Red Tomato makes producer connection

Photo by Rebekah Fraser.
Michael Rozyne, of Red Tomato, assesses an apple with Aaron Clark, during a visit to Clark Brothers Orchard in Ashfield, Mass.

When Michael Rozyne founded Equal Exchange in 1986, he was at the forefront of creating the fair trade movement in coffee, tea and cocoa. After spending nine years creating and building the international cooperative, Rozyne decided to explore fair trade with the locally grown fruits and vegetables he enjoyed most. In 1995, he started on an agricultural adventure that would benefit farmers throughout the Northeast.

Rozyne spent one year figuring out how to translate international coffee trade to New England produce. During that year he worked part-time for the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, where he met many of his current colleagues in the produce world.

In 1996, Rozyne founded the agricultural marketing nonprofit, Red Tomato, whose mission was to act as an agent for a network of Northeast growers, building a marketing program and managing the supply chain to make their products attractive and competitive in supermarkets. At that time, most of his colleagues in sustainable agriculture were focused on policy. “They didn’t see marketing as the place to put energy and resources,” he explains.

From the beginning, Red Tomato has worked with produce grown organically and using integrated pest management (IPM). They bring a variety of high quality vegetables and fruits to market. However, when it comes to apples, organic growing at commercial volumes is difficult in the northeastern microclimate, as the amount of humidity and rain are conducive to scab and other fungi and insects.

“In all the crops that I’ve worked with, it’s amazing to me how many severe pests threaten apples. For many vegetable crops, there are only three to four pests that seriously threaten a crop, but with apples the list is quite a bit longer,” Rozyne says.

Aaron Clark, a grower in Ashfield, Mass., says that the plum curculio weevil will devastate his entire crop if it isn’t caught at the right time. Although Clark’s family began to adopt IPM methods 20 years ago, since joining Red Tomato’s Eco Apple program in 2000, Clark has learned advanced IPM methods. For Clark, advanced IPM, also known as biointensive IPM, is a more rational approach than growing organically. By targeting specific pests, constantly monitoring conditions and treating sites only when necessary and with the least toxic chemicals available, Clark is able to use fewer chemicals in his orchard than other farmers. “The majority of pesticides we use are fungicides,” says Clark.

Rozyne and Clark agree that fungus is one of many reasons that few farmers in the Northeast have been able to successfully grow organic apples to a supermarket scale and standard. The humid weather conditions in this microclimate are a perfect breeding ground for both fungi—like apple scab—and pests—like plum curculio—that are not present in other areas of the country. “I’m amazed at how much farmers have to know in order to grow successfully,” says Rozyne.

Clark sprays in the middle of May and first week of June to deal with plum curculio. He treats for apple maggot fly later in the summer, but remembers when growers sprayed an insecticide every two weeks. “They didn’t know there was a specific time to target pests, but they knew if they didn’t spray they’d lose their whole crop,” he says.

Clark recalls the infestation of the nonnative European red mite several years ago. By sucking sap from the leaves, the mites steal nutrients made during photosynthesis and starve the tree. Clark and other growers initially used a miticide, but discovered when they sprayed for the mites they returned in greater numbers. Clark switched to a pesticide that would kill all the insects, but that spray also killed beneficial insects that were controlling the mites to some extent. Twenty years ago, Clark began spraying horticultural oil on the trees early in the spring to coat and smother the eggs of these mites. As long as the application is timed well and done correctly, he doesn’t need to do it again for the rest of the year. Yet, Clark says, in the past, the tools and knowledge to determine best practices in IPM were not available. “We now know that just because an insect is in the orchard doesn’t mean we need to spray; it’s only when it reaches damaging levels.”

This knowledge is available in part thanks to research done by scientists at the University of Massachusetts, such as Dan Cooley, plant pathologist, in conjunction with Red Tomato. About five years ago, UMass connected with Red Tomato and put together a prototype grant to the USDA to identify the most advanced IPM tools available for apple growing, and find a small set of growers willing to use them in their orchards. Advanced IPM is typically more expensive than more conventional pest management, and growers are reluctant to absorb these costs without some tangible return. So, Red Tomato continues the IPM process by marketing that crop in a way that ensures that growers will receive a premium for their product. The project has since grown. In the next phase of the project, Cooley and Rozyne intend to focus on four of the biggest disease and insect problems in apples: apple scab, sooty blotch/flyspeck, plum curculio and maggot fly.

Photos courtesy of UMASS.
(Left) Cooley and his team have modified the traditional red-sphere trap, and it now contains a relatively nontoxic (to us) material called spinosad, which is released slowly throughout late summer. (Right) The humid weather conditions in this microclimate are a perfect breeding ground for fungi, like apple scab.

Conventional wisdom is that apple scab produces spores as soon as green tissue emerges, so growers typically apply fungicides at that time. In theory, this prevents spores from infecting leaves and starting an epidemic. Growers usually apply a fungicide spray every week to 10 days from the time the green tissue emerges until the danger of scab is gone, usually mid-June in New England. However, research has shown that orchards with little or no scab do not have a significant number of spores until much later in the season, when the apples have produced green leaves for three or four weeks. In such “clean” orchards, growers can delay their first spring application of fungicide and save one to three fungicide sprays a year. To tell whether their orchard is sufficiently clean, growers evaluate the amount of scab in their orchards in the fall.

