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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Do you know the provenance of your produce?

When I first started my organic produce department, I'd always look at the labels on the boxes and wonder what the farm that produced the food was like. Being new to organics and having a curious nature, I would call the farmer and ask to visit the premises—and I was always greeted with, "If you want to drive out to the farm, we would be glad to have you." And so I did.

I learned firsthand why organic farming was important by walking the land and talking to the growers. And you know what? No matter how many basic or seemingly ignorant questions I had, they were always answered patiently and thoroughly by my guide.

I got to experience the magic of the land by feeling, seeing and tasting what it had to offer, whether it was in a shady grove of 20-year-old fig or walnut trees in California's Central Valley, or a field of strawberries alongside the state's foggy coast. Each and every experience made the writings of my heroes—people like Wendell Berry, Elliot Coleman, Rachel Carson and Masanobu Fukuoka—even more real and meaningful. But the benefits showed up the most in my interactions with customers. Since I had been to the farms and met the growers whose produce I was selling, it was easy to convey excitement and passion for the products.

It quickly became commonplace for my department crew to join me on journeys to the farms. Then it only made sense for me to start organizing Saturday farm tours in the spring and fall for my customers. And believe me, if you want to grow the sales of one of the farmers whose produce you stock, give someone a personal connection to the farm with a tour.

Recently, I've had a few experiences that have confirmed my belief that if more of the folks who've made a career in this industry—and especially those who are just starting out—had more of a connection to the farms that provide the food for their stores, they'd be far better off.

The first experience occurred during a seminar I was giving for a group of employees from a store that's been around for many years. No one could answer even the most basic questions about organic farming or certification, like how many years it takes for a farm to get certified (five was one answer, seven was another and then, reluctantly, someone correctly said three). The same occurred when I asked what the meaning was behind the 100 percent organic label. If employees didn't know these kinds of organic basics, how could they possibly be able to give accurate information to their customers?

For more about the importance of connecting to organic farmers, see "Customers crave connection."

At another client's store in the Midwest, the produce manager said he was buying from a large farm in California instead of his local farmer because it was just a little bit cheaper. It wasn't a quality issue, he said, just something that helped his margin to buy the cheaper produce. But as I heard him say this, I couldn't help but wonder how he'd feel if he'd met his local farmer, saw the operation and realized that by supporting his community he'd be a lot better off in the long run.

There is incredible value that results from a farm tour, and I encourage you to get in touch with your suppliers and local growers if you're not already. Each one offers a chance to live, feel and truly connect to what organic really is.

Mark Mulcahy runs Organic Options, an organic education and produce consulting firm. Contact him at 707.939.8355 or

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