The farmers market ideal — produce that is free of chemicals and grown on small, nearby farms in an environmentally sensitive manner — draws consumers concerned about the quality of food they eat, where it comes from and who grew it.
Often those consumers bypass the big supermarket chains and their displays of anonymous produce from California, Mexico and South America.
But it turns out that those big box stores — from Walmart to Fred Meyer — have produce that is sometimes more local than farmers markets. And the differences that separate the two aren’t as clear cut as they might seem.
In a verdant stretch of land between Tacoma and Puyallup Tim Richter grows a variety of produce for big chains like Safeway, Walmart and Kroger.
Richter is president of EG Richter Family Farm, founded in 1906 by his great-great grandfather, Edward. Edward started with hops then switched to berries.
“They made some money and then they nearly lost the farm,” Richter said of those early years.
Rhubarb eventually became the main crop at the farm and was still going strong when Richter was growing up there.
Today, Richter grows lettuce, cabbage, peppers, cilantro and rhubarb on 150 acres for the big chains. In turn, those stores buy from a multitude of local produce growers.
“All of us local farms work together to make sure we fill the orders,” Richter said.
On a recent sunny summer day, three of Richter’s workers were quickly packing just-picked cilantro. Rapidly moving produce from field to market is a priority for the big chains, Richter said. But it can create a small storm of chaos. “It almost drives us farmers crazy,” he said.
Nearby, walk-in coolers held green cabbage, romaine lettuce and red leaf lettuce waiting for pick-up. The blast of cold air was a relief on the hot day. Nearby, other workers were harvesting bok choy and other cabbage.
“I got talked into growing bok choy by Safeway,” Richter said. He also grows napa and green cabbage.
For the past decade Richter and two other local farmers would send a literal boat load of cabbage to Russia. A food trade ban initiated by Russian President Vladimir Putin put an end to this year’s shipment.
Richter got the news – the result of tit-for-tat economic sanctions between Russia and the West – just weeks before his cabbage was mature. Now, he doesn’t know what he’s going to do with the extra produce.
“Between the three of us there’s too much cabbage for the local market.”
ECONOMIES OF SCALE
“We all fill a niche,” said Stacy Carkonen, the executive director for Tacoma Farmers Markets which operates the Broadway, Sixth Ave. and South Tacoma farmers markets. She was speaking about the perceived cultural battle between big chains and farmers markets. “It’s not one versus another.”
Many small farms don’t grow the volume that the big chains require, Carkonen said. And larger farms couldn’t operate at the scale they do and provide the jobs they create if they only sold at farmers markets.
Farmers markets allow smaller farms to thrive and allow the consumer to have conversations with the farmer, Carkonen said. But, she acknowledged, grocery stores, and their convenient hours, are what many consumers seek.
“If you’re a mom you don’t want conversation. You want to go the grocery store, get what you want, and get out,” Carkonen said.
Farmers markets also are business incubators, Carkonen said. The downtown Tacoma Farmers Market, one of three operated by her organization, had $800,000 in sales in 2013.
“It’s one of those words people use all the time — local — and nobody knows what it means,” Carkonen said. She thinks of local as the entire state. If she didn’t, “I’d be leaving out peaches, plums, nectarines — all of that incredible tree fruit that grows on the East Side.”
One vendor at the Proctor Farmers Market in Tacoma, Alvarez Organic Farms, is located in Mabton. Another Tacoma Farmers Market vendor, Ayala Farms, is located in Outlook. Both are 200-mile drives from Tacoma.
Carkonen calls farms like Tacoma’s Terry’s Berries as “uber-local.”
Carrie Little, along with husband Ken, is the owner of Little Eorthe Farm in Orting. She draws local at the county line. “There’s really nothing we can’t grow here,” she said on Saturday at the Proctor Farmers Market. “Washington state is the next boundary.”
Little, who is on the board of the Proctor Farmers Market where she sells her large variety of produce and eggs, has input over which vendors can sell there. “I am a month behind on the corn (compared to) Alvarez. Folks love corn and I get that.” She also can’t match the variety of peppers Alvarez offers.
Fred Meyer has long put an emphasis on using local farmers, store spokeswoman Amanda Ip said. “Right now it’s kind of the trendy thing to do but Fred Meyer has been doing it since before it was cool,” she said.
