Simon Richard talks about building relationships with local farmers, the cost of organic and the pleasure of growing your own food.
Simon Richard is the produce buyer and in-house farmer for Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco’s trendy Mission district. Bi-Rite offers a variety of local, sustainable, and organic produce sourced through its relationships with local farmers, as well as its own farm in Sonoma, California.
Bi-Rite is more than a purveyor of fresh, local foods. In working closely with 18 Reasons, a community group which offers educational programs on art and food, Bi-Rite seeks to raise awareness about food production and eating seasonally. Bi-Rite is one in a growing number of local businesses that see education and community building as part of their mission, bridging the gap between customers and the regional foodshed.
You have a lot of close connections with produce suppliers and they’re generally smaller scale farms. How do you select them?
In the beginning when I first started here, ten years ago, all the produce that I was buying was from the San Francisco produce terminal or from distribution companies. We only had one farm that was direct, which was a stone fruit grower.
Over the last ten years I basically would go to farmers markets. I see a farmer and if their stuff looks great, I try to build that connection. I give them my card and get theirs. See what their distribution is like. See if it was realistic for us.
I had to really go out there and look for growers—which is great because we have tons of farmers markets, so it’s not hard to do. But not all farmers can distribute to retail places twice a week. Mostly, all these farms have different business models on how they market their stuff.
Nowadays, since I have a lot of farm relationships, I look at the items that I already have and ask what growers of certain crops do I need to continue to improve my selection of local stuff.
I usually just really look at the products and talk to growers. For strawberry growers, I’ll call them up and—even if I won’t have them for a while—I’ll consistently talk to growers and continue to build that relationship.
I think it’s really important to figure out the value of the product, look at the farm, what they sell their products for, and decide if that item is realistic for me to resell at a retail value. For instance, farms which grow some beautiful mini lettuces in the area cost $4 – $5 a pound. For me to buy them and resell them it would have to be at $7.99 – $8.99 in order to reach my margin—it’s challenging.
It means that I have to price things reasonably but still try to get the farmers the money that they deserve for their crops and their value. I work really hard on that and I’ve found that in my experience—having grown my own food and sold it—I feel like I have an understanding of the value of something.
Now that Bi-Rite has built its name, I have people call me now, and say, ‘Hey, I’m this farm- are you interested?’
So in the beginning I feel like it was a lot of hard work done by me to reach out and show the farms that I’m willing to pay a good price for their crops. A lot of times farms shy away from retail because they don’t want to sell their stuff at wholesale price. If you’re working with big chains like Whole Foods, they’re going to want to pay less for it than I will. I’m willing to pay a little more because I feel like it’s worth more.
So nowadays, are farmers coming to you and saying, “This is what I have, do you have a market for it?”
Farmers are busy. They have so many things that challenge them day to day and I think it’s hard to completely wait on them to contact me.
Some of the farms are great at that. If they don’t have asparagus on the list that they send to all these stores, they might tell me when I call, ‘Hey, we’ve got asparagus for you.’ So that’s a special relationship, but a lot of the times it doesn’t work quite like that.
Other times they’ll come by and say ‘Hey, we have this, what do you think?’ I’m having more growers ask, ‘What can we grow for you? What works well?’
Oak Hill, in Sonoma, is a new relationship for us and they’re awesome. Last year, organic juicing carrots—the big carrots that you see in all the stores, the cheap ones—those are all grown by one large farming conglomerate down in the Bakersfield area. They monopolize the market, so a lot of smaller farms haven’t ventured into loose carrots because the price is so low.
Last year, Oak Hill had a big crop of beautiful storage carrots, which we sold for quite a few months. I’ve been selling that same damn carrot for eight years. To finally get a local carrot in bulk that I could sell for a reasonable price—it might seem really simple to the average person, and the average person might not even notice—but the regular customers really do.
Especially the ones that really know their growers. They’ll point out things like, “that grower supports the Republicans.” You get customers that bring up pretty interesting points.
Do you think relationships like the kind that you have with Oak Hill will change the types of crops that smaller farmers are willing to take on?
