by Megan Minnick, Purchasing Director
It’s mid-February as I write this. Heavy snow is falling, and I’m starting to ask myself that dreaded question: what if winter never ends? The warm, humid, verdant place that is Wisconsin in summer seems like a dream I once had, not a reality that will come to pass in a few short months.
At the same time in hoop-houses, greenhouses, and packing sheds across the state, our farmers are getting ready for spring. They’re placing and receiving their seed orders. Soon they will start seeding onions, brassicas, tomatoes, and other crops that will eventually grace our Produce shelves.
Every year, in the first few weeks of January, members of our Produce and Prepared Foods teams sit down with our farmers to plan the coming season. These meetings kick off the farmers’ spring—they leave knowing what we are planning to purchase, and they can then buy seeds and plant their crops accordingly.
Throughout the course of our mid-winter planning, we coordinate with over 25 farms on more than 150 different crops. We talk about everything from how many Brussels sprouts plants Westridge Organics should plant for our Thanksgiving needs (answer: 10,000); to debating the optimal size that a baby bok choy should be harvested at (answer: three-inch diameter); to our customers’ seeming aversion to conical varieties of cabbage. We commit to what products we will buy from each farm, in roughly what quantities, and for what prices.
This type of in-depth planning is not something that every grocery store is willing to do, not even those who carry some local produce. Typically, stores will take what local produce comes their way and use it as an embellishment to their standard non-local produce sets. This is not our approach. We replace as much non-local produce as possible with local, while still keeping the full assortment of items that our customers expect. Though we are dedicated to our local program, there’s a reason almost nobody else does it this way: it takes an immense amount of planning and communication to happen effectively.
Not that I’m complaining. It’s a labor of love.
HERE’S WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT TO SEE IN 2018
Our farm lineup will stay fairly consistent this year in the Produce departments. You’ll see the usual crops from our veteran farmers like Tipi Produce, Harmony Valley Farm, and Troy Gardens. A local growing season just isn’t complete without Troy Gardens herbs; Tipi carrots, bell peppers, and melons; and Harmony Valley salad mix, ramps, and cilantro (just to name a few).
Among many other things, you’ll see broccoli, cauliflower, and sweet corn from Fazenda Boa Terra in Spring Green; lettuce, baby bok choy (of just the right size), and scallions from Crossroads Community Farm in Cross Plains; onions and green beans from New Traditions Homestead in Hillsboro, and who can forget those gorgeous heirloom, sungold, and mixed cherry tomatoes from Regenerative Roots in Jefferson?
Are you hungry for summer yet?
This winter we started carrying Olden Organics (Ripon, WI) spiralized veggie noodles (see my article in last month’s Reader). Olden is planning to expand those offerings as their home grown produce variety expands through the summer. Look for Olden fresh local organic salsas, pestos, and other summertime treats!
Lastly, we’re planning to round out the growing season by expanding our offerings from two new-to-us organic apple orchards: Atoms to Apples in Mount Horeb, and Two Onion Farm in Belmont. Up until recently, local organic apples were nearly impossible to find in good supply. It feels rather luxurious to have two top-notch organic orchards working with us this year!
Getting more local produce into our Prepared Foods departments (Bakery, Deli, Juice Bar) has been a priority of ours for a few years now. It’s still a work in progress, but things are really starting to click, and we’re hopeful for even better results this year.
Our focus in prepared foods is to help farmers find an outlet for their “seconds”—crops that aren’t of a high enough grade for retail sales, but still perfectly good for cooking. If a vegetable is too large, a little nicked up, not quite the right shape or color, it may be perfect for us to use in our Deli or Production Kitchen. Last year we saw quite a bit of this type of produce, and we’re hopeful for even more in 2018.
For many years, our Juice Bars have been using local greens in season, as well as carrots, wheatgrass, and a few other juicable crops. Up until this year, however, apples were never on the Juice Bars’ list of local ingredients—all of the produce used in the Juice Bars is organic, and local organic apples have been extremely hard to find, and expensive. Lucky for us, Two Onion Farm, has offered to sell us the seconds from their organic orchard. The Juice Bars used some of these local organic apples in 2017, and we’re planning to increase that usage in 2018.
Crops for Processing
We plan to continue purchasing as many crops as we can for freezing and canning for the fall and winter months. We’ve worked with our farmers and processors to make sure that we’ll have plenty of apples and pumpkins for our Thanksgiving pies, tomatoes for our quarts of Willy Street Co-op diced tomatoes, and frozen broccoli and butternut squash for the 1lb bags sold in the freezer aisle.
We also use some of this processed product in our Deli production through the winter (frozen blueberries in the Juice Bars and Bakery, frozen butternut squash in our Deli, among others). We plan to continue freezing and using all of these products in 2018, and are always looking for opportunities to preserve more produce through the winter!