How big grocery stores don't buy from Fisher Price type farms anymore but still pretend that they do.
Grocery store ads claim to have "the freshest produce" and buy from "local" farms but the truth is a very different story. No more is the idyllic little Fisher Price farmer delivering just-picked produce from the neighborhood farm into the awaiting produce manager's hands. Instead, almost every national and regional grocery chain makes growers ship to a costly central distribution warehouse that may take days away from the life of the produce. And local? It's more likely a large hydroponic company in a brick building downtown or a several hundred-acre corporate farm within a day's drive.
How do I know this? I'm one of those little farms.
In the summer of 2014, from a chance meeting at a farmer’s market, it was arranged by the Kroger Cincinnati division that I would deliver my specialty produce of organically grown fresh edamame and sun sugar cherry tomatoes to select Kroger stores in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area. This was an amazing opportunity as a small farmer since I had started growing these vegetables to help as many people as possible eat healthier. I had even named my farm after the sun sugars since I'd never liked tomatoes before tasting them.
Over the past 8 years each summer I've delivered directly to about a dozen Kroger stores around a ton of produce. The crops I sold were not easy to grow organically on a commercial scale, so the idea was to ramp up the number of stores as production was fine-tuned. I worked with the store produce managers to bring them just the right amount of produce each week to avoid waste, usually picked and delivered that day. I did sampling demos and customers were excited to know that Kroger really did offer fresh and local. I even introduced the new compostable package I designed for the sun sugars that replaced the traditional unrecyclable plastic clamshell.
All that came to a standstill last month, after I had started my Kroger deliveries to the smaller stores. As more tomatoes were ripening on the vines and promised to be the best season ever, one of the stores wanted to check with the new Produce Coordinator who wanted to check with the new Division Produce Merchandiser who had to check with the somewhat new Category Manager to see if it was still OK to deliver to stores directly (DSD).
A week passed. When the CM noticed my tomatoes at the Newport’s Kroger he finally got back to the DPM who let me know that he said NO, I could not deliver like this. As the tomatoes kept ripening, I got the CM’s number and email and contacted him directly. He told me we’d have to talk about me becoming an “approved” vendor (when did I become unapproved? I followed Good Agricultural Practices for a farm my size, carried the right amount of insurance, I'd sold to Kroger for 8 years). He said he’d call me the next day when he had time.
Days passed. The cherry tomatoes on my 1000 tomato plants kept ripening. After some questions through LinkedIn to Kroger VPs asking if this is how Kroger leaves their small, women-owned farmers of 8 years hanging, the CM arranged a teams meeting to discuss my farm becoming an approved vendor. More days pass. More tomatoes ripen.
From the meeting: Kroger is so worried about people getting sick and suing them that all produce they buy has to ship through a Distribution Center to be inspected before going to stores. This can add up to 2 days to a perishable item's shelf life. It also costs the farmer $2500 to be entered into the system and $100/month the rest of the year, even when not supplying. Since my sales were at best $10,000 a season and I was only delivering up to 500 pints a week at the peak of a good year, I was too small for the warehouse to even open their doors to me. I needed to deliver pallets of produce and at this point it was a little late to plant more plants. Plus, since we pick the sun sugar cherry tomatoes at the peak of ripeness for maximum flavor, adding days of cold storage seemed like a guarantee for failure.
I even asked the CM if Kroger could somehow help me pay my part-time employees to just pick and deliver this season's harvest to the local food banks as a win-win for everyone. His response? He didn’t think that his billion-dollar company’s accounting department could absorb the loss since I wasn't correctly set up in his system.
It's been a huge challenge to find homes for the hundreds of pounds per week of tomatoes ripening since farmer’s markets are too small for the amount I'd grown for Kroger and most chain grocery stores also use warehouses. While the Kroger male execs sit in their downtown air-conditioned offices, my small group of my age lady workers (60s) are sweating out in the hot field, picking through the plants for the pretty sun sugars to supply to the new independent markets I've found, grabbing the slightly split ones off the vines to give to food kitchens (who can only take so much), and sadly, composting buckets and buckets of badly split sun sugars we didn't pick in time so the gnats won't take over.
