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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Herald the Working-Class Heroes During Organic Harvest Month

Produce Perspectives

It's Organic Harvest Month, and I want to share a quote from Elaine Lipson, author of The Organic Foods Sourcebook (McGraw-Hill Contemporary Books, 2001), that I use during the produce manager seminars I conduct around the country:

"Farmers are the pioneers and the heroes of the organic industry. Telling [their] story doesn't trivialize [their] work, it humanizes it, and can help you turn every purchase into a long-term relationship."

I have always been a proponent of recognizing these incredible stewards of the land and bringing that connection to my customers. But at the same time, it got me thinking about the working-class heroes manning organic produce departments throughout the country. We don't plant, grow, pick or pack, but we play an essential role just the same.

You could say we man the front line. Heck, for some customers, we are the closest link to the source they will ever have. Paul Muller, co-owner of Full Belly Farm near Guinda, Calif., once said that every time someone ate the food he grew he felt as if he was infecting that person—in a good way—with the magic of the farm. If that's the case, then we can be proud to be the purveyors of magic.

Now, I won't kid you. Not everyone fits this mold or wants to. There are people who manage produce departments who are just going through the motions; their departments are all dressed up, pretty and profitable, but lack spirit—no life, no passion, no magic. But there are those who do it right, and during this month of organic celebration, I'd like to point out some things people do to make a really great organic produce department and celebrate some of those whose passion makes it happen.

  • Create such imaginative displays that customers are stimulated to buy and participate in the world of fresh organic fare. Jeff Fairchild of New Seasons Market, a four-store chain in Oregon, has become famous through the years for signage made from eye-catching materials, including metal pipes and ceramic pots.
  • Charge a fair price that represents the value of the food, and pay a fair price to the folks who grow the food so they can continue farming year after year. Bruce Grimm, with the two-store Mustard Seed Market & Cafe operation in Ohio, helped to build a very successful program based on these ideals.
  • Focus on education—for you and your staff as well as for customers—so you can teach folks how their food choices affect the world around them, and do so with real, not myth-based, information. Sacramento Natural Food Co-op does this by featuring a different farmer each week and posting a profile in the front of the department and special signs pointing out the farmer's products on the stand.
  • Make a connection with the farms that the department supports, whether it is down the street or 3,000 miles away, and through these efforts help customers do the same. The Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis has done an excellent job in this area for years with a local grower program that features the growers' logos above each item and a buying program that supports family farms across the country.
  • Help customers understand the beauty and differences of seasonal eating. Bring in 20 kinds of plums or three kinds of garlic, label them correctly and rejoice in the flavor nuances of each. The City Market in Burlington, Vt., really steps up to the plate in this area with beautifully handcrafted signs that both describe the flavors and, by their artfulness, affirm the store's dedication to spreading the seasonal message.
  • Promote organic farming to anyone and everyone who is willing to listen. I used to go to retirement homes, preschools and gardening clubs and take along fresh in-season produce to share and start the dialogue.

Are there really people who do these things every day? You better believe it. I know because I've had the pleasure to work with, teach and be mentored by them. And believe me, their customers know who they are. If you know a produce worker who deserves to be celebrated during Organic Harvest Month, why not give him or her a pat on the back or a hug to show your appreciation. They deserve it.

Mark Mulcahy runs an organic education and produce consulting firm. He can be reached at 707.939.8355 or by e-mail at

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 9/p. 29

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