Definitely. The thing with growing food is that there are a lot of people that can grow food. Growing the food isn’t the challenge—it’s marketing it and getting the value that you need at the time you have the product, because you have to get rid of it in a small window of time after you harvest.
So when you’re a farmer who just harvests and goes to a farmers market to sell as much as you can—if you had the opportunity to get a little bit less but sell it directly to someone that’s going to take a certain amount, I think that would help certain farmers.
All crops have a different value per square foot inch, so I think a lot of times farmers have to not only look at where they are and the climate they’re in—which has a lot to do with what they grow—but also the value they feel that they can get for that foot of land.
They break everything down into square feet. If you grow 800 square feet of carrots and it brings in x-amount but if you do 800 square feet of baby lettuces and it brings in twice as much, it’s going to be hard to choose the carrots.
But I definitely think with some of the more generic crops that I’ve bought—because of these new relationships I have with farmers—I’m getting more options to buy some of these things for sure.
Like broccoli, for instance. If you went to pretty much every grocery store in San Francisco I can almost guarantee they all get callow or lakeside broccoli this time of year. It’s a fresh California broccoli that has a really big stock, which is a little bit woody. So when you weigh it per pound, the majority of the weight is the stock. I realize that the stock is healthy for you but honestly, what we all mostly want is a big beautiful crown of broccoli with a little bit of stock.
So the last two years I’ve been working with Catalan Farms and with Full Belly Farms—who do a lot of broccoli growing—to source directly from them. The flavor and the sweetness is just so much better.
It’s one of those crops that everyone sometimes takes for granted. But our regulars know that Bi-Rite has that sweet, local broccoli—whereas everyone else sells the basic broccoli, which is cheap, consistent, and it holds up well.
A lot of the reason why a lot of retailers don’t work hard on building a direct relationship with the farm is because they want consistency and they want less of a hassle. They don’t want to manage thirty or forty relationships. When there’s one relationship—that’s what the retailers choose.
I think that our work is changing a lot of things. I think we’re showing people how markets can do it. A lot of people come in here and they’re like, ‘Wow, how can we do things like this?’
What about organic vs local? I know that a lot of farmers that Bi-Rite does business with are certified organic. Then there are farms like Oak Hill that isn’t certified organic. Do these close relationships help farms who are not certified—but practicing organic methods—flourish?
That’s exactly the case. I mean that’s my philosophy through and through. Mariquita would be another example of a successful farm like Oak Hill. Andy from Mariquita, he’s the same way. He’s built relationships over the years and people trust him for it because they know his business.
I grow food in Sonoma, and to go through the process of logging all the information and taking all that time to do it, and paying to have it certified organic so that I could put the CCOF label on my product…I mean, is it worth it when I can just sell it and tell people that it is organic? Because it is organic, I use those practices—people can come to the farm and see.
People go to Bi-Rite and they expect the buyer has a certain standard for the produce. Would you say you can overcome the need for labeling just by the transparency and the trust that Bi-Rite has developed with its customers?
I think a lot of the time we can. I’ll get fired up on how organic doesn’t mean what it used to mean. When I started in agriculture more than 15 years ago organic seemed to have a feeling to it which has been watered down over time. But then I’ll take a look at a small grower like Dry Creek Peach and Produce in Healdsburg—which is one of the only stone fruit growers that’s there—and they have their little orchards certified.
It means a lot to them. They’ve been farming for years and they’re really proud to have organic fruit and it adds a little more value to their fruit when they go to farmers market. I can’t disagree with that; I understand.
If you go to Safeway, if it wasn’t for the organic labeling you wouldn’t know what to buy. You do rely on those labels to some extent especially in larger grocery stores and places where you don’t know where the food is coming from. We have to have some system.
That’s why we want GMOs labeled. When the food system gets so big, we have no idea where the food is coming from. The labeling system does help.
Do you buy imported products?
The only things I import are mangos, bananas and pineapples—and every year I find myself buying less.
