By Eileen Weber
Here’s the scoop on peaches this summer: You can eat them recently picked and pesticide-free without belonging to a CSA or hitting the farmer’s market. How? Stop by Whole Foods Market. Their northeast regional stores are running a campaign in conjunction with Red Tomato, the Massachusetts-based non-profit organization that brings fairly traded, sustainably grown produce to your grocery store.
The initiative works because they have employed the eager help of such local Connecticut farms as Lyman Orchards in Middlefield, Rogers Orchards in Southington, and Blue Hills Orchard in Wallingford. The peaches run about $1.99 per pound, or approximately $6 per basket. The promotion will run as long as the peaches do.
“Our new Eco Peach program, like our successful Eco Apples, is a groundbreaking collaboration between our region’s finest family farmers and scientists,” said Michael Rozyne, Red Tomato Director, in a company press release. “Together they have developed truly sustainable methods for growing delicious wholesale fruit.”
But here’s the catch: Whole Foods is only stocking them in their West Hartford and Glastonbury stores. Unfortunately, the locations in Milford, Fairfield, Westport, Darien, and Greenwich will not be carrying them. That may be, in part, because those stores in the northern region of the state are closest to the growers. Red Tomato’s main goal was to promote the shortest span between picking and consumption
“We pick and pack the peach at its optimal level to get the best flavor and color,” said John Lyman of Lyman Orchards. “We leave it on the vine as long as possible. With an Eco Peach, you know it’s going to be the tightest time to the consumer.
Laura Edwards-Orr, the Communications and Marketing Manager for Red Tomato, said they couldn’t get this project off the ground without the farmers. “Our growers have worked hard to grow peaches in the most natural and healthy way,” she said. “They are always challenging themselves to be better growers.”
Edwards-Orr said they put a lot of effort into building successful relationships with their farmers, and many of those relationships stem from word-of-mouth. Reiterating what Rozyne said in an earlier statement, she explained that the Eco Peach project is an offshoot of their popular Eco-Apple project, which launched in 2005 and has to date grossed over $1.4 million in revenue. (In Connecticut, they originally started the Eco Apple project with John Lyman.) When the Project gained momentum and it became clear they needed to add another grower, they asked him for a recommendation. He brought on John Rogers of Rogers Orchards. Rogers and Lyman then suggested Eric Henry of Blue Hills Orchards, and the rest is history.
But the key for Red Tomato, said Edwards-Orr, is working with mid-level family-run farms. They don’t want to work with farms that are too small to handle wholesale growing. But they are also uninterested in working with farms so big as to be labeled “mega-farms,” tipping them into the agribusiness category. (Each of the Connecticut farms the company works with has been family-owned for several generations dating back hundreds of years.)
As far as Lyman is concerned, what makes this project work is how food-conscious consumers have become. “People are suddenly paying attention to what growers are doing,” he said. “The local food movement has been growing in the last few years.
It is true that consumers are increasingly opting for organic foods. Statistics from the Organic Trade Association indicate that sales of organic food and beverages soared from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010. Mass-market retailers, including supermarkets, sold 54% of organic food last year. And last year’s total U.S. sales of food and non-food organic products brought in a little over $28 billion in revenue.
But each of the farms wants to make it clear that they are not certified organic. In some cases, it was just not economically feasible. But while they do practice natural and, what they call, responsible farming, they follow stringent guidelines in Integrated Pest Management, or IPM. All of the fruit they grow is organophosphate-free.
Why is this important? Organophosphates have a higher toxicity level, which not only affect insects but humans as well. The material blocks an enzyme related to nerve function and can be absorbed through the skin or into the lungs when ingesting food contaminated with it. Even at low levels, it has been shown to affect the brain development of fetuses and small children. The EPA banned residential use in 2001, but it still used on agricultural crops.
“When farmers grow according to Red Tomato’s Eco guidelines, they reduce the use of high toxicity pesticides, contribute to a bountiful supply of top quality local foods, and improve farm worker safety, soil and water resources, wildlife habitat and biodiversity,” explained Lorraine Los, the Fruit Crops Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Coordinator in the Plant Science Department at the University of Connecticut and key collaborator on the development of Red Tomato’s Eco Peach growers protocol.
Eric Henry of Blue Hills Orchards explained that the farms use an IPM “scouting” technique to determine whether they have an infestation before it becomes a problem. He also said that one of the reasons to eradicate the use of organophosphates is the effect it has on the insect population. It not only gets rid of the bad bugs; it gets rid of the good ones, too.
“We want to be good stewards of the land to pass on to future generations and make as little impact on the environment as possible,” said John Rogers of Rogers Orchards. “That’s why we believe in Red Tomato.”
For more information about the Eco Peach or Eco Apple initiative, check out the Red Tomato web site. And the next time you’re in the West Hartford area, why not pick up a basket of peaches to try? If you think they’re as special as the growers think they are, you may want to pester your produce man at your local Whole Foods Market into stocking them as well.