On the bright side, there have been some amazing independent markets who were able to take about half of this season's sun sugars and who are TRULY committed to fresh and local: ETC Produce & Provisions in Findlay Market, Lehr's Prime Market in Milford, Jungle Jim's International Market Eastgate, and Country Fresh Farm Market & Wine Depot - Beechmont Ave. There were other small markets but they just didn't get the foot traffic to justify the delivery time and cost.
I didn't get into this stress and the stress of organic and regenerative farming in general to make money (or lose money) but to help people eat healthier with a very special cherry tomato that doesn't even taste like a tomato. It's literally changed my life because I've invented the biodegradable and recyclable Sustainable Produce Container to hold my sun sugars and have now sold over 2 million of the different sizes to other growers to help them also avoid plastic packaging. Plus, most of the Kroger people have been awesome to work with through the years. Not to mention I eat so much better in the summer! Such blessings! But if there isn't a commercial market to challenge me (the sun sugars are not backed by the seed company to sell commercially because they are so delicate and because of their hybrid variability) and to help me reach the greatest number of people in the quickest manner possible, this will probably be my last season as a farmer.
Kroger can’t have it both ways. I get that they’re worried about lawsuits and want to control everything. But they need to own it and stop pretending that they also offer the “freshest” local produce. It’s physically impossible to say you offer “fresher than fresh” like in Kroger's current TV ad when that produce must sit in a warehouse waiting for inspectors to check out hundreds of pallets. It’s misleading at best to say you offer “local” when most people’s idea of local is a 10-acre farm in NKY like mine and not a 250-acre corporate tomato farm in Tennessee already supplying to Walmart. And it’s an outright LIE in the current TV ad that shows a Kroger produce manager character opening her store doors and the camera panning from store to Fisher Price country farm for the fresh corn that’s then handed to her by the farmer, ending with more corn brought into the store by a politically correct assortment of farmers carrying bushel baskets that say LOCAL (see storyboard below). This not only seems like false advertising but also seems like evil corporate greed: Kroger is using their big ad budget to lure customers in and gain an unjust advantage over smaller independent stores who truly do buy fresh and local.
Does this seem fair to you? This is a lie that needs to stop. Let Kroger know that you know!
Sun Sugar Farms
The food waste did partially stop, thank God! Not by Kroger feeling any shame or by additional markets magically appearing to deliver to but by the goodness of a faith-based group wanting to feed the hungry. One of the fresh food organizations I contacted (The Last Mile) put me in touch with The Society of St Andrew.*
This organization will help commercial farms like mine glean what I don't have markets for in order to prevent food waste and feed the hungry. The volunteers went through my safety training and then went out to the fields with my employees to pick the sun sugar tomatoes, putting the split ones in one crate for the soup kitchens (like La Soupe to make sauces out of) and the good ones in another to share with people at food pantries (like the NKY Freestore Foodbank).
They took up to 300 pounds/week of sun sugars to the different nonprofits' locations, giving me time to deliver the rest to my new commercial markets. They have been a Godsend and have found good homes for so many of the sun sugars. In the end, the 1000 tomato plants I put in the ground yielded about 3000 pounds of cherry tomatoes (~4,500 pints). Over a third of that quantity went to charities. Not a way to run a business but glad people were fed.
We're also grateful for the voice the Cincinnati Enquirer gave us on their forum page (Aug 21,2022 op ed) and for the story WLWT News 5 did on the situation and how we adapted with the help of independently owned markets and charitable organizations. God will use for good to get the truth out.
When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you.
If you are harvesting in your field and forget a sheaf there, do not go back to get it. It is to be left for the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.
I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.
1 John 3:18
Let us love not only in words, but in deed and in truth.