Every year I get better at my buying practices and I think I make decisions that are more sustainable for the business and the world—but there are certain things, like bananas—that’s a tough one.
It’s still one of the number one selling produce items and I haven’t come to make the decision to stop selling them. You have to keep your business running. I’m not saying that we’re not at a time where a market can be just farm direct stuff. That would be cool, and I think we’ll see those types of markets shortly, but when you’re competing with all of these markets in San Francisco—if I didn’t have bananas I would probably have customers who wouldn’t come here.
When you’re working with local and seasonal produce, what do you do in the wintertime?
Right now we’re lucky. For instance, citrus—all my citrus is seasonal. My pears and apples—most of my apples are still coming out of storage throughout the North West, nothing from California is left. So its not local, but it’s a West Coast fruit.
Pears are out of season. So what’s happening now is that most grocery stores are bringing in pears from Argentina. The Argentinean crops are starting to go organic, and there are all these big collaborative companies in Argentina who are selling their fruit here.
Rainbow, Whole Foods, and all these different stores have a lot of this Argentinean fruit. I’ll have a little bit of it sometimes—I like to have one or two pear varieties—so if someone wants a pear they can have a pear. But I’m not going to bring in all of the pear varieties that are coming from Argentina.
Right now I have enough fruit because I have another grower who works in Mt. Hood and they grow amazing biodynamic fruit, which stores really well. So I’ve been buying up all of their stored fruit. Whereas every other market has already switched to southern hemisphere fruit—because of this relationship, I’m still able to sell Bosch pears from Oregon.
Then you get to the other items that are in the wet rack and are out of season—like eggplant, peppers and zucchini—which you have to watch the market for. If the price gets too high in the winter when only a greenhouse operation in Mexico has them, they’re costing $5 to $6 a pound for me to get them. Then I have to sell them for $7.99 to $8.99 a pound, which you’ve seen in the middle of winter—and that’s when the buying gets challenging.
I just try to get as much local, seasonal stuff as possible and then highlight it and really promote it. You really have to get behind the stuff that you do have that is seasonal.
For customers, the picture of the perfect apple used to be one covered in wax and flawless. But that’s slowly changing and consumers are more willing to buy produce with a little flaw or blemish on it. Have you seen any other changes in trends?
I’ve definitely seen trends over the years. Whenever food magazines are hitting on something, especially during the holidays, you can see sales on that item go up a little bit during that time. Like if Food & Wine Magazine is promoting something—I can see that. Or if something is catchy in restaurants—like chicory salads, which have been really catchy in all the restaurants in the last couple of years—then I start to see my chicories sell more.
I feel like we offer a lot of things you’ll see at restaurants. I’m here for chefs. I want a chef to be able to come in here and find unique ingredients that they can’t find elsewhere.
I also see changes in seasonal eating. The more that we promote what’s in season the more people will buy those items. We spoil people with our strawberries and our berries which—through all of our different connections—we’ve been able to have in the off season.
How do you promote seasonal food?
It’s definitely signage and sampling. I’m getting my produce signs on my website and every month I give an update of what’s coming to the market.
We’re using the web as a tool to get people turned on. And people are following us more on Facebook and Twitter. Our customers are smart, they’ve really gotten to know the seasons.
I think Bi-Rite gets this label sometime—that because the people who come here have money they don’t have to worry about what they spend. That’s true to some extent, but most of the people who come here know what they want to buy—and they know food, they know the seasons.
Why do you think organic produce is so expensive?
I think it’s a combination of things. Let’s say you’re a conventional onion grower who has acres and acres of conventional onions. Your onions rely heavily on chemical fertilizers, and because you order such large amounts of chemical fertilizer, you get it a cheaper than the organic alternative—such as using cover crops and other things that would take more time to do.
Your nutrient inputs are going to be a lot more time consuming if you’re doing cover crops or different things to fertilize your field. More time is going to be more labor.
I think that it all has to do with scale. The larger you are the more likely you’ll be able to produce certain crops cheaper. If I was selling conventional onions right now then I could find them at the produce terminal for 15 to 20 cents per pound.
