Moving Forward at the Speed of Trust

Moving Forward at the Speed of Trust

As the year comes to an end I cannot stop thinking about how fast the world is changing. It seems like everything is accelerated and the world’s processors are challenged to sort it all out resulting in increased disruption and uncertainty. How do we continue to move our good work forward? My mind, experience, and a little voice in my head keeps repeating the phrase “move forward at the speed of trust”.

Red Tomato’s core purpose is the long-term viability of Northeast small family farms and to deliver healthy fresh foods to all. This work means to support our local farms in gaining more diversified markets for their produce. For small farms a sustainable price threshold cannot go as low as large commercial farms as they have less volume. Therefore, small farms must demand a higher price; so that their narrow profit margins can cover the costs of operations, and if they are lucky, have enough to pay farm labor fair wages. Costs of goods for supplies, such as fertilizer, pest management, seed, cardboard, packaging, etc. continue to increase, while market prices to growers have not changed much over the last decade(s). Some of our growers told me at the beginning of this season that they were forced to forego some crops, for example, cabbage, as the costs of supplies and market return just do not make sense anymore “we cannot cover the costs of growing it anymore”. In addition to increasing operating costs, weather also plays a major role in farm operations. Last season’s rains affected this season’s crop, our apple growers reported a 30 – 40% decrease in yields of apple harvests.

These are the stories that our team wakes up for everyday! As a charitable organization 501C3 we operate in the system and coordinate a network of 40+ small to mid-size family farms in a nine state region in the Northeast. We have a Trade & Marketing enterprise which aggregates, consolidates, and delivers $4 – $5 million dollars of produce annually to wholesale and retail supermarkets and independent distributors. We work hard to differentiate our growers in the marketplace through innovative logistics, marketing, strengthening the Red Tomato brand, lastly through our programmatic work where we tackle social change in support of our mission. Take a peek at our website for more information .

Red Tomato currently has two programs that we are working on for social change, our EcoCertifiedTM branding and marketing program and our “Bypass” supply chain program. The Bypass program is one of our latest projects and I am very excited about it! We launched this project in 2020 with community food distributors (food pantries, urban farms, healthcare institutions, incubator kitchens) in Connecticut’s urban communities of Bridgeport and Hartford. The Bypass Project brings mid-size farmers and leaders of community organizations together to work on a system change initiative: get high-quality food to people at an affordable price, as directly as possible, while giving producers a path to market that offers a sustainable livelihood and a fair price for their products.

Red Tomato has been working with local farmers for 20+ years at this point and has a good understanding of small farm economics. I grew up in the urban core of Boston, and also had a good understanding of economic and logistical barriers that make it challenging to deliver small farm products to underserved communities at affordable and accessible prices.

In 2018 at our annual growers meeting, one of our growers and long-standing board member, John Lyman, who in the past heard Red Tomato discussing this idea to create a collaborative supply chain with community food distributors, prompted us to pursue it. We began planning and meeting partners in 2019 and we agreed to launch a pilot of this project in 2020 in pursuit of the following outcomes:

  • Provide high quality products to people at a cost that is seen to be affordable and good value.
  • Provide producers with a reliable market and a fair price for their goods.
  • Identify and explore collaboration with existing initiatives/supply chains within the community that are trying to address the same issue.
  • Ensure the model is scalable.

I am super-excited with the progress that has been made over two growing seasons of this project. The USDA Local Food Promotion Assistance grant has awarded financial support to community Food Distributors enabling more community members to come to the table and pool their local produce purchasing. The added volume and USDA’s LFPA grant support are allowing us to tackle the barriers of delivering 1 – 5 cases of produce to smaller community distributors at an affordable price, while paying growers a fair wholesale price for produce.

On November 30th we will reconvene with Bypass participants in Bridgeport and Hartford, CT to evaluate our current progress of the Bypass supply chain program and move it into the future!  Our long-term goal is to create the baseline prototype of this distribution model in CT and begin to bring it to other communities around the U.S. working collaboratively with community food distributors.

-Angel Mendez, Executive Director