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Small Change 

Triangle farmers struggle to stay little while the world gets bigger.

Hovering over the cheese counter at the Durham Wellspring is a full-color photo of Fleming Pfan, a local cheese maker, hugging a particularly cute goat. Pfan is co-owner of Celebrity Dairy in Silk Hope, about 10 miles west of Pittsboro, and the goat is one of many responsible for her goat cheese. But although you can enjoy the picture, you can't buy Celebrity's goat cheese at the Durham Wellspring. The dairy, several of her disappointed customers were told, has "a refrigeration problem."

"That really fried me, big time," says Pfan. "It didn't make any sense. They've been taking my cheese for 10 years in the exact same way, and all of a sudden I'm not doing something right?" It meant losing $500 a month in business.

The issue was the cooler--the ice-filled picnic variety--Pfan has used to deliver her small quantities of cheese to the store for the past decade. When she and her partner Brit arrived one day about two months ago, they walked headlong into a new corporate policy regarding safe food transport and delivery. The Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) program was developed 30 years ago for astronauts, is recommended by the FDA, and today is widely used--particularly for seafood, meats and poultry, as well as for products like fruit juices.

In fact, Triangle Wellsprings have long prided themselves on training employees in methods of safe food handling through local cooperative extensions. But the application of nationally recognized standards like HACCP is evidence of something else: a growing standardization, nationalization and globalization of the food industry. It's good for consumers, but it's also good for transacting business on a bigger, and more corporate, scale.

Wellspring would like to become fully HACCP-certified. And for small, cooler-toting producers like the Pfans, that means a significant change in the way they do business. The problem is, they don't want to go there.

"We're not going to buy a $60,000 truck to give them 20 pounds of cheese a week," says Brit Pfan in response to what he calls the "one-size-fits-all" mentality of the standards. "If we were selling seafood or meat, it would be another issue; but it's not a safety issue for our cheese." Their product, he says, does just fine on good old-fashioned ice.

To be fair, refrigerated trucks don't have to cost $60,000. And, in witness to some level of autonomy among store managers, the Pfans' cheese can still be found at the Chapel Hill and Raleigh stores. "It's been a bit of a challenge because we have a lot of different distributors and vendors," admits Jim Speirs, regional vice president of Whole Foods Market. "We try to be patient in terms of giving them time to get up to speed, and most of them have found ways to deal with it. You don't necessarily have to have a refrigerated truck--a lot of them have added refrigerated compartments or large coolers" to the trucks they already have.

Nonetheless, the Pfans' story, and the stories of other genuinely small local producers, paints a picture of the changing relationships between family farmers who choose to remain small and companies that choose to grow bigger. What's gained--and what's lost--in those changing economies of scale? And what, exactly, is the definition of "local?"

Scratch a Triangle old-timer and you're likely to uncover fond memories of Wellspring as a local entity under the stewardship of Lex Alexander and his wife, Ann, from 1981-1991. That's when Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market, now the world's largest retailer of natural and organic foods ($1.6 billion in sales in fiscal year 1999), purchased the stores. Today, it has 112 properties across the United States, and is aiming for 200 by the year 2004. In June it merged its Internet business, WholeFoods. com, with Gaiam, Inc., forming Gaiam.com.

To many, the company's corporate buyout and subsequent growth are, for better or worse, a highly emotional issue. But you won't find Lex Alexander pining for the "good old days."

"The stores are better today than they were when I sold them to Whole Foods," he says. "They have a better product selection, better pricing, and there are more stores, so there's much more opportunity internally for people to move up and advance in their careers. So they're better from the team member's [employee's] standpoint, because there's more opportunity, and they're better from the customers' standpoint because there's a better selection of products at better prices."

Alexander's optimism is understandable--today, he's the company's "Food Guy," who has developed three brands for the store: the Whole Foods brand, the Whole Kids brand and the Hand-Picked Selection brand. His office has developed 500 products for the store. "And I can buy them with national purchasing power," he adds. That means having field buyers in California who can choose specific lots of broccoli, raspberries or peaches. Or having a full-time buyer at George's Bank in Massachusetts choosing fish and air-freighting them south. "That's not a reality with two or three stores," Alexander says. "But when you have 112 stores, you have that option."

