The Importance of Local and Regional Food Hubs: The Red Tomato Example

The Importance of Local and Regional Food Hubs: The Red Tomato Example

Red Tomato Featured in ‘What Is American Food?’ Podcast

Red Tomato is part of a series of podcast episodes with “What Is American Food?,” which explores “where our food comes from and the systems and supply chain that get it to our tables.” The podcast, produced by Ali Berlow and Hannah Semler, has brought in voices from Red Tomato. Over the course of the next few months, “What Is American Food?” will collaborate with Red Tomato on four different stories. 

In the first episode, Berlow and Semler highlight the important role of organizations like Red Tomato working to build local and regional food systems, and the valuable part these regional food systems play in feeding people daily and that coexist right along with global food supply chains. As the podcast hosts share, “As the American food system recovers from the past year of disruption, we can all look to Red Tomato for an example of building trust and committing to sustainability and transparency, while honoring the dignity of all the people who provide our food.”

Guests from the Red Tomato network on this episode:

  • Michael Rozyne, co-founder of Red Tomato
  • Angel Mendez, Executive Director of Red Tomato
  • Sue Futrell, Director of Marketing for Red Tomato
  • John Lyman, 8th generation orchardist at Lyman Orchards in Middlefield, Connecticut

Below we share highlights from the episode. You can also listen to the full episode, “A Mighty Hybrid Food Hub in the Northeast,” on the “What Is American Food?” site.


Farm workers examine apple harvest. Photo by Adam Detour.
Photo by Adam DeTour

Highlights from A Mighty Hybrid Food Hub in the Northeast

Hannah Semler: Through this pandemic, we have all experienced how quickly our lives can change, and the role that supply chains have in our daily lives. As a hybrid nonprofit food hub, Red Tomato has for the last 25 years survived several big disruptions with funding, corporate consolidation, and market fluctuations. And from their origin story today, we learn about how they got started, and why. Responding to the need of small and mid-sized farms in the Northeast, reinventing themselves along the way with cooperation, forging ahead despite the odds. So we look at Red Tomato today for a bit of hope as we come out of these difficult times.

Ali Berlow: Let’s kick it off with Michael Rozyne. He’s one of the co-founders of Equal Exchange. Think fair trade coffee, chocolate from Latin America. Michael also founded Red Tomato about 25 years ago. In a recent interview we did with Michael about food systems at large, he sets the stage for this episode by talking about what stories we think we know or don’t know about farms in the Northeast.

Michael Rozyne: Now we’re talking about farms that you can drive by on vacation, you see them all the time if you live in a kind of exurban area. And what you see are beautiful landscapes. But you also see farms that have assets, they own equipment, they have machinery, and poverty is not what comes to mind. Even if you’re driving by a really small-scale farm that might be on the edge of survival, poverty and extinction are not what come to mind. You’re going to see a beautiful landscape, fields, equipment, people working, and I don’t think the brain goes to, “Wow, these people are growing the food that I eat,” necessarily, even though that’s kind of obvious. Or it doesn’t even go to, “I need to support this enterprise to keep it in my community or keep it in my region, so that we have jobs and farms and land and experts who know how to solve natural resource problems.” It just doesn’t happen that way. And so I think people kind of experience that more as agrotourism, or a snapshot of pleasantry, but not necessarily a critical part of their own sustenance and economy.

Ali Berlow: Red Tomato is a nonprofit, and a food hub, and a produce distributor, a hybrid. And just as it doesn’t fit neatly into one or the other category, you’ve kind of got to think out of the box to understand why they’re doing everything they’re doing. As an innovator, they’re solving for problems in both aggregation and supply chain logistics. Their focus and their mission is always grounded in the economic viability of mid-sized farms and orchards.

Hannah Semler: … One of the key partners that’s going to bring it all together for our listeners is John Lyman, eighth generation farmer at Lyman Orchards in Middlefield, Connecticut. John is on Red Tomato’s Board of Trustees, and he helped Eco Apple and Eco Peach third party certifications get started. These certifications are based on advanced principles of integrated pest management, or IPM. Basically sustainable orchard stewardship. Here’s John.

John Lyman: We established farming in Middlefield in 1741. So we’re 280 years strong. I am the eighth generation of Lymans who have been farming the land here in Middlefield. Our operation today is a lot different than it was 280 years ago. We’re very diversified. Being in an urban state like Connecticut, we’ve had to adapt. Our biggest resource is our land, so while we continue to farm, we also utilize other forms of open space use. So we have 45 holes of golf. We have a retail store. And then we’ve expanded. We’re vertically integrated into wholesale pie production, which is our biggest part of our business now, and is the most rapidly growing. So it helps us to even out the risk we have with weather, gives us a little defense against that. Because all the other businesses, if we have bad weather, it has a very negative impact on us. 

