Wegmans Food Markets: Homespun Sustainability

A Conversation About Organic Farming With Dave Corsi, vice president of produce and floral at Wegmans

Wegmans couldn’t find a better advocate for championing the synergies between sustainability and produce than long-tenured Dave Corsi, vice president of produce and floral. Corsi plays an influential role in all things produce at a company where produce has been of paramount focus from its start.

During our recent visit to present Wegmans with the annual PRODUCE BUSINESS Retail Sustainability Award, Corsi took time out to speak with special projects editor Mira Slott on why he has taken such a strong interest in Wegmans Organic Farm and considers it uniquely representative of the company’s sustainability mantra and direction.

Q: As a retail produce executive, why did you become so involved in Wegmans’ Organic Farm, taking on responsibility for its finances, visiting regularly and staying so closely allied to its strategic initiatives?

A: The organic farm integrates Wegmans’ overarching umbrella approach to sustainability. It fits with our mission to support regional and local sources. We view the organic farm as the best vehicle to develop and grow organic produce in the northeast and help the communities we serve.

Q: Did you experience a dearth of local organic sources?

A: Learning to grow organic produce success-fully in the northeast can present challenges. We have partnerships with about 540 conventional local growers, many for over 25 years working with us directly. Because of the growth of organic produce at Wegmans, we wanted to build our organic grower base in the north-east. Originally, we thought to network, but realized farmers required larger numbers to grow organic. They really needed that scale to be profitable.

Q: How is the organic farm a catalyst to generate those economies of scale? Are you reaching out to your local conventional growers to develop organic operations?

A: Yes. We’re working closely with growers like Spiral Path, near Hamburg, PA. They partnered with us last year to grow their organic operation significantly, developing flexibility to produce the most flavorful vegetables.
We’ve partnered many decades with Doug Mason of Mason Farms, 25 miles east of Rochester, technically in Williamson, NY. He dabbled in organics over time, and is opening up acreage.

Our grandiose vision is that all our local conventional partners could branch out to organics if we can replicate our organic farm operation. It’s really an efficiency issue. Growing organic is very labor-intensive. We need to figure out ways to extend the season, hone the varieties, and improve growing techniques.

The reason there isn’t greater availability of organic produce in the northeast is that converting to organic can be difficult, factoring labor, yield, lack of sunshine…all those elements have an impact. We have to look at all aspects of organic farming, starting with the soil, where organic flavor can be better.

Q: Is there a profile for the Wegmans customer that you’re attracting by offering local organic produce?

A: That profile is broadening. It’s not just the core organic customer we serve today; it’s the health-conscious, those wanting to preserve the environment, supporting the community, or simply seeking out the best flavor.

There may be a price factor at play too, as the price of organics comes down in line with conventional counterparts. We had a merchandising approach to integrate organic with conventional. Now we’re doing displays with nesting of organics.

We’ll see what happens as the farm continues to come to life; how relationships with our current growers play a part in our mission to build a northeast organic supply and expand offerings to our customers.

Q: Oftentimes, growers say that retailers don’t fully grasp the challenges they face. Has your integral role at the organic farm given you new insight on the grower side of the supply chain?

A: It’s a conversation we’re having with our growing partners today. Now that we have our farm, we have great respect for the effort our growers put forth. That respect is much higher because we’ve experienced it first hand.