At 20 cents per pound I don’t even know how a farm pays fair wages, harvests, ships the produce, buys the box, packs the box and sells—for that cheap. I haven’t been able to wrap my head around it.
So I think the price has a lot to do with the scale and the labor. I know the small farms that I deal with pay really, really good wages to their staff—but when you get to the bigger farms, and even the big organic farms—you start to wonder.
I understand Bi-Rite started a farm of its own.
Personally, I was itching to get back into the soil after working here at Bi-Rite and visiting all the farms. I wanted to grow food again, and Sammy was buying a little piece of land in Sonoma. He had about a third of an acre in his backyard so I started working on that backyard piece.
After a few years, we decided to start expanding. Then we broke into another acre, which we only got last year. Now we have another half acre that we are getting into this year.
From a farming perspective I’ve learned a ton. I’m having to build up the soil. It was a low acidity soil so I needed to add a lot of oyster shells to it; it needs nutrients—it doesn’t have a lot of nitrogen.
I’m still trying to figure out the climate. The fog rolls in there, and stays there. As a grower I’m still trying to nail down not only which crops go best there but which varietals of crops.
For me, it’s as close as you can get to your own food. When a market is growing their own food and preparing dishes in their deli with it—and the staff can talk about it—this is really what makes me the most excited about it. Last year I got about 20 staff members up to the farm and this year I’m definitely going to bring more than that.
Getting the staff in there to see the farm is really important because we spend so much time here talking about the relationships with our food.
To me, I still feel like there’s a disconnect. You can read all the articles you want about it; you can read about food and feel like you know more about it, but until you actually experience the production of it, you don’t get a true sense.
It changes your perception.
We do staff meals now. For a five week period in the late summer, Sammy—the owner of Bi-Rite—will cook dinner for the staff and they’ll all get to eat the farm fresh produce. It’s like community building with the staff and just showing them how much we care.
We’ve also started a farm school through 18 Reasons, which is going to happen this year again. Hopefully we’ll have 16 students who will go through a five month of lecture series that Rosie puts on at 18 Reasons—and also spend some time up at the farm to see the growing cycle.
I think it’s educational. Yes, it’s about the bottom line a lot of times, but for this opportunity I’m farming to educate people; I’m farming to turn people on to food.
I don’t have all the burdens and stress of a farmer that farms to make a living. I have a different situation, which is fun. It makes it special. I’m a grower, I want to get better at it. I’d love to get an orchard piece up their sometime so we have our own fruit trees.
I think every season we take a step forward. Riley, the new farmer that I hired, built a farm shed. We built a greenhouse and we’re making those little capital investments to improve the land and make it more comfortable for people when they come up and visit.
If you could change one thing right now to make local, sustainable food more available, what would it be?
I think if people just continue to break food habits and explore different seasonal foods—if as a culture we become more aligned with what’s in season—and if restaurants and markets continue to promote seasons—then I think that would help local food.
One of the phrases that I use is “celebrate the season.” I know it’s semi-generic and simple but it’s true because we always love to celebrate the season. The more that we do that as retailers and as restaurants then I think there will be a higher demand for local, seasonal produce. And if there’s a higher demand, there will be more farmers switching their farming practices in order to supply it.
It’s a tough time as far as finances go and people choose to spend the least amount of money on food out of all their other expenses. Once we realize as a culture how much the farms do and just continue to spend a little bit more on supporting farms—people might start to realize that while this bunch of something may be 50 cents more—it’s supporting sustainable agriculture.
It’s hard to educate people on that. My job here is not to educate every customer that comes in about food production but I think it’s important for people to understand why things cost the way they do.
Most of the time if something in my produce department is expensive it’s not because I got it for cheap and I know that I can sell it for a lot and I jack the price—it’s usually because I’ve spent a good amount to buy it from the farm and it’s the only way I can support the business and sell it.
It’s a touchy subject because a lot of people don’t have money. The first step for them would be to just to eat fresh food and not processed food. Then the next step might be more organic and seasonal. I think local movements continue to change and get more relevant.