For the first time in four years, Wegmans opened its fifty-acre Organic Farm near Canandaigua Lake to the media for tours and an update on progress on its sustainable and organic produce growing practices.
"When we started this, we kind of thought it was good for the environment; less trucking from California, no pesticides, no artificial fertilizers,” said Danny Wegman.
The 50-acre research farm near the shores of Canandaigua Lake was initially intended to develop best practices in organic and sustainable farming and share them with the 80-store grocery chain’s 500 suppliers.
Five years later, Wegmans’ view of organic produce has evolved.
"Today, I'm not sure that some larger farms in the area using some automation that we're learning about ourselves might not be a more customer friendly approach. It has to be affordable or it’s a waste of time. We don't want to just serve the elite,” said Wegman, Wegmans CEO.
Wegmans believes the key to great tasting organic produce is the soil, and