We have about 300 acres that the farm actually takes up. And today we’re growing about 100 acres of apples, which is our largest crop, then we have peaches at 35 acres. We grow small fruits as well — strawberries, blueberries, raspberries. We also grow pumpkins. A lot of the crops we grow are really dedicated toward direct market, whether it be our store, whether it be pick your own. We do a large pick your own business, and are inviting people to the farm. And that’s one of the things that we’ve been doing for years. It’s a very big piece of our business, sort of agrotourism. We really are inviting people to come spend the afternoon or the day with us. And really experience firsthand the picking.

Ali Berlow: Pick-your-owns, or U-picks, exploded in popularity in the midst of the pandemic. And that was a real lifesaver for lots of orchards last year, when so many wholesale accounts just vanished.

Hannah Semler: That direct connection to their communities created and increased awareness of how our communities are rooted in their agricultural heritage. With Lyman Orchards and those eight generations of farming, you also get the eight generations of people experiencing the farm. So how do we tell the story to those customers off the farm and bring that connection and relationship? Well, that is where Red Tomato comes in.

Farm worker picks apple from tree
Photo by Adam DeTour

Sue Futrell: So when I first came to Red Tomato I asked, why are we working with orchards? And why aren’t they organic? The reason is that tree fruit in the climate and the growing conditions pretty much everywhere east of the Rocky Mountains, is happening in a relatively humid weather-dependent climate. Growing conditions that make the specific rules around organic substances really, really challenging. Those national organic standards are just that — they’re national, they were very suitable for some of the big growing regions like the Northwest where there’s irrigation and dry climate. But the apple growing regions in the East really kind of got left out of that opportunity because of the challenges of using only these limited non-synthetic substances that organic was built around.

What I came into was a situation where there are these fabulous growers committed to growing sustainably and ecologically, very committed to the safety of their fruit, their employees, the people who are picking and visiting their farm stands, but using some of the treatments that are not permitted under organic and therefore just kind of completely shut out of a way to differentiate what they were doing in the consumer marketplace. And our challenge became how to support them in their production work as a network, to help make a protocol and production system that fit the northeast and also fit the sustainable and ecological goals, and then translate that somehow into a position in the market that would differentiate what they were doing from conventional produce that people assume was being grown in different ways.

Hannah Semler: The network that Sue, John Lyman, and Red Tomato have created to support these orchards and tell their stories provide the quality differentiator for the customer. So a competitive advantage for these businesses. And the robust interdisciplinary group of professionals that have come together around a very intentional goal of reviving and bolstering growers in the northeast is directly impacting the very fabric of our food economies. And customers get to participate at that label level in the grocery store, when they see that Eco Certified sticker on a product or the shelf.

Ali Berlow: And for Red Tomato, Eco Apple and Eco Peach programs really helped shape their role as a nonprofit, their purpose and impact in the value chain– supported by the scientists and the farmers and the orchardists, all influencing the branding, marketing, packaging, and storytelling that Red Tomato is now experts in.

Hannah Semler: With that, they’ve built up to between a $2 and $5 million market depending on the year, for a network of 40-plus farms in the Northeast, while also designing new ways of thinking about how to address the inequities in food access at the community level, in partnership with Reos partners, exploring with Equitable Food Initiative how to better support workers rights and workforce development for small and regional farms. And all this while also expanding to pecan growers in Georgia, serving as marketing agent to New Communities, America’s first Community Land Trust cooperatively owned by Black farmers. 

Michael Rozyne: The simple words are, we’re a food hub. We’re a nonprofit distributor marketing agent for mid-sized farms. We do the things that people associate with food hubs and distributors. We do marketing and sales, deal making, aggregation, logistics management, all the paperwork, all the packaging development. We do all that. That’s enough. And then we do a bunch of things that no one would ever imagine a food hub or distributor would actually get involved in. We do them because we feel like, given the economy, mid-sized growers are really fighting an uphill battle here.

Angel Mendez: Growers want more market access and small local growers need to differentiate commodities and try to add value so that they can get a fair price than what it takes for them to sustain their farm organizations. So in order for these small, mid-sized family farms to succeed, to thrive, to have succession and returning family members to come and keep those farms alive, we need to give them the space that they need in a level playing field in the marketplace, meaning getting them fair pricing and getting them more market access. So inside of that, what we do is the trade machine that we’ve built, has grown to be about $3 to $5 million in annual trade revenue.

Being a nonprofit for Red Tomato is important, so that as we continue to battle as a small machine against the big commercial agriculture, in order to level the playing field, because we need commercial agriculture, and we need small farms. And so we want to build a system that enables both of them to thrive together. And so, as we understand those inequities, what makes us different is that we take those into programmatic work and find ways through collaboration, or through work that we’re doing ourselves to try to change things that will support more access in the marketplace for local growers.

Hannah Semler: After hearing from Michael, John, Sue, and Angel, it is evident that the organization is so much about relationships, trust, transparency, and respect. The programs they have developed over the years with those values at their core like Eco Certified, brings that into real practical focus.


Listen to the full episode, “A Mighty Hybrid Food Hub in the Northeast,” to hear more about Red Tomato’s history and the programs and projects it has spearheaded and continues to grow.