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Best of NAMA 2022


othing says "summer" better than a fresh, homegrown, red tomato. Juicy, tasteful tomatoes from the garden are a joyful seasonal replacement to pale hothouse imitators. Unfortunately, their appearance is often short and sweet.

One Massachusetts nonprofit marketing organization is changing that scenario by improving availability of local fresh fruits and vegetables. "Red Tomato" has worked since 1998 to extend and expand market presence of local produce by helping local, sustainable family farmers develop and service long-term markets.

"We actively promote produce grown with environmentally sound and sustainable ag methods," says Michael Rozyne, Red Tomato founder and managing director, Canton, Mass. "We work mostly with farmers in the middle farm group, not the industrial farmers and not too many of the smallest niche market operators."

Red Tomato has nurtured area family farmers through personal visits and long-term pricing agreements. Red Tomato brokers buy certified organic and non-organic produce, but they especially have success with produce from farms where Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is practiced.

"Our region needs a broad spectrum of ecological approaches, including both organic and IPM, to create an economically viable sustainable ag industry in the Northeast," he says. "We look for certified organic and those practicing biointensive IPM methods. Most of the non-organic produce we sell is grown using such methods."

Red Tomato brokers also spend a tremendous amount of time building relationships and communicating the benefits of locally grown produce to trade buyers at supermarkets around Boston. Most customers are suburban supermarkets that compete with the two major chains in the region.

"Getting into the stores is not difficult because fresh fruits and vegetables are one of the most profitable departments in the supermarket," says Rozyne. "We have found that marketing freshness and flavor is the cake, and the social and environmental benefits are the icing."

While trade brokers seem to understand IPM methods and benefits, Red Tomato communications coordinator Iliana Rivas says that IPM is such a complex process that it does not always translate well to the consumer level.

"We are just beginning to work with educating consumers about IPM and other issues. Our first priority is to ‘push’ Red Tomato produce through the stores," she says. "Next we can begin to ‘pull’ in the consumer to want and value Red Tomato produce."

Rivas plans in-store taste tests, along with the opportunity to share more information with consumers and get their feedback about the produce. "Issues sheets" about IPM, Red Tomato and their partners and other topics will be distributed to address consumer questions. For example, Rozyne notes that many consumers are unaware that the true costs of year-round access to fruits and vegetables are hidden, including lost farmland and jobs, energy consumption, environmental degradation, diminished freshness, taste, nutrition and control over food safety.

"We are fortunate to work with some stores whose customer base already values local and can access Red Tomato products - that complements our promotional efforts," says Rivas. "But as we broaden Red Tomato’s presence to include low income and ethnic communities, we’ll need to address other issues like product price and product type to make our message better heard."

Red Tomato plans to increase their presence by partnering with similar farmers and farm groups in other regions that will allow them to become a year-round supplier. "We can still push local, but link with others to maintain shelf space all year," says Rivas.

In addition to expansion, Rozyne says they will continue to fine-tune their mission. "The link between consumers and farmers needs to be reinvented, and proximity is the key to making it work," he says. "We have seen food safety issues receive attention. As that happens, consumers want more knowledge about food production. Local systems can provide consumers with that information, as well as provide meaning to consumers on an intangible level."

Red Tomato handout materials address other values of producing and buying local foods. "Keeping farmland in our region benefits us all. Open space gives our region environmental and recreational benefits, including wildlife conservation and watershed preservation. Farms in our region provide local jobs for local people…"

Given such benefits, Rozyne believes that local food systems can succeed. "The writing is on the wall that the middle group of family farmers is disappearing," he says. "But we believe that true freshness and real flavor are the competitive edge that local growers will always have and the best chance at securing a lasting place in the market." AM

Barb Baylor Anderson is a freelance writer from Edwardsville, Ill., who covers a wide variety of ag issues.

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