I’m in a ‘get down to business’ mood these days. If I’ve learned one thing in my decade at Red Tomato, it is simply that mid-size farms are the backbone of sustainable, regional food systems. They’re also some of the most invisible and vulnerable in our food system. According to USDA the number of mid-size farms in our region declined by 13% between 1997 and 2012. That’s 846 irreplaceable producers of good food, employers, scientists and teachers. Gone. No matter how much consumer demand there is for local, fair, sustainable and delicious, without family farmers our ability to deliver on that promise disappears. If you cast a slightly wider net, it becomes even more stark:
Without mid-sized growers, ‘good food for all’ will remain a lofty aspiration. And our movement? One for the elite.
At Red Tomato, our north star is a future where wholesale farmers across the region are thriving – yet by the most basic analysis, it is evident that we have a lot of work left to do. On August 29th, after 13 years of supplying their regional apple program, Red Tomato received notice from our largest customer that they would be sourcing 4 of 5 apple varieties elsewhere. The harvest was underway. Shipping and warehousing contracts were in place. More than $100,000 of custom packaging sat in inventory. The news came in an email. To this day, our voicemails and meeting requests remain unanswered. Through the grapevine, we learned that we were underbid on one variety by $.01 per pound. Welcome to today’s wholesale market.
It wasn’t more than a few days after we received this blow that I received an invite to speak on the topic of resilience in food systems. The timing felt ironic at best. Conference keynote Laura Lengnick, a soil scientist turned resilience thought-leader, painted a picture of a resilient community – built on the principal of wealth that is balanced across natural, human, social, financial and built resources. On such a foundation, sustainable, regional food systems are not only viable but have the potential to thrive. As panelists, we were asked to demonstrate how our organizations embody a behavior of resilience. While many of the behaviors listed are relevant, there was one that leapt off the page: learning from disturbance.
At Red Tomato, we focus on the wholesale market because it is the most challenging sector of our food system and has the potential for the greatest impact.
We work to create an identity for mid-size growers because the existing system is designed to hide them. We choose to be in the deal so that we share the risk and reward with our growers, in our gut and our paychecks. We operate within the existing system, rather than creating an alternative path, because we believe it is the quickest route to good food for all. Which means every single day we are learning from the disruption within that system. Your support enables us to return season after season to do this challenging work.
But putting ourselves on the front line is only the first step. No matter our sales, we must challenge ourselves to leverage our hard won seat at the table in every way possible. Resilience framework offers us a logical progression for responding to disturbance: respond, recover, transform. Here’s where we are today: We are responding to the immediate challenge of our moment – both internally, within our growers’ and professional network; and we are analyzing every nook and cranny of our operations to minimize cost and increase efficiency. We’re also looking hard at the impact we have, positive and negative, on the growers that transact with Red Tomato. The team here is working hard to do this with clear eyes and limited attachment to yesterday’s successes in order to create our transformation.
Developing our ability to respond to what we learn by working inside the mainstream system, recovering from the inevitable disruption therein, transforming our work to increase our benefit to mid-size growers and sharing our experiences across the country is the Red Tomato way to thriving family farms growing good food for all.
Donating to Red Tomato supports midsize growers and helps to bring righteous produce to market. In addition to supporting Red Tomato we encourage you to visit a farm and talk with a farmer. When you shop, ask for locally sourced produce, meat, dairy and grocery items. Get involved in local, county or state level planning initiatives driving support for mid-size farms. If you are already doing the work, invite a friend to join you. Please join us in creating a sustainable, resilient, regional food system – the journey promises to be one of the most delicious adventures of your life.
With dedication and appreciation,
Laura Edwards-Orr and the Red Tomato Team