Whole Foods goes small

The king of organic retailing sets out to find - and nourish - small farmers, bakers and other artisans.

Seeds for carrots, squash, and more
Down on the farm, even corporate directives get personal. Indeed, Phinney isn't a loner kind of forager, trolling quiet forests for a hidden cache of black truffles; she's a hard-driving woman who travels New England's back roads in a beat-up SUV, suited up for farm visits in a down vest that looks as if it's weathered more than a few seasons in the planting fields. With her blond hair pulled back into a no-nonsense ponytail, she sits at her farmers' kitchen tables, shares mugs of java or herbal tea, and walks out to the field to pat the cows. What Phinney's aiming for is a strong relationship - demanding, yet personal and supportive - with her suppliers. "I can't leave without seeing the animals," she says, climbing through a barbed-wire fence.

On the other side of the table, of course, is the equally hopeful organic farmer, whose business may change dramatically after becoming a supplier to Whole Foods. Take David Jackson, owner-operator of Enterprise Farm in Whatley, Mass., who has been selling to Whole Foods since 1986. "Without Whole Foods we'd still be a 13-acre organic farm, and I'd still be making just enough to pay the mortgage on the land," he says. Today Jackson plants 100 acres of bok choy, collard greens, cucumbers, kale and loose-leaf lettuce. Whole Foods accounts for 50 percent of his sales. Appropriately, he speaks the lingua franca of business: "Organic farming is all about economies of scale," he says. In fact, Jackson's experience with Whole Foods reveals the complexity of the small farmer's challenge. Beyond the economies he achieves supplying a large retailer, he also enjoys the income growth it has brought: "You might be able to get a better price per bushel if you sell direct to the consumer, but you can't live on that volume," he says.

There are also more personal benefits. Says Jackson: "As you go from ten acres to 100, your per-acre costs go down a little and you can afford to hire a few farm hands and delegate some of the work. Maybe you even have time to get a haircut or visit friends."








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