Friday, March 18, 2005

Roundup, ready

"Roundup, ready" is an occasional feature of Bitter Greens Journal. Named in honor of Monsanto's famed line of seeds genetically engineered to withstand its herbicide Roundup, this feature will give a brief overview of recent news, trends, and topics in the food-politics world. Each of them is a candidate for expansion in the days and weeks to come.

Whole Foods at the greenmarket gates
In addition to its 23rd St outlet and some sort of megastore at the Time Warner building near Central Park, Whole Foods has opened a 50,000 square-foot store at New York City's Union Square, site of the city's flagship farmers' market.

For those who haven't been, the Union Square Greenmarket is pretty wonderful. Four days a week, you can get everything there from artisanlly made, raw-milk cheese to fantastic organic kim chee to first-rate bread to great milk in glass jars to endless fruits and veggies, both conventionally and organically grown. On a typical Saturday in mid-summer, I can't think of a nutritional need that can't be satisfied, and in great style.

Reader Mitch Mills alerted me to this interesting NY Times piece on what effect the new Whole Foods will have on business at the farmer's market.

The article quotes one farmer who said he wasn't overly worried, but adding that "I've heard others were panicky, afraid they will go out of business because they will have to lower their prices to compete."

Knowing Whole Foods as I do--and we share the same home town, Austin, Texas--it's hard for me to imagine Whole Foods instigating a Wal-Mart-style policy of lowering prices to kill small competitors and then later raising them. It's not that the company is particularly compassionate--this is a publicly traded company, bound by law to maximize profit, and it's done quite well by its shareholders so far.

Rather, the company seems to have, embedded in its corporate DNA (to engage in a bit of the current jargon), an allergy to low prices. It bets--successfully, so far--that people will pay a hefty premium on just about everything, merely for the right to walk about in foodie/yuppie splendor.

In fairness, the article makes it seem as though WF plans to be a good neighbor to the greenmarket--which would be good business. It would not be in its interest to enter a brawl with some of the country's most high-profile small farmers. As Mitch points out, the company pledges to buy 20 percent of its produce from area farmers. That's a good PR move, and a testament to the vibrancy of the NY greenmarket program.

In the end, I agree with Greenmarket vendor and Bitter Greens Journal hero Jonathan White, who told the Times that "People who want strawberries and salad greens in January will go to Whole Foods.... But shoppers at Whole Foods can't talk to a farmer. I think you'll see people shopping in the Greenmarket carrying Whole Foods bags."

Anybody who visits the Union Square greenmarket should find White at his Bobolink Dairy stand at the northwest corner. Get him to give you his great spiel on why cows must be outside, and not penned up. And try his products. Here's Mitch Mills' review: "very nice cheeses and absolutely fantastic woodfired-brick-oven bread."

The trouble with organic
Mitch also dug up this prescient rant from 1993 about the problems the government-certified organic label would pose for small farmers.

The article, as well as the journal that published it, the Rodale Institute's New Farm, is must reading for anyone interested in keeping up with debates surrounding the organic label.

The ethanol trap, continued
Here's the latest mainstream press piece on the ethanol craze, discussed in this post and this post.

My favorite line is this one: "Nicholas Hollis, president of the Washington-based nonprofit Agribusiness Council, called ethanol 'the greatest snake oil of the 21st century' and pointed to a study concluding that it requires more energy to produce than it saves."

What in the world is the Agribusiness Council and why would a group with that name be a bitter critic of ethanol?

A cursory Web investigation did not shed much light on those mysteries, nor find the study "pointed to" by Hollis. Here, though, is a full-on polemic by Hollis, one that accuses Archer Daniels Midland of essentially stealing ethanol plants from farmer cooperatives, among other crimes.

Clearly, the Agribusiness Council and its surprising disdain for ADM call for further investigation.

12 Comments:

Blogger Mitch Mills said...

Here's the Winter Farmer's Market Schedule for Bobolink Dairy. They're only at Union Square on Fridays, and the last several times I've seen them they've been near the southwest corner. This may change come summer, I'm not sure.On Thursdays and Saturdays they're at the small farmer's market at Broadway & 66th.

Jonathan isn't always there, but the people working the stand also work on the farm and are knowledgeable and nice to talk to.

3/18/2005 01:26:00 PM  
Blogger Mitch Mills said...

I love NYC's greenmarkets, but here are some different views on it in a discussion about the short tenure of Nina Planck as its director about a year or so ago. There was a NY Times article about it, but right now I can only find the abstract.

3/18/2005 01:40:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Philpott said...

I was in town when all of that went down, and I remember the NYT article. I wonder if things have calmed down since then? Like someone said on egullet, you never sensed any tension as a customer. The farmers at the one I frequented, Grand Army Plaza, all seemed pretty happy and calm.

Farmers tend to be a cranky lot.

3/18/2005 03:07:00 PM  
Blogger Mitch Mills said...

Yeah, I've never noticed any tension myself, but I haven't done any digging for it, either. Of course, business is often brisk enough that it's difficult to spend too much time chatting, plus some of the larger operations have people who only work the stand and don't know a winesap from a macintosh.

I don't really know enough to know whether all of the ideas about Farmers Market rules that Nina Planck sets out in that thread are good ones, but she sure sounds like she knows what she's talking about. Here's a New Farm article of hers on the same subject.

Also, don't know if you clicked through to the site for the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, but they put out the Agribusiness Examiner, in which that Hollis article originally appeared. It looks like an interesting organization.

3/18/2005 03:28:00 PM  
Blogger Mitch Mills said...

Wow, just got around to reading all of that New Farm Article I mentioned above. It's a very good primer on all manner of food policy topics, including many of the issues discussed in your recent posts. Highly recommended (its in two parts, be sure to read part two).

3/18/2005 04:11:00 PM  
Blogger Paul Hue said...

I predict that the small, local farms will greatly benefit from sharing a building with Whole Foods.

1. People who want Farmers Market products will go there EVERY day, knowing for sure that if the local guy isn't there, WF is the backup.

2. People who would never go to a Farmers Market will go to WF and stumble upon the Farmers Market. They may even be drawn to the Farmers Market by the lure of lower prices... or conversely, the Farmers may find that they can raise their prices because WF sets such a high standard.

3. Whole Foods reps will discover some Farmers Market products and start purchasing them for sale in WF.

4/07/2005 03:39:00 PM  
Blogger Mitch Mills said...

Here's an article about Nina Planck's successor as the NYC Greenmarket director.

Also, Paul, just to be clear, the new Whole Foods is in a building adjacent to the park where the Farmers' Market is held. They don't share a building. Also, that particular market is open four days a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday), not every day. Most vendors are only there on one or two of those days per week. But I think you may be right about there being some synergy, although it's perfectly possible to shop in Whole Foods without even seeing the Farmers' Market, or vice versa: there's not really a line of sight between them as the market is on the north side of the park and WF is on the south side.

5/06/2005 10:45:00 PM  
Blogger Mitch Mills said...

Also, here's an old but interesting article by Michael Pollan about organic food: Behind the Organic-Industrial Complex.

5/06/2005 10:57:00 PM  
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