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Closing the Gap

By Melanie Moffett
In Bayou Eats
Jul 24th, 2014
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Moving the Farm Closer to the Table

article by Michael DeVault | photos by Brad Arender

A woman browsing the produce aisle at Walmart is surveying a bin full of ripe, plump tomatoes. She picks one up, squeezes it slightly and places it into an open bag in her buggy. Another tomato, but this one returned. A third passes muster and joins the first in the bag. Each of these tomatoes has something in common, though. They are all bearing a small blue sticker that proclaims, “Proudly Grown in Arkansas.”

The sticker goes unnoticed by the woman–and the four people behind her, each of whom repeat a variation of the fresh produce selection dance. And, for those who do notice it, they’d be forgiven if they assumed the tomatoes are grown in Arkansas, because that’s where Walmart is from. Yet, that’s not the case at all. Walmart, like many grocers, has begun to source as much local produce as possible, part of a growing trend of moving food production closer to food consumption.

That tomato at Walmart was grown by Arkansas farmer Ricky Leonard, and it was placed into Walmart by a local company, Robertson Produce. Locally-sourced fruits and vegetables in a Walmart are just one component of a nationwide effort to shorten the distances food travels to the consumer. These efforts by Ricky Leonard, Robertson Produce and Walmart are part of a much larger picture, a sweeping social movement known as Farm to Table. With roots in the poetry of Wendell Berry and the recipes of Alice Waters and proponents like MacArthur Fellow Wes Jackson, Farm to Table just might change the way Americans think about food. Supplying local tomatoes isn’t a problem for Dan Robertson, of Robertson Produce. Tomatoes are plentiful. At the moment, he’s looking for something else.

“Right now, I’m out of yellow squash and I have no sources for it,” Robertson tells BayouLife. Apparently, there’s a shortage of squash, or at least the kind of squash Robertson needs to put into the hands of his customers.

Across the river, Thomas Giovingo sorts two bushels of squash into neat stacks by the cash register of the first booth in the West Monroe Farmer’s Market. Giovingo is here every day the market is open, and judging by the number of times his squash sorting is interrupted by inquisitive customers, business is good. This is Giovingo’s second season at the market, where he and his wife sell tomatoes, squash, watermelons and snap beans. If it grows in the dirt, chances are Giovingo either grows it himself or he knows someone who grows it. In addition to selling his own produce, Giovingo also buys merchandise from other growers in the area to sell. He says he started keeping a booth at the market out of necessity when his harvests exceeded the amount he could distribute through other businesses.

“I had more than I could sell,” Giovingo says. So he and his wife hung out a shingle at the market, and a year later they’re still moving produce. This year, he had a good crop of heirloom tomatoes. Now, though, his tomatoes are played out and he’s taken to buying tomatoes from other growers. Oak Grove tomatoes seem to be quite popular this year.

Still, Giovingo says he has more product to sell than he sells, and many times he ends up throwing some produce. If he catches an overripe vegetable in time, he’ll sell it at a loss, “to keep from throwing it out.”

“I’d rather sell them to someone for a little of nothing than throw them away,” he says. It’s this kind of down-to-earth logic that’s helping make his business a success and keeps people coming back to markets like the one in West Monroe season after season. With the exception of gardens in the back yard, a farmer’s market represents the closest most individuals can get to direct farm-to-table goods.

But what about that squash? Giovingo admits it’s been a tough year, but so far he’s produced enough to keep his booth stocked. He doesn’t know exactly how much squash he grows each season, but says they always have plenty on hand and a little extra to spare. “Last year, I had a pretty good amount. This year, I didn’t have very much.”
Within a half hour, three customers buy squash by the pound, the bulbous yellow fruits finding their way into plastic shopping bags at $1.75 a pound. Meanwhile, other customers pick up eggplants, a few bell peppers, the random watermelon, and more than ten pounds of tomatoes. All the while, the pile of squash gets continually replenished, either by Giovingo or his wife.

If only the Giovingos could send some of their surplus to Robertson Produce. Maybe then Robertson wouldn’t have to worry about stocking the shelves. But life is never that simple, and in agriculture, it’s usually far more complicated than most people imagine. Consider that stack of squash on Giovingo’s table.

Some time in the spring, Giovingo drops seeds into dirt. For the next so many weeks, he waters the soil from which sprouts tiny green plants. When the upstarts hit a certain height, he begins to tie them off and guide the sinewy vines toward maximum production. Several weeks after he first drops the seeds in the ground, long yellow buds appear. The flowers bear more than a passing resemblance to the fruit the plant will eventually bear. Finally, the yellow flowers give way, and the squash themselves appear. A few days’ worth of growth on the vine, a bit of ripening, and Giovingo picks the squash, drops it into a basket or a bag, washes it, and brings it to the market to sell.

It’s a pretty straightforward process, right? If only it were that simple, says Robertson. Instead, big retailers such as Walmart or supermarket chains require that fresh produce growers hold a Good Agricultural Practices certification from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. Robertson immediately points out three things about GAP Certification: It’s not a law that producers be GAP certified, only a customer requirement; few producers are GAP certified; and it’s neither cheap nor easy.

“It’s a tremendous challenge to local producers because of what the government demands in order to be GAP certified,” Robertson says. Those requirements include, among other things, a packing shed with a concrete floor, running water that is tested and chlorinated, closed restroom facilities that meet code, and an annual inspection for compliance and safety.

“That eliminates a lot of the small farmers who cannot afford to put in that kind of infrastructure and absorb that kind of expense,” Robertson says. It hasn’t always been this way, either. Robertson recalls when local producers would bring in a bushel of squash and he’d buy it to sell. Those days are gone, and Robertson grants that’s not all for the worse.