“Often times we’re paying more (locally) than what we buy in California,” said Greg Johnson, Fred Meyer’s regional merchandiser for produce and natural foods.
Fred Meyer takes a regional approach (Washington, Oregon, Idaho) to local farming, Johnson said. A produce specialist based in Wenatchee visits farmers around the state in springtime to see what they’ll be growing and when it will be available.
At the Fred Meyer store last week at South Stevens and South 19th Streets in Tacoma, a sign informed customers that 107 organic and 73 local produce items were available to customers.
Another sign displayed a large photo of Jack and Jake Sterino, the owners of Puyallup’s Sterino Farms, amidst a sea of berries. But only a few cartons of blackberries bore the Sterino label. Almost all of the other berries were from Watsonville, California.
ORGANIC OR NOT
Though most of Fred Meyer’s produce is conventional, Johnson estimates that 15 percent is organic — and that number is rising. “It’s growing at a rate that is four times what (conventional) produce is,” Johnson said.
Richter doesn’t use genetically modified (GMOs) seeds or plants on his farm but he’s not an organic farmer either.
“I’m not trying to be anything,” Richter said. He’s a genial man but doesn’t mince his words when it comes to his opinions on agriculture.
Richter uses integrated pest management to control insects. IPM is an environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that combines economical goals with the least possible hazards to people, property and the environment.
“If you see a problem you deal with it,” Richter summed up. He also notes that using a minimum of expensive pesticides is every farmer’s goal.
“When we don’t use them we are so happy,” he said.
Pesticides, Richter said, are less dangerous than they were even 10 years ago. “We don’t have anything so toxic that you couldn’t spray today and eat tomorrow. We eat everything we grow.”
Weeds, which sprout after every shower, are pulled mostly by hand. He could switch to machines but it keeps his workers employed and, “You can get away with a few weeds.”
While the debate over the health benefits of organic food rages on, Carkonen said one of the reasons Tacoma Farmers Markets puts an emphasis on organic food is that organic practices keep soil healthy. The produce sold at her markets are a mix of certified organic, noncertified organic and conventional.
The same mix is also sold at the Proctor Farmers Market. Little, whose farm in certified organic, says growing or eating organic is a personal decision.
“It’s how I was raised. It’s how I was taught to grow. It’s all I know. I don’t want people to come back and say, ‘thanks for the cancer’.”
Richter uses a conventional balanced fertilizer (16-16-16) on his crops. There are too many food safety issues associated with manure, he says. It’s a sentiment Fred Meyer’s Johnson echoes.
“We offer everything that farmers markets offer but we believe we are offering it in a much safer environment,” Johnson said. But he is careful to note he supports farmers markets. Richter isn’t as charitable.
“Sometimes I think these farmers markets are more dangerous sources for food,” Richter said. “Anybody can go plant stuff in their backyard.”
It’s fairly safe to say the big chains with reputations to protect don’t take food safety lightly. Bad publicity from an E. coli incident could reverberate in the public consciousness for years.
“It only takes one farmer to goof-up,” Richter said.
Fred Meyer makes sure its farmers follow best practices guidelines to ensure food safety, Johnson said. He described Kroger — the parent company of Fred Meyer and QFC — as a conservative company regarding food safety.
Certified organic farmers have regulations which cover the use of manure as fertilizer, Little said. One of those requires at least 120 days between the deployment of manure and harvest. For Little, who plants in fields where animals were grazing the previous year, she easily covers that span. “It’s something we pay a lot of attention to.”
Little literally and figuratively stands behind the produce she sells.
“I’m a face right here. If you’re going in to a grocery store you don’t necessarily understand the face behind the item you just purchased. But here, it’s a real connection,” she said. “I look at my customers as my family. I’m feeding my family.”
“No matter where you buy your fruits and vegetables, whether they come from our markets or the grocery store, you need to wash them,” Carkonen said. “We need to take some responsibility for our own health.” Proper washing helps clean produce of both pathogens and pesticides, she said.
Produce accounted for an estimated 46 percent of all foodborne illnesses and 23 percent of all foodborne-related deaths in the U.S. between 1998 and 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Customer preferences and available produce change every year. Farmers respond to them and sometimes initiate them. A few years ago when Richter was growing bell peppers he was accidentally sent some jalapeño seeds. They were a hit.
