Tucked away on a hill overlooking scenic Canandaigua Lake is a 168-acre agricultural gem.
Wegmans Organic Orchard is home to dozens of varieties of organic fruits and vegetables including apples, table grapes, peaches, strawberries, leeks and others. Wegmans Food Markets Inc. purchased the former site of Miller’s Nurseries in 2014 and this year completed its transition from conventional farming to organic practices.
Located a mile south of the 10-year-old Wegmans Organic Farm, the West Lake Road orchard is certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Northeast Organic Farming Association. Both properties also maintain Good Agricultural Practices certification for food safety.
What that means for the grocery store chain and its customers is that they are pretty much guaranteed to find fresh, locally grown organic produce at Canandaigua, Pittsford and Perinton stores. But on a broader scale, Wegmans has for some time worked with partner farms to develop, grow and supply organic produce to each of its 93 stores.
“We are working very hard to develop signature items that we then can share with our partner farms,” said Stency Wegman, who oversees the development and operation of the organic farm and orchard. “Our partner farms are very important to us.”
Oftentimes it is produce first planted at Wegmans Organic Orchard that ends up being grown at one or more of the store’s 24 partner farms. Utilizing methods used by farmers hundreds of years ago, Wegmans’ farm staff of nearly three dozen experiments with unique fruit and vegetable varieties in order to offer the most sustainable, healthy and flavorful food possible.
“We take the risk to ensure their success,” Wegman said. “I think it is our moral obligation to farm in a way that is sustainable.”
Organic farming is not easy, particularly in the northeast, Wegman and her team said. Organic farming means no genetically modified organisms and no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. That increases the risk of pests and diseases.
But the result is worth the work. A recent survey from the Organic Trade Association shows that millennials—America’s largest demographic—are big buyers of organic foods, and that becoming parents will only deepen the strong affinity for organic shared by that powerful group of consumers.
The survey found that concerns about the effects of pesticides, hormones and antibiotics on an individual’s health and the health of their children, as well as the desire to avoid highly processed foods and artificial ingredients, were among the top reasons millennials buy organics.
Wegmans Organic Farm and Orchard began with a vision by Danny and Stency Wegman long before the current talk of farm-to-table and organic produce became the norm.
“When we think back 10 years ago to when we started, I still get excited about the vision that Danny and Stency had to start a farm when really there wasn’t so much talk about farm-to-table,” said farm and orchard manager Nate August. “The organic category was much smaller; it was about half of what it is today globally.”
Wegmans’ vice president of produce and floral Dave Corsi noted that today organic produce accounts for 20 percent of the grocer’s total produce sales. Five years ago it was around 11 percent, while 10 years ago it was just 2 percent.
Wegmans’ 50-acre farm facility began its first growing season in 2007. The property includes six high-tunnels for season extension, its apiary—a collection of 45 beehives—the compost program and 21 small-trial plots used primarily for floral and lavender. The farm’s “chef’s plots” are where Wegmans focuses on unique items for use in its restaurants.
Both the farm and orchard are critical to Wegmans and its growing partners. Produce trials are crucial for fully understanding the growing process and how the produce can move through its stores at volume.
What Wegmans learns at its organic farm and orchard gets passed along to its partners.
Eighth-generation grower Lewis Mason said the 900-acre Mason Farms has roughly 300 acres of certified organic fields and the Williamson, Wayne County, farm likely will transition another 200 acres of conventional plots to organic in order to meet demand.
“Wegmans, along with other retailers, their organic sales are cannibalizing their conventional sales,” Mason said, noting that even stores like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. have grown their organic produce sections. “Wegmans has been ahead of the curve on that, so they were prepared for this.”
As one of its biggest customers, Wegmans has been a big part of Mason Farms’ success. The store and the farm have been partners since Wegmans opened in 1916.
“In the ‘80s there was a big agricultural crisis so everybody was hurt and luckily we were partnered with Wegmans and we were able to pull through that,” Mason said. “So if they weren’t there we probably wouldn’t be here right now.”
Wegmans’ partner farms also share best practices with each other and with Wegmans, said Michael Kreher of Kreher Family Farms in Clarence, Erie County.
“Because growing organic on the east coast is very hard and so if we can learn something on our farm and pass that along to the other farms and to Wegmans, then those other farms have those best practices,” Kreher said. “They can produce more efficiently, deal with some of those challenges and that ends up being better for the customer. And at the end of the day that’s why we’re here.”
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