Farming For Answers
Danny Wegman’s vision to build a burgeoning organic farm, nestled in the Canandaigua, NY, Finger Lakes growing region, where families have owned land for over 100 years, is emblematic of how produce-focused sustainability flows through the company’s core.
When Danny Wegman came up with the idea, envisioning where customers would be five to ten years down the road, initial reaction by some was to question the logic, “We’re grocers, not farmers,” says Eben Kennedy, group manager, produce, who describes the evolu-tionary plan to transform the farm from its beginnings seven years ago as a research operation to a catalyst in developing a fertile and profitable northeast organic supply. “This is a unique opportunity to bridge disconnects and build relationships between the retailer, customer and grower,” says Kennedy.
“It was Danny Wegman who said, ‘How do you have credibility if you’re always a researcher? At the end of the day, you don’t take research to a bank. You take the money that you’ve earned from your successful busi-ness plan that produces a value,’” says Kennedy. “Farmers should always be doing research and learn from trial and error, but it’s a business and you want it to be profitable,” adds Jamie Robinson, organic farm manager.
“Wegmans has always done a great job of understanding what the customer’s needs are, but we always have to link those needs with the grower,” Kennedy continues. “Now when we sit down with growers, we talk a common language and that’s key,” he emphasizes. “We truly understand what they’re going through because we’re actually testing the varieties here. We can say, okay, that’s not going to happen because the efficiency is not there, for example, so let’s go in a different direction.”
That direction involves channeling insight from a range of experts, including researchers at Cornell and other university ag extension programs, and down the supply chain consulting with seed companies. “If someone has an idea that we believe is going to work, we can test it, where the average farmer just can’t because the investment is too big. If they make a mistake, it could cost them their business,” says Robinson.
When Wegmans went out looking for local organic growers, it was very difficult to find them, according to Kennedy. “We have 540 conventional growers, and how do we get them to develop organic varieties with favorable profiles, and will they work in recipes at restaurants and sell at retail?” asks Kennedy, adding, “Our goal is to grow 10 months a year and limit carbon footprint accrued when bringing in organics from California.
Customers appreciate that we are supporting our growers and the community.”
Wegmans uses the organic farm as an educational tool for its merchants. “When we ask an employee a question of how a product is grown, often they can’t answer it, so we established our Ambassador Program.
Ambassadors from different Wegmans’ locations spend time at the farm and actually help harvest the product, pack the product and learn everything about what’s going on at the farm, and then they take that information back to the stores,” Kennedy explains.
“We’re also doing this with our grower partners,” says Kennedy. “For example, Spiral Path [based in Loysville, PA] and Mason Farms [based in Williamson, NY] have ambassadors that spend at least one or two days a month at the farm. Then they bring that information back to the store and they sell the product directly to customers. “
Wegmans calls it KBS — or Knowledge-Based-Service. “We’re giving people the knowledge and they’re taking it back and communicating with the customer. Our ambassadors will pick the produce from the farm, drive it to the store, set up their little cart and then they are there to explain,” says Kennedy.
“It’s awesome to have the organic farm so close and be serviced by them,” says Brett Ahrens, perishable area manager at the Wegmans Canandaigua store. “We have a nice arrangement with the farm,” he explains, pointing to a fresh delivery from the farm of just picked organic mixed lettuces and micro greens gracing the shelves in Wegmans Organic Farm labeled clamshell packages.
“We feel lucky to be a part of this innovative model.” Alvin Phillips, Jr., produce manager, adds, “We use this store as a pilot for sustainability projects. It’s amazing what’s coming out of the farm and what’s being learned as Wegmans seeks bigger opportunities.”
LAYOUT OF THE LAND
The 50-acre property is set up on a plot system, so each plot represents a different crop to simplify the process and it also helps with traceability, says Kennedy. “We must trace our product from the field plot all the way to the store and back,” he says, noting, “whatever we ask of our local growers, we do ourselves.”
There are many organic growing challenges to overcome in this region. “In the winter time, we plant cold hearty crops like Asian greens, lettuces, spinach and kale, and we harvest in high tunnels, which are in plastic, covered greenhouse-like structures, as needed,” Robinson describes. “We’ll do micro greens and wheatgrass in our seed house, and we’ve also been playing around with radishes,” he adds.
In the summer, however, “you’ll see organized chaos. The fields will be full,” says Kennedy. “Year round, we’re at about four full-time employees, but then in the summer we pick up anywhere from six to maybe ten. It sounds small, and it is, but we’re trying to become automated because we know if we want to understand the real life of a farmer, they want to be automated. They just can’t get the workforce.”
“The relationship we have with our organic farm and local sourcing, and its connection to the stores and our restaurant, Next Door, in Pittsford, NY, folds beautifully into Wegmans sustainability approach for our employees and customers,” says Jason Wadsworth, sustainability coordinator. “It’s an arm of research and development and a way we can pilot and try new things.”
Wegmans’ restaurant, Next Door, nurtures an integral relationship with its organic farm, where in the spring and summer time, the restaurant will actually build menus around the seasonal varieties, with constant deliveries.
“Last year, we devoted a plot just for the restaurant,” says Kennedy. “The staff comes down and helps harvest. The chefs will give us a list of items they want us to test for them. We do a lot of trialing of different herbs, for instance. The restaurant chefs always are coming up with a new idea or variety and we don’t know how it grows in this area. We’ll try it on a small scale. Then if it works well for the restaurant, we can put it in bigger production,” Kennedy says, but emphasizes, “The big plots we save for the things that we know are working well for us and that sell well.”