“We just kept growing more and more.”
Today, Richter’s repertoire of peppers include serrano, poblano and Anaheim.
As his workers harvested jalapeños, Richter walked down a row and picked one. Its dark green skin had indigo-colored patches on them. They’re not bad, he explained, it’s just a harmless color change called “shoe polish.” Others had growth lines.
But Richter can’t sell either of them.
“I can’t market them. They don’t want them. I’ll have to sacrifice some of these,” he said.
The same goes for his leafy products.
“We don’t cut it if it has a hole in it,” Richter said. Like most farmers he knows his business success rests on the quality of his product. “When they open it up we want to be proud of it.”
At Fred Meyer, produce stockers are told to remove any product that doesn’t meet the company’s standards. “If you would not buy it, don’t expect the customer to buy it,” Johnson said.
Produce that might be blemished but is otherwise still good is donated to local food banks, Fred Meyer spokeswoman Ip said.
Carkonen, meanwhile, would like to dispel the notion that produce needs to look perfect.
“When you look at the produce here, it’s beautiful. But is it flawless? No,” the Tacoma Farmers Markets director said. “It’s getting people out of that thought — throwing away things that don’t look perfect.”
“It’s a real tragedy. It’s super frustrating,” Little said of food waste from perceived flaws. “Just harvesting zucchini is a traumatic affair for them. You’ve just got to baby them.” When Little is on vacation and visits farmers markets she looks for less than perfect produce. “I actually seek out those bug bites because I know it’s organic.”
Shipping food in from different hemispheres combined with cold storage means that seasonality isn’t nearly the barrier it once was.
“Produce is a worldwide industry now. The customer’s expectation is that they can find an orange 365 days a year,” Johnson said.
Despite the popularity of spring grapes, Johnson said his customers still know what seasonality is.
“Produce (sales) spikes during the summer months. They come in expecting to see Rainier cherries and corn,” Johnson said.
But it’s not just the chains engaging in season and region creep. Farmers markets in the Northwest sell citrus from California and “fresh” apples in spring.
“When you eat them they taste like they’ve been sitting in a cold storage facility,” Little says of those apples. She holds on to winter squash, potatoes and onions - traditional keepers.
“This is the only farmers market I sell at and I have a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture shares) so I’m just picking and pushing out, picking and pushing out,” she said. Just then a customer walked up and asked for arugula.
“I won’t have any until winter,” Little told him. “I don’t like it bolting. But if you need corn I’m your girl. And Walla Wallas.”
In the debate over food issues one factor is often an afterthought: Jobs.
Richter keeps his 20 employees year-round. There are no seasonal layoffs. He doesn’t use unpaid volunteers or interns.
“They’re all trained. It keeps my life simple,” Richter said.
It’s a practice small-scale farms can’t match. And it cuts into one of the buzzwords of the decade: Sustainability.
“I get so sick of that word,” Richter said.
The philosophy of sustainable agriculture is built around an integrated food system where production, distribution, consumption and recycling are all linked in a self-supporting system.
It can be argued that a farm that uses nonorganic fertilizer doesn’t use sustainable ecological practices. But it can also be argued that organic farms which lay off their entire workforce during the fallow months aren’t economically sustainable. Economic vitality of farm employees is a component of the philosophy.
One way to keep employees retained on small farms is to create a year-round market. The Olympia Farmers Market is now year-round as is the Proctor Farmers Market (though just once a month in winter.) The downtown Tacoma farmers market is considering extending its season, Carkonen said.
“Then the farmer knows ‘If I plant these winter crops, I’ll have a place to sell them,’ ” Carkonen said.
Richter feels he has no alternative to keeping his workforce year-round — but not because of economics.
“They have families to feed,” he said. “And I’m not good at laying people off.”
The Littles at Little Eorthe Farm have previously employed workers and used interns but found it too expensive. “Two full time employees just ate up everything, profit wise.” Now, they’re planting less crops but producing more hay and eggs. They will soon start making cheese and beer in a just-built commercial kitchen.
Though practices may differ from farm to farm and market to market there is one factor that all farmers have in common, Little said.
“It’s about the passion. That thread runs through all of us farmers, conventional or not. It’s a love affair with the land and the work we do,” she said.