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Wegmans invests in research that helps local organic farmers

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From The Organic Report, Winter 2011
By Jennifer Rose

Supporting local farmers is a key focus at Wegmans, a Rochester, New York-based grocery store chain that specializes in locally grown produce. Nowhere is this more evident than at its organic research farm in Canandaigua, NY. Operated as a dairy farm in the 1950s and 1960s, the 50-acre property was left unused until 2007, when Wegmans began the three-year transition to certified organic production.

“Our goal for the farm was to understand how organic farming works in the Northeast, explore how it could be used to extend the growing season in this region, and pass this information onto the 540 local farmers we work with,” explains Eben Kennedy, Wegmans’ Product Category Merchant.

beetsAt the same time, Kennedy says, the hope was to make organic farming a more viable option for local farmers by eliminating the main sources of risk associated with undertaking the transition to organic.

“We wanted to use our research farm as a place to conduct trials of different techniques and different types of produce, so that our farmers wouldn’t have to incur the costs of such experimentation. We wanted to give them the tools and information they need to embrace organic and succeed.”

So far, this approach has proven to be a good one. Working closely with consultant Elliot Coleman, a 25-year veteran in the field of organic agriculture, Kennedy and his team at the farm have honed in on several varieties of tomatoes, squash, lettuce, carrots, and spinach that grow well on the farm and have the potential to be grown year-round by farmers in the Northeast.  They have also had success cultivating purple asparagus, which holds particular promise for local farmers looking to get a jump-start on the spring growing season.

Kennedy and his colleagues communicate these and other findings to local growers during Wegmans’ annual growers’ meetings. Attended by area farmers who grow organically as well as those who are interested in making the transition to organic, these meetings provide an opportunity to reflect on and discuss the previous year’s experiences on the research farm, and to share resources on techniques and technology among other things. At the same time, they give local farmers a forum in which to share their experiences utilizing some of the techniques developed on the research farm. As Kennedy points out, “It’s a two-way conversation.”

This two-way exchange is likely to remain the focus of Wegmans’ organic research farm for the foreseeable future.

“Our long-term goal is to enable local growers to grow unique items using organic practices and offer them a guaranteed sale point at Wegmans’ stores,” explains Kennedy. “That means continuing to perfect things here on the farm and doing our best to educate and support local farmers in the process.”