The major challenge for farmers today is not so much guiding crops or livestock to maturity. More of a challenge is identifying market opportunities. For smaller, specialty producers of crops that are usually not subsidized by the government, the task can be even more daunting.
Food brokers usually take a cut for placing fruits, vegetables and other farm goods in the hands of retailers or wholesalers. The broker's share can seem bigger to a small producer than to their commodity counterparts.
But as Tyler Teske explains, there's a non-profit example out there that's been busy providing farmers with new avenues for marketing.
Michael Rozyne, Red Tomato: "In the four week June strawberry season there is a period when the Massachusetts berries are just beautiful, large and so sumptuous that they drip down your shirt, everybody who gets them is really happy and we're selling tons of them."
Michael Rozyne is the founder and managing director of Red Tomato, a Massachusetts-based not for profit produce broker and distributor. The venture receives part of its financial support through grants from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation and other private and government entities. But, the growth and success of Red Tomato depends on an ability to tap into a growing desire of many consumers to purchase high quality, fresh, locally grown produce. That demand by the consumer has been the driving force for growth in farmers' markets and other direct marketing ventures. Red Tomato takes the produce a step further by opening another marketing door for farmers: the mass market.
The produce is sold through independent groceries, natural foods stores and large grocery chains including Stop and Shop supermarkets. The chain has 190 stores throughout the Northeast, seven of which carry products with the Red Tomato label. Produce manager Ed Sullivan is a veteran of the business and currently works for Stop and Shop.
Ed Sullivan, Produce Manager, Stop and Shop: "We've had discussions that if their product isn't as good as we'll get from the warehouse I'll tell them that we're going with our warehouse product. But that very seldom happens but we have had discussions and both their goal and our goal is to have the best quality available."
The high quality product is not an accident. Red Tomato buys fresh fruits and vegetables grown on 25 farms in Massachusetts and the surrounding states. The produce travels from the farms to Red Tomato in less than a day, and often from the farm to the retailer in less than 48 hours.
In contrast, the typical trip for fruits and vegetables starts much further away. A study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture released last year reveals produce shipped to terminal markets in Chicago traveled on average more than 1200 miles from the farm to the retail market. Highly perishable products traveling from massive farms in California and other temperate climates can take as many as 10 days to reach their retail destination. The storage and travel time can eat into the shelf life of a product, reducing it from a few weeks to a few days.
The ability to sell locally grown products alongside more commonly available cross-country produce is advantageous to supermarkets because of the local image. It's also a benefit to farmers because of the added marketing opportunity.
Zeke Goodband is the orchard manager at Scott Farm near Brattleboro, Vermont. During his first year of growing apples, the McIntosh variety was Goodband's only product which he sold to a regional wholesaler. After one season Goodband realized he would have to be more creative if he was going to make any money in the apple business.
Goodband now grows 60 varieties of apples along with other fruit. He also has diversified his marketing outlets to include direct marketing through local stores, traditional wholesalers, specialty wholesalers…and Red Tomato, which sells roughly half of his apple harvest.
Goodband: "We've gotten better returns from them. They have gotten us into some markets that we wouldn't have been able to get into just on our own. They've searched out other chains and small markets in the metropolitan Boston area. So, we've been able to sell more fruit because of them."
None of the producers who supply Red Tomato has a desire to sell all of their produce through this single distributor. But, it's not simply an expanded market reach that makes Red Tomato an appealing partner.
At Lyman Orchards in Middlefield, Connecticut, visitors can pick their own fruit, walk through the corn maze, shop for a variety of products at the store, including Lyman Orchards bakery products and produce, and play golf on two 18 hole golf courses. Lyman Orchards peaches, apples, berries, pears and other fruit also is sold off-farm through direct marketing ventures, and to wholesalers. Additionally, 10 percent of the Lyman Orchards apple crop is sold through Red Tomato. Eighth generation grower John Lyman views his relationship with Red Tomato as a vital piece of his operation.
John Lyman, Executive Vice President, Lyman Orchards: "I almost feel like they're an advocate to the grower, probably more than what you traditionally would find and that's important because sometimes you just, you do the best you can and things happen that don't work. It's nice to have somebody who at least understands and tries to work with you."
Red Tomato's advocate role is a concept Founder Michael Rozyne brought from his former job as co-founder of the fair trade coffee company, Equal Exchange. The fair trade model promotes paying farmers at least enough to cover production costs. In return, the producers provide high quality goods and use farming practices that are environmentally sustainable.
Similarly, all Red Tomato growers use integrated pest management, or I-P-M, a method of controlling insect problems with the best practices appropriate to the situation. Some of the products go a step further and are certified organic. In the big picture, what may appear to the consumer as simply tasty, local produce is meant to preserve the farmer, sustain functioning open space, advocate land stewardship, and develop stronger local economies.
Bringing this idea to the masses has been a learning experience. The original idea of intermediary between farmer and retailer quickly transformed into the role of broker-distributor. Outlets for produce have opened and vanished. And branding has become a hot topic.
Rozyne: "So, I started with a pretty strong assumption we weren't going to do it. Five years later it was real clear, do it or die…"
The Red Tomato logo and catch phrase can now be found on most Red Tomato products, packaging and displays. Banners and a plethora of point-of-sale items single out Red Tomato products from all others. The branding blitz also includes events to promote apple nutrition and the importance of buying local produce.
In the end, it is one more step toward the addition of a permanent unconventional marketplace for local producers.
Rozyne: "I think that there are ways in which it would work better in a small metropolitan area. The links between people and the farms they know would be stronger. I think our challenge over the next few years is really to be able to put in simple enough terms what we're learning and to be able to offer pieces of it where it could be useful. In that sense it's very replicable."
For Market to Market, I'm Tyler Teske.