Product mix, pricing, a team member's chance for advancement--all have been improved, Alexander says, by becoming part of a national chain. But what about the truly small vendors who might not be willing--or able--to go along for the ride?

Sherry Kinlaw, owner of Francesca's Dessert Caffé in Durham, reports that some Wellspring stores stopped carrying her hand-packed pints of gelato and sorbetto--after 13 years of doing business.

"They didn't really notify me in writing or anything. We called to get an order, and they said, 'Oh, hasn't anybody told you? We can't order from you anymore.' It's because I don't deliver my ice cream in a freezer truck. I deliver it in coolers with blue ice, and I've been doing that ever since 1987." In a reverse of Celebrity Dairy's situation, Francesca's is still sold at the Durham Wellspring (two blocks from Kinlaw's one and only retail outlet), but not at the Chapel Hill and Raleigh stores--a loss for her of about $200 a month.

While she supports the goal of food safety, Kinlaw thinks the stores should continue to accept her product if she can prove it's being delivered at a safe temperature--which Speirs claims they do. "As long as the temperature of the product, when it's probed, is within the safety zone, and it's a clean truck they're bringing it in, we're not all that concerned whether it's a refrigerated truck," he says, "as long as the temperature is maintained throughout."

Kinlaw continues to deliver to high-end outlets like Fearrington Market and Angus Barn the old-fashioned way--"I'm driving all over the place with my coolers, and my blue ices, and my air conditioning on high"--but she remains miffed by the new edict. "Instead of really getting to know their vendors, and what they're doing, and their ethics, they're going with one-size-fits-all," she says of the corporate safety standard. "I understand that in economics. But these stores, the Wellsprings, weren't started solely with economics in mind."

What she really resents is Wellspring's continuing image as a champion of local business and the little guy. "Like some other franchises I know, they act like they're touchy-feely," she says. "But they're not."

"It sort of galls me," says Alexander of such criticism, "that Whole Foods is this little-bitty company in the overall scope of things, when you look at Kroger or Food Lion, but somehow we're held to a higher standard than any of the rest of them, by the very people you would think would be our constituents."

The company would be quick to crow about its support of local businesses--for example, they're earmarking 5 percent of their profits on Sept. 19 for the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. But their marketing, Kinlaw suggests, reflects a kind of false populism, giving the impression that the genuinely "little"--and local--guy is at the heart of their business.

"I would really argue with you on how you characterize the little guy," says Alexander. "The little guy is Stonyfield Yogurt. They happen to be in New Hampshire, but who are they up against? They're up against Dannon and Yoplait. If they don't get the support, then there won't be an option in that dairy case.

"If you talk to the little guys who have done a good job, the little guys who have grown along with the business, they've done fine and continue to get their products represented. But the people who haven't, yeah, some of them have fallen by the wayside. But when you try to look at it from my perspective, in terms of the implications all up and down the East coast, you would see it a little differently."

The consequences of that bigger, regional perspective are not one-size-fits-all. "We need to adjust to change," says one long-time local Wellspring vendor. When buying responsibility for his product migrated from Durham to Wellspring's regional office in Beltsville, Md.--which later enlisted a bigger supplier--he lost two-thirds of his business. Still, he says matter-of-factly, "You won't hear any whining or complaining out of me. For 18 years I had a fantastic relationship with the company that Lex Alexander built. And after Lex sold it, it changed. Well, what else is new?"

Others, like RTP's Counter Culture Coffee, have been able to grow along with the company, supplying four stores at first and now selling to a total of 17 in the Mid-Atlantic region. They coexist alongside Wellspring's own 365 brand, as well as the Allegro brand--now also owned by Whole Foods. And at least one little guy recently got a toehold: Larry's Coffee Beans, a small Raleigh roaster founded in 1994, is now selling its product at the new Cary Wellspring.

"Wellspring is one of the only outlets that makes sense to us," says co-owner Larry Larson of the store and its clientele. "We'll prove ourselves [in Cary], and then we'll try to get in the other stores if it makes sense."

But sometimes, the little guys pictured on Wellspring's walls face difficult decisions about that kind of growth. Nancy Esterling, an educator at the North Carolina Botanical Garden and a part-time farmer, grew herbs for 10 years and sold them to Triangle Wellsprings for the past four. But her kids, ages 14 and 16, caused her to "shift focus for a while," put her family first and not grow herbs for the past year.