“It’s really to protect the consumer,” Robertson says. Without the certification, retailers have no way of knowing the conditions in which produce was grown, harvested, stored and transported. Also, for the small producer, there are few if any quality control measures in place to track the source of produce. So while GAP Certification can prove cumbersome, for the retailers and the consumer, it’s definitely a plus. For the local producer like Giovingo, though, GAP Certification is a major obstacle.

“It means well, but it really does prohibit a lot of the small farmers to go to markets like our company,” Robertson says. And there are plenty of areas where the supply chain is lacking as far as local growers are concerned. Robertson can usually get locally produced blueberries, watermelon, bell pepper and tomatoes. “There’s definitely plenty of areas where we don’t have producers who are GAP certified.” A quick look at Leonard’s tomato operation is enough of an explanation why not.

Nestled on eight acres outside of Crossett, Leonard and his employees tend some 30,000 tomato plants. Part of the property houses Leonard’s packing and distribution facility, an open metal shed built on a 30×60-foot concrete slab. Per regulations, the shed includes running water and a chlorine wash system. For the entirety of the production season, workers in the shed will rate, size and sort tomatoes for eventual shipment to produce suppliers all over the country. Walmart, Leonard says, buys “pretty much every tomato we pick.”

And that’s a lot of tomatoes. All told, Leonard and his team grow more than 16,000 cases of America’s favorite fruit. It’s a labor-intensive process that requires near constant attention, diligence, knowledge and more than a little luck. Literally every single aspect of a tomato’s lifecycle has to be managed by hand, from planting to staking, to tying off. And that’s just on the growing end. Once the plants take off, someone has to manually prune the vines to ensure maximum and sustained production. Pest control must also be done with vigilance–and by hand. When the fruits are ready to pick, there is no harvester. Instead, someone has to walk the plants and pluck the tomato from the vine. It’s impossible to estimate how many times a set of hands touches a tomato before it arrives in the bin at the supermarket.

“Everything is done by hand on a tomato,” Leonard says with a laugh. It’s a hard task, growing a tomato, but Leonard says it’s an easy choice of product, because there is a market and they’re the one plant that people have trouble getting to take off in their back yards. The effort is worth it, even to a smaller producer like Leonard. “If you can raise them, you can sell them,” he says. “They will sell. Everybody loves a tomato,” Leonard says.

The average American will eat at least 22 pounds of tomatoes this year. All told, Americans consume some 8-billion tomatoes a year. Comparatively speaking, those same Americans consume almost two billion pounds of yellow squash, which puts Robertson’s squash shortage into perspective.

He understands, though, because he’s spent his entire career working in agriculture and agribusiness. “It’s hard work,” he says, and one that’s becoming increasingly difficult because of environmental concerns, regulations and a competitive international marketplace. After all, almost a third of the nation’s squash comes from Mexico. The same can be said of bell peppers, cantaloupe, blueberries and, yes, tomatoes. Add to all of that the generational nature of farming and the reality of a diminishing supply of children willing to continue family farms, and it’s easy to see the challenges facing the farm to table movement are only going to continue to compound in the coming years.

For Dan Robertson’s sister, the future of produce looks just a little bit different, more local than even Crossett. In fact, for Austin, TX teacher Patricia Robertson, that future may eliminate the middleman all together. Oddly enough, even though she came from an agriculture background, Patricia didn’t set out to change the way people think of produce. She more or less stumbled into it sideways.

“For the last fifteen years, I’ve always had at least one student with sensory challenges or Asperger’s Syndrome,” Patricia says, though it was one student in particular who helped push her onto her path.

That student, a kindergartner named Aniket, was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder, or SPD. Sensory challenges such as SPD are closely related to Autism spectrum disorders. While dealing with the challenges and needs of Aniket in her classroom, Patricia read a story about how her father and brother financed school-based gardens in Bastrop. With amazement, Patricia read news reports about how non-verbal students developed verbal skills while working in the gardens her family built. Immediately, she began to work on the AG Project.

The “AG” has two meanings, according to Patricia. The first, of course, is agriculture. The second meaning: Aniket’s Garden. Working with other teachers around the Austin area, Patricia began to raise money to construct school-based gardens. The AG Project gardens are primarily targeted for SPD and Autism spectrum students, though Patricia quickly adds, “We want every child that can to garden.”

Foods produced in the gardens go to the school cafeteria, home with the student or even into classrooms, where students learn how to prepare vegetables for meals. Schools are given wide latitude when it comes to how to operate their gardens, the uses of the food and which students take part. All the AG Project does is address what Patricia says is a growing need for fundraising to pay for these gardens. “We fundraise so we can provide schools with gardens,” she says.

One of the AG Projects upcoming gardens is set to begin this Fall at Ouachita Parish High School. Patricia says a teacher there, Haley Holley, gave each of her bridesmaids a donation to the AG Project in lieu of bridesmaids’ gifts. It was a touching gesture and one that impressed Patricia. “Wouldn’t that be a great trend to take off?” she asks with a laugh.

While efforts like the AG Project and the West Monroe Farmer’s Market cannot supply all of the nation’s produce needs–remember all those billions of pounds of tomatoes–at the same time, locally grown produce can provide a nutritious, cost-effective and more environmentally responsive component of the complete nutrition picture, which really strikes to the heart of the Farm to Table movement. For Patricia, though, she’s at once surprised the part she’s playing and unsurprised she’s ended up here.

“I never saw this coming, but it kind of all makes sense,” she says. “It’s all about farming, and that’s in the Robertson blood!”