,” said Innes, a Connecticut resident who spends her summers in Canandaigua.

But while Dona Perkins of Victor believes “getting rid of those chemicals” is a good idea, her budget dictates the nonorganic local tomatoes.

In Danny Wegman’s view of the marketplace, he harbors no conflicting feelings about offering organic, conventional, homegrown and imported foods all at the same time.

“It’s different strokes for different folks. It depends on what you’re into at the moment, and frankly these (homegrown organic items) are going to be pricier. … I think there are a lot of products we sell that are like that,” he said, citing wild versus farm-raised salmon as one example.

What he does hope the research farm will accomplish is to breed an appreciation among customers — especially young ones — for how food is grown. “Hopefully (this will) get them interested in eating good food, not junk food. That is a long-term vision.”

Experts applaud the effort but doubt the economic viability of the farm:

“It was not long ago that people’s interest in where their food came from ended at the checkout line. Wegmans is picking up on that growing consumer interest in looking past the store to where their food actually comes from and how far it has traveled,” said Jim Ochterski, agriculture economic development specialist at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ontario County.

Having toured the Wegmans farm earlier this summer, he is impressed with its potential to educate growers and the public about small-scale organic agriculture and food production. But for anyone who knows about the economic realities of farming, the Wegmans operation could signal a potential “mismatch.”

“How do you justify the expense of that land (which has an extremely high market value) with these kinds of crops and techniques? Farming offers marginal returns, even on good years,” noted Ochterski. “Still, I think it’s valid and valuable for two reasons. First, [the Wegmans] are preventing inappropriate development. And secondly, they are providing an interesting educational resource.”

Although this strikes us as a labor of love more than a stand-alone business, it doesn’t have to succeed as a stand-alone business. It reminds us of Earthbound Farm’s 30 acre farm in Carmel. It has a farm stand with terrific organic produce, cheese and prepared foods and they are always doing “Harvest Walks” and “Chefs Walks” to educate the public. Lots of stuff for kids as well. The Jr. Pundits enjoyed doing a Ladybug release a couple of years back. Executives there always describe that small public place as a “front page” for Earthbound Farms — a way of introducing the public to its values and putting a small scale, accessible face on a very large organization.

So for Wegmans, can this little farm be its “front page” representing to the public the values the company and its people believe in?

Will it ever make money? Depends on how you figure it. An article such as this one, illustrated with photos showing a healthy and robust Danny Wegman presenting his attractive wife Stency with an organic pumpkin he just picked, is an aspiration for most Wegmans shoppers and far more likely to make those consumers want to affiliate themselves with Wegmans by shopping there than a profile of Danny Wegman with a tie around his neck, sitting in an office somewhere.

Viewed this way, the farm may be profitable already.

Read the article here.

Check out a great photo gallery here.

Watch a nice video here.

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