Marketing Ecologically Grown Produce in the Mainstream Marketplace
Red Tomato (RT) is a mission-driven, non-profit broker and marketer of organic and IPM fruits and vegetables that is helping family farmers survive and profit through marketing. RT offers family farmers a durable wholesale path to market, creating opportunities for farmers to sell more, earn more, learn, improve product quality, and focus.
Of the 33 farmers marketing through Red Tomato in 2002, at least 25 will experience at least two of the following: new markets; improved product quality; enhanced name/brand equity; better returns; diversification; sharper focus; and/or enhanced job satisfaction.
1. Learning and evaluation. Twenty-seven farmers and Red Tomato, together, will evaluate the season just ended, incorporating feedback from customer evaluations, and will identify successes, missed opportunities, areas for change or improvement, and whether or not to continue another year.
RT hired a consultant, Molly Anderson, to conduct an independent farmer evaluation of RT. Anderson stated, “Overall, the farmers were overwhelmingly positive about Red Tomato and its impact on their farms,” and that “the organization should not make major changes in the way it interacts with growers.” Growers did want more communication during the late fall and early winter, and wanted more information about RT’s funding sources and stability. RT purchasers conducted face-to-face meetings and telephone conversations with farmers during the winter. Major lessons learned were (a) RT needed to take a larger role in quality control; (b) certain products, such as organic lettuce, needed adjustments in the post-harvest handling processes and pick-up cycles; and (c) offering deals in weekly supermarket flyers was an important part of getting more business.
2. New farmers/new programs. In pursuit of growth and new opportunities, RT will consider 10 to 20 prospective farmers. We explore (i) how strong is the match and (ii) how well we might, jointly, take advantage of marketing opportunities (that already participating farmers are not going to fulfill).
In 2002, RT purchasers explored relationships with nine farmers in the Northeast and several more from outside the region, all of whom were either new to RT or whom we did not work with the previous season. RT marketed produce from eight out of nine of these Northeast growers in 2002. Some of these products were new to RT, and moved in small quantities on a trial basis, such as edamame, tulamene raspberries, and organic snow peas and sugar snap peas. Other products increased volume to RT’s established lines, such as apples and tomatoes.
3. Planning at the detail level. Thirty-seven farmers, returnees plus new participants, with RT, will nail down a plan for changes and improvements needed, including products (crops/varieties), post-harvest handling, order and delivery cycle, customers, technology, pricing, certifications, special promotions, and timelines.
Planning happened with growers on many fronts. In terms of packaging, new water-resistant labels were designed and used on wet lettuce and pepper boxes; new stickers were made for cellophane wrapping on blueberry pints; tills were used for peaches for the first time, and stickers were specially made for these baskets; a new apple tote bag was designed with the logo “Born and Raised Here”; quality standards were improved or fine-tuned for many crops; order placement and order pickup schedules were improved over the year before, which meant that, in most cases, growers had more advanced notice of the orders; growers participated in advertised deals in weekly supermarket flyers; RT moved its office and warehouse to a new location with more space and three temperature zones for perishable produce; RT purchased a produce data base to manage the increasingly complex number of products, prices, and supermarket accounts; lots of planning went into promotion: the season ended with an apple event, in which Tufts U. School of Nutrition graduate students delivered nutrition lessons and locally grown apples to 20 third-grade classes in the Boston area, using an educational booklet designed by Red Tomato; 75 in-store tastings were conducted throughout the season; large posters of farmers and large apple banners were produced and displayed in supermarkets.
4. Implementation and ongoing adjustment. Thirty-three farmers will actually implement plans for changes and improvements, introduce product through Red Tomato, and adjust to customer feedback.
Thirty-five growers from the Northeast distributed produce through RT during the 2002 season, resulting in sales of $578,000. Handling and quality adjustments were made on several products, including organic basil, tomatoes, IPM lettuce, and corn.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
The achievement of the milestones outlined in this project does not reflect the extreme difficulties RT experienced in 2002, nor does it incorporate all the important learning that took place. Although it was a favorable report, Molly Anderson’s evaluation revealed that the performance target we selected was not an effective tool to measure the benefits growers received by working with RT. In order for us to accurately assess the degree to which we help farmers, we need to figure out how to improve farmer evaluations and to redesign our performance target. Because we have not worked this out yet, we shifted the focus of this year’s evaluation to customers.
1033 Turnpike Street
Canton, MA 02021
Office Phone: 7815758911