As the days get shorter and our layers more numerous, the change of season helps us all look up from the day to day and reflect. We celebrate the harvest. And we prepare the soil for rest and rejuvenation. Parents often live by the mantra “the days are long but the years are short,” reminding us to keep our perspective rooted in a long view. It’s a sentiment that carries over to the seasons here at Red Tomato.
This was a difficult one for anyone involved in agriculture in the Northeast. Warm winter temperatures followed by shocking freezes decimated the peach crop across the region. Another freeze slowed the apple crop and meant a later than average start for many of our early season fruits and vegetables. Drought forced farmers to irrigate relentlessly or plow under parched crops. There were low prices due to abundance elsewhere. We watched as a corporate merger consolidated two of the largest retail chains in our region, closing some stores and selling off others. Buyers, and the business we’ve built with them, came and went.
And yet, dry weather and controlled irrigation meant high quality and low disease on vegetable crops. Immaculate, glossy peppers and enormous heads of cauliflower flowed from farms to shelves without interruption. Sugar levels in fruit crops soared – yielding some of the best flavor in years for grapes and apples. Our first-time booth at a regional trade show generated strong interest for local and Eco certified produce from several prospective new customers. By the numbers, 2016 will be a fine year for Red Tomato – not the record-breaking season we had last year but solid results to show for the hard work of our growers and dedicated staff. These seeming contradictions offer us evidence of the strength inherent in our regional food system.
We in the Good Food Movement have achieved our successes by elevating the origins of our food, the farm and the soil, and its destination – our local shopping experience or expertly prepared meal. It makes sense to start with these most relatable touch points. But these snapshots only tell part of the story. The day to day mechanics of our regional food system remain a mystery to most. The majority of the people employed by our regional food system remain largely invisible.
In 2017, we will celebrate our 20th anniversary. In a ‘know your farmer, know your food’ decade, it’s easy to forget how much has changed over these 20 years. Not so long ago, ‘buy local’ was a new but unifying rallying cry. Years later, harvest after harvest, article after article and eventually Tweet after Tweet, ‘local and sustainably grown’ are now part of our mainstream lexicon. Red Tomato is part of a movement that has helped to make farmers more present in our grocery stores, cafeterias and kitchens than they were 20 years ago. Since our founding, our team has worked to develop relationships with people in all parts of the supply chain and it’s these relationships that allow us to build on the strengths of our local food systems, to invest today, so we can count on continuous supply tomorrow.
Behind every apple, squash or carrot are farm workers, truck drivers, mechanics, buyers, quality control inspectors, food safety managers, warehouse pickers, bookkeepers, shelf stockers, cashiers, cafeteria chefs and dishwashers. Connecting high-quality, local, safe, sustainably-produced and farm-identified produce to mainstream markets requires that each person be an expert in their field and committed to the quality of their work. These critical members of our food system who work in the background, before the sun has risen or after it sets, are often absent from our good food narrative. These are the very people who bring resilience to an incredibly complex system.
Resilience might seem like an overused word in our field. We see it so often in conference taglines and article headlines. But as we emerge from our homes to frost covered fields still dotted with brilliant color from sunflowers and zinnias; set out to plant garlic in soon-to-be freezing soil; or pack thousands of bushels of apples into controlled atmosphere storage, to emerge crunchy and sweet in June; we should never take this core concept for granted.
As part of a year long celebration of our twenty years, we will take on the challenge of making the invisible visible – sharing the depth of experience inside our regional food system. In the coming months we will launch ‘Righteous Produce: Behind the Scenes of Local’ where we will share stories and day to day local food logistics through photographs, videos, and more. In doing so, we will appreciate and honor those inspiring and enduring relationships that have helped us weather the ups and downs and make our work possible. You can follow the story through our newsletter and Facebook to be part of the celebration all year long.
Food has a unique capacity to unite people whose paths might not otherwise cross. Our work together is deeply rooted in the belief that all people deserve a seat at our communal table. Today more than ever, please join me in giving back and building increasing resilience into our regional food system. Whether it be a donation to help celebrate our twenty years, planting a cover crop on your garden or farm, or taking your own steps to honor the people who grow, harvest and deliver your local bounty, together our work will bring freshness and flavor from thriving mid-sized farms for decades to come!