Editor’s Note: This month we are featuring Mike and Krisi Kult, the new owners of Tomato Tomato, as our guest columnists. If you are interested in adding your voice to the conversation, Email Crumbs@TheReader.Com.
The Season for Growing
Each year as spring emerges from winter, conversations turn from complaints about the cold to excitement for the tulips and daffodils, summer gardens, and vacations. In April we gather for Earth Day celebrations and spend a day discussing recycling, tree planting and how to save the Monarch butterflies. One word comes up in nearly every one of these discussions: Sustainability. Energized by the warmth of Spring and our Earth Day buzz, we are ready to change the world. By May our excitement has died down and we are back in the daily grind, all of the ambition for change replaced by the hustle and bustle that is daily life. Outrage turns to complacency. Anger cools to apathy and we settle back into our comfortable, easy ruts. The greatest challenge we face seems to be breaking habits and going against the grain. Why is it that concern for the environment and transparency from the companies whose food feeds our families isn’t the norm? How did we get to a place where demanding chemical free berries for our children has become controversial?
Taking Time to Excel
Several years ago a group of farmers and some ambitious city folk sat down and planned how a multi-farm CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and year-round indoor farmers market could not only be possible in the Metro area, but could be successful. Today Tomāto Tomäto has grown to become the largest multi-farm CSA in the region. The lessons of the past have brought us to the point where even more expansion of the local food shed is possible. Back in those early days, eating local usually meant going to the fast food place with cabbage stuffed into bread. As interest in eating locally grew, so too did Tomāto Tomäto. This year we plan on a membership of 2000 or more as well as an expansion/conversion of our public indoor market and wholesale business.
Farmers markets are popping up all over the city, grocery stores are stocking local products, and restaurants are sporting ‘local’ on their menus. Still, accessibility to the best of the harvest is a challenge to most. The busy lifestyles we have become accustomed to conflicts with the desire to slow down and enjoy the little things. Sure, it may take more time to find the best sun-ripened heirloom tomato at the market, but the first bite into a fresh, perfectly ripe Brandywine makes up for any extra effort it took to get it on the table. This is really the backbone of the success of our CSA program. We make it easy for consumers to experience those heavenly bites each week during the growing season.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Reject Frankenfood
When one thinks of sustainability, often the first thoughts are of recycling or reusing. Maybe you picture planting trees, a community garden or a small diverse farm. Perhaps it’s more practical; insulating your home, or energy efficient appliances. All of these are great ways to incorporate sustainability into your daily life. The sum of the little changes we make equal a larger change. The key to long-term sustainability revolves around financial sustainability. The only way to grow a more sustainable local food system is for consumer demand to increase. If we want more farm land converted to vegetable production, more humane treatment of free range, grass fed animals, and less chemical usage, we as consumers must demand it, and then support it. I often say that one of the most important votes we can make isn’t for President, but the vote we make with our wallets. The American society is driven by consumerism. Big corporations normally only change practices when they foresee profit in the end. Consumers have demanded more clarity and transparency in labeling, companies have slowly responded and changed. We wanted more organic options, so the largest retailer in the country, (who historically isn’t the most environmentally conscious) responded and became the number one seller of organic products. This is a start.
Encouraging a More Natural Nature
The foundation Tomāto Tomäto is built upon is sustainability. To our company, this is what drives our choices and growth. In order to increase the supply of local foods we have to increase consumer demand. Each year as demand increases our producers have an incentive to grow in order to meet that demand. When farm land is converted to vegetable production and when a rancher converts his/her operation to grass fed or cage free there are tremendous environmental and health benefits. Again, the foundation becomes sustainability. A grass fed cattle operation survives based on the quality of the land. The impetus may have sprung from financial incentives but the net result is a more harmonious relationship between land and farmer. Often we have found the spark that started the conversion is based on the idea of stewardship or respect for the environment and an understanding of the environmental impact of large scale conventional operations. Not wanting ones legacy to be depleted soil, polluted water and sick animals probably shouldn’t be as noble as it currently is. A more appealing legacy would be leaving the land healthier and with more diversity than before. A place where the next generation of farmers, ranchers and producers can pick up where the previous generation left off.
Talk is Cheap. Healthy Produce isn’t… Yet.
In the normal business world, short-term gains outweigh the long-term costs. If a profit can be made quickly, it becomes unimportant if it comes with long-term negative consequences such as pollution, short-cuts, and cheaper ingredients. Once this cycle starts it is very difficult to break it. The challenge facing today’s local producers and companies like Tomāto Tomäto is how to maintain financial security while thinking long-term. At some point it is out of the hands of the producers and distributers, and up to those making purchases in the end.
Until more consumers become better informed it is unlikely that large scale disruptive change is possible. A reasonable question when looking at cheap produce grown half way around the world should be “How?” How was it possible to grow, harvest, and ship these products thousands of miles, make a profit for all of parties involved, and charge so little? Instead of asking ‘how,’ the average consumer will think they have scored a great deal. When superficially compared, locally produced equivalents appear to cost too much for the average person. The face value comparison doesn’t work because it is simply not using the same equation. Are fair wages being paid to the farm workers? What are the conditions of the field? How is the environment being treated? To quantify these or any of the dozens of other considerations is no small task. To have a trusted place or company that will do the vetting for consumers becomes a part of that disruptive force. When Tomāto Tomäto begins negotiations for pricing new products, the first question is “what does the producer need to make on that item for long-term success”. Because of this, the producer is no longer in the constant boom-bust cycle so typical of conventional agriculture. Long-term plans are possible and true consideration of the land and people who work it can be possible. There is no reason to plant more local cabbage or broccoli unless consumers appreciate the difference between local and non-local products. The good news is the difference goes beyond looks, which local foods often have a leg up. The biggest difference is taste. The flavor of something freshly picked is categorically superior to something picked a week ago, ‘ripened’ with a blast of gases, wrapped in plastic and shipped from California.
It’s up to you to support your neighbors, join a CSA, vote with your wallet, and make it count.