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August 14, 2013 at 6:00 AM
How Willie Greens went from the farmers markets to the supermarket
MONROE – Six years ago, Snohomish County farmer Jeff Miller approached Whole Foods Market about selling his Willie Greens salad mix in the company’s Bellevue store. A former chef, Miller had grown his organic business from a quarter-acre of rented land to 85 acres supplying countless restaurants and farmers market customers.
He didn’t have a chance.
Like other large corporations, Whole Foods required salad suppliers to follow a strict safety documentation and management system known as a hazard analysis and critical control points plan. Leafy greens are linked to more outbreaks of illness than any other food item, and large supermarket salad suppliers tend to be California farming operations gigantic enough to put the involved plans in place.
Selling the salad mix under those conditions looked like a nightmare of documentation and protocols. “It was just something I was not going to be able to do on my own,” Miller said. But he got help, in the form of low-interest loans from the national chain’s “local producer” program meant to aid independent farmers. This summer, the Monroe-based farm’s organic salad greens and baby spinach leaves were packed into plastic supermarket clamshells as well as farmers market loose bins, selling on the shelves at several Whole Foods stores in the region.
For Miller, it’s an unusual way for a relatively small farmer to sell to a large national corporation, and a way to bridge the gap between the tiny plot he began “with a pack of seeds” in 1987 and the complex business that Willie Greens has become.
For Whole Foods employee Denise Breyley, the company’s “local forager” searching out distinctive Northwest products, it’s a rare way for a large corporation to be able to sell truly local salad greens. The salad sales are the culmination of years of connections between Miller and Breyley, who grew up on a working farm in Ohio and spends her workdays finding Northwest products and figuring out how to win them a space on the Whole Foods shelves. The local stores began carrying other vegetables from Willie Greens a few years ago, which didn’t involve the same packing requirements, and Miller remembered how a Thanksgiving freeze killed off nearly his entire first order the day before it was supposed to go to the stores. They stuck with each other, and future harvests came through. Whole Foods now carries some 25 different kinds of Willie Greens vegetables.
The freeze actually led to Miller’s first loan from the producer program, which went toward building five new 7,200-square-foot greenhouses to lengthen his growing season. (“We can pull carrots out of the ground 12 months out of the year,” he said.) The second loan went toward putting the HACCP plan in place, including gaining a “Good Agricultural Practices” certification covering all manner of food safety risk from soil to water, and building his modernized processing plant.
Touring the farm, Miller showed the trellised tomatoes growing tall in the greenhouses, and the rows of collards and chard and kale propagating in preparation for the fall harvest. Looking through the windows of the packaging facility with its busy conveyer belts and walk-in cooler, he described how workers in sanitized gear manage color-coded 100-gallon totes of greens. The HACCP plan, when finally completed and approved, covered eventualities as specific as detailing who writes and receives the work orders to replace a burned-out light bulb.
“For me it’s about minimizing risk — being able to sleep at night,” Miller said. Knowing how to handle a burned-out light bulb in a safe and sanitary way may seem like overkill, he said, but it’s a symbol that everything will be done by the book – and that there is, in fact, a book outlining what to do.
“You have to create a culture that it is going to be a priority to do these things, all the time,” he said.
It’s a different world from when Miller came to the Northwest from the Bay Area, when baby salad greens were starting their heyday. His then-wife’s family lived in the Northwest, and they were struck by how “there was nobody up there growing this cool food we’re all accustomed to here.”
A culinary school graduate, he farmed in the summer and worked winters at restaurants, including the four-star Relais de Lyon. A pillowcase and a salad spinner, in those days, were considered adequate for drying greens.
Today, with crops from broccoli to tomatoes in a year-round farming operation, with the farmers markets and wholesale sales, and even with a beautifully landscaped rental and catering area for weddings and events on the farm, Miller said he’s been trying to figure out “when is it enough?’ How big can he get and remain a sustainable farm?
If he acquired even more land, he could sell even more vegetables. (He wouldn’t be able to grow enough on his current farmland to supply all of the greens that Whole Foods alone would be willing to purchase, let alone other large supermarkets.) But farmland is scarce in the region, and he doesn’t know if he wants to set up separate farming operations on land that’s farther east or north. That would be a big leap for a guy who still gets on the tractor himself in between paperwork and planning. “That’s my therapy,” he said.
But some growth is inevitable, he thinks, believing that smaller farms are at a fatal disadvantage with new national regulations like those expected under the national Food Safety Modernization Act.
“I didn’t want to lose my farm. I didn’t want to be playing catch-up,” he said.
He’s had to be a businessman as well as a grower. For now, both are winning out, even as he eyes his fields and debates whether labor-intensive crops or time-consuming business practices should stay as they are. For instance, “I love growing corn, and corn is super popular at the farmers market, but it takes up a lot of room, and it’s a long season crop,” he said. He could turn two or three crops of spinach in the same space.
He thinks he’ll keep the corn, though. He’s on the side of the people who buy it. Through growth and changes, for him, some things don’t change.
There’s still nothing like “the satisfaction of putting a seed in the ground and watching it grow.”
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