By studying plants and environment around the orchard as the source of inoculants for sooty blotch and flyspeck fungi, Cooley and his colleagues can measure the risk to a given block of apples and advise growers on how frequently they need to apply fungicide. They’re also assessing the number of hours of wet weather to determine the need for a fungicide. They’re discovering growers can save two to three fungicide applications per year simply by keeping track of these important factors.

Based on evidence that plum curculios are attuned to odors, Cooley’s colleagues in West Virginia have devised a method for dealing with the pests that they call the “Bomb Tree Approach.” Rather than spraying the whole orchard, researchers use a combination of odors and visual lures to attract the weevils to a single tree in the orchard. Once they are in that tree, the grower can spray that tree alone and kill all the immigrating plum curculios. This saves the rest of the orchard from both the pest and the spray.

Years ago, researchers developed apple-shaped traps painted with a sticky compound to attract maggot flies. When the number of flies stuck to the trap reached a dangerous threshold level, a grower knew it was time to spray the insecticide. Although better than spraying on a calendar basis, the problem with the sticky ball was that every two to three weeks it would fill with insects and need to be cleaned. Over time, the method proved to be too labor-intensive for commercial growers who didn’t have time to clean sticky traps repeatedly during the season, and ultimately needed to spray anyway once the fly population reached a threshold.

Cooley and his team are searching for something that can be put in an orchard just once during the season to take care of the maggot flies. The red-sphere trap has been modified, and now contains a relatively nontoxic (to us) material called spinosad, which is released slowly throughout late summer. If that works effectively, the grower doesn’t have to spray for maggot flies. Cooley says they’ve had good results in some test blocks, but that occasionally the method fails. “We’re still trying to work out why it fails and eliminate those sorts of problems,” explains Cooley. “Obviously, if a commercial grower is to use this method, they want it to be highly effective all the time.”

In addition to addressing pest issues, Cooley intends to research new ways to thin apple trees. He says current tree thinning processes are challenging to Red Tomato’s overall Eco Apple program. Because carbaryl (an insecticide often sold under the brand name Sevin) works well as a fruit thinner, it is commonly used to reduce the number of apples that develop in a tree. However, Cooley believes that less toxic options are available, via certain plant growth regulators like ethylene and benzyladenine.

What does all this have to do with marketing? Everything. As consumers become more aware of the chemicals in and on their food, proponents of strict organic diets would shun most of the growers who work with Red Tomato, viewing them as commercial growers. Rozyne is distressed by this trend, because in the Northeast the weather makes organic apple growing on a supermarket scale and standard almost impossible.

Rozyne is always looking for knowledgeable growers who are focused on growing as ecologically as possible, trying new methods and reducing use of highly toxic chemicals. Red Tomato has 13 certified eco-growers in the Northeast. This third-party certification is run by the IPM Institute of North America, which coordinates a team of scientists who set the parameters and write IPM protocol, including researchers from UMass and Cornell.

Rozyne asks, “In this kind of an environment, should locally grown products (especially apples, which taste so magnificent when grown in the Northeast), be excluded from the market?” Instead, Rozyne and his team are focused on finding the most ecologically progressive production protocol that one can accomplish. Red Tomato searches for ways to combine that ecological farming protocol with a marketing program that promotes local growers, farm identity, excellent quality, new varieties, heirloom apples and premium packaging in order to come to market with an exciting product.

Red Tomato is accountable to their customers (chains like Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Donelan’s, King’s and D’Agostino’s, as well as some restaurant distributors), but they’re also trying to balance everything so that growers are treated fairly. “It’s about price, communications, respect, access and predictability. That’s Red Tomato’s role,” says Rozyne.

Red Tomato strives to make the process easy and manageable for them. Because Red Tomato works with growers of varying sizes, they often move loads that are only half a pallet or a couple of pallets. By consolidating the products from multiple growers into rational truckloads for customers, Red Tomato tries to show its customers that there’s value in dealing with an expanded network of growers.

In addition to creating a farming protocol for growers, Red Tomato provides the packaging that promotes the Red Tomato or Eco Apple brand, along with the farm’s name and location. The first year they provided packaging, Red Tomato’s art director, Diane Stalford, developed a paper tote bag to promote the Red Tomato brand. The next year she created 15 versions of that same design to ensure each farm would have its own version of the bag.

Thanks to the information on the totes, plus additional information on the Internet, customers have access to information about the farmers who grow their produce, and they can  call them with questions. Red Tomato also fields calls from customers with chemical sensitivities who need to know what was sprayed on a product. As someone who has devoted over 20 years to empowering farmers, Rozyne is excited about expanding that theme and empowering consumers. He says this process is beginning to change what’s possible via supermarket commercialization. “Traditionally, the distance between the grower and the consumer was a million miles,” he says. “You never figured out who was growing what you’re eating, even if they were next door. Now, with some of these packages, we’ve created a channel.”

While he does not believe this is going to transform commerce, Rozyne believes it’s important to make a connection. “I think in these times, 30 years into globalization, people overall, whether they’re saying it or not, are just feeling cut off from pretty basic things. One of them is nature and knowing where their food comes from.”

As Rozyne says, Red Tomato is helping to reconnect people to both place and region. In the past it was the middlemen, both invisible wholesalers and visible supermarkets, who separated the farmer from the consumer. Today, Red Tomato is reconnecting the two.

The author is a new contributor to Growing and a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.