Natural Foods Merchandiser

Conventional grocer builds organic research farm

At a time when conventional grocery stores are rapidly adding organic SKUs and trying to meet the increasing demand for local produce, Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets is capitalizing on both trends with a new project: Wegmans Organic Research Farm.

Sitting on 50 acres owned by the Wegman family in Canandaigua, N.Y., the farm, still waiting for certification from the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, is currently providing heirloom potatoes and tomatoes, beans, eggplants and cabbages, among other crops, to its nearby Wegmans stores. CEO Danny Wegman told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle that he hopes the farm will eventually serve as an educational model for local growers, employees and consumers who want to learn about organic food production.

"Hopefully this will get [customers] interested in eating good food, not junk food," he told the paper. "That is a long-term vision."

While some might speculate that this kind of extensive focus on organics by a conventional supermarket might affect smaller natural foods businesses, John Sozio, vice president and partial owner of Rochester-based Lori's Natural Foods Center, said he expects this project will boost sales at his store.

"Whenever Wegmans or anyone else talks about organic foods, our business goes up," he said. "It shines a light on the subject, and a lot of people in our area know that we've been doing [organics] for an even longer time than the big guys. So when they promote it, that many more people will be exposed to organics. And our customers may talk to people who shop [at Wegmans] and say, 'Hey, Lori's is a cool place to shop."

Mark Lipson, policy program director for the Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Organic Farming Research Foundation, also said he believes this model will positively affect overall organic sales.

"It's awfully interesting that [Wegmans] is doing this. It reflects the vacuum of publicly funded research, which has grown a little bit from virtually nothing 10 years ago," Lipson said. "But the organic market is growing so fast … Wegmans doing their own research farm is an indicator of what the market is having to do in that vacuum. And if this works, you might see a lot of copycats. Farming's not easy. But this is a bold idea."

How will a model like this affect other growers? Sozio thinks it'll present an opportunity for him to highlight the small, local farmers whose produce he sells. "We're helping a lot of families by supporting small family farms," he said.

And Lipson believes a model like Wegmans' farm can only help growers. "Overall, U.S. production of organic food isn't increasing as fast as the demand," he said. "This model can work for other retailers, and it can also work for other growers. If Wegmans grows a successful organic program, they're not going to be able to do it all on one farm. They'll be looking for other growers, and it could have good effects for other organic farms."

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 10/p. 1

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