"They wanted to see me grow and expand the business," she says of the company, "and were giving me so many opportunities and new doors to open." She was supplying five Triangle area stores when additional outlets in Florida beckoned. "To do that, we would have to move away from the home and rent space outside of the home, which is not my style--it's to be here when the kids got home from school."

Still, "what Wellspring was offering--and how they commit to the grower--was a very wonderful opportunity. They helped me to grow and to actualize myself, and I'm very grateful for that. Had this come at a different time in my life, I might have become a businesswoman. As it was, I was able to choose my family."

Alex and Betsy Hitt tell a similar story. Their Peregrine Farm in Graham provided Wellspring with produce like cut flowers, blackberries, lettuce and hot peppers for 10 years. But they stopped growing for the store altogether two years ago.

"Their success has been so incredible that they really require growers of a larger scale than us to be able to supply what they need," says Alex Hitt, who couldn't supply enough tomatoes to the company even after aligning himself with two other growers. "We were in a position where we didn't need to, or want to, grow our operation any larger." Today, Hitt's main source of income is the Carrboro Farmer's Market.

"It was a quality-of-life thing," he explains. "Did we want to add on more work and more people? Today, our operation is doing very well at the size that it is." In the Triangle, he adds, local growers are fortunate to have multiple outlets for their goods. "There are great local farmers markets, great local restaurants, stores like Weaver Street Market, Foster's Market, Fresh Market," he says. "There's a lot of opportunity, so the need to stay with a place like Wellspring, and to grow your operation with them, isn't quite the same as it might be somewhere else."

Growth also has wrought more ephemeral changes. Instead of delivering goods in pickup trucks directly to individual stores, vendors now bring their products to a central warehouse and distribution center in Morrisville. It saves them the time spent driving from store to store, but it also means less face time with the people--produce managers, for example--who put out their products. And that loss is difficult to quantify.

"There are good things and bad things about corporatization," explains one Wellspring associate. "It's good for your career--I can go a lot farther here than if it were just a local store." And, says Lex Alexander, he'd like to see a greater appreciation of "the impact that Whole Foods has made on organic agriculture and the environmental revolution that's going on in this country with regard to food production."

True, but it has also made another kind of impact--by purchasing and consolidating small chains like Mrs. Gooch's, Fresh Fields and Bread of Life, it's reducing competition. "We certainly do not like it that chains like Whole Foods are buying up everybody, because it then becomes a monopoly, more or less," says one vendor. "What's happening is that we're actually getting less for our products than we used to, while on the other hand, quality criteria are going up. You see the problem?"

Still, there are ways for small producers to stay in the game. In addition to farmers' markets, there are farmers' cooperatives like Carolina Organic Growers, based in Asheville, which bands small growers together to become, in effect, their own distributor. They might supply neighborhood "buying clubs." And growers in the mountains and at the coast might get a shot at the more lucrative Triangle market.

Still another option is Community Sustained Agriculture (CSA), a European model gaining popularity here. In essence, it's subscription farming: Individuals pay a farmer a yearly fee--$500, perhaps--and in return get a box of assorted produce every week during harvest season. Everyone shares the risk and the benefits--if the broccoli crop fails that year, the subscriber gets a little more of something else. Grower and consumer have a personal relationship with each other as well as with the land.

"It's a real good alternative to trying to go through these stores," says one farmer who handles up to 50 CSA customers a season. "There's a certain backlash to places like Wellspring getting bigger and bigger and not being as 'alternative' anymore."

"But on the other hand," he admits, "they're still moving a lot of organic produce."

Meanwhile, look for the Raleigh Wellspring to embark on a renovation project after the holidays. It will join other Triangle stores and outlets across the nation in gearing up to make their physical plant capable of following HACCP rules.

And where will that leave Fleming Pfan? "I wouldn't have any problem delivering her damn cheese for her," says a Pittsboro neighbor with a refrigerated truck, "if she wouldn't talk me to death."

Now that's community-sustained agriculture. EndBlock

  • Triangle farmers struggle to stay little while the world gets bigger.

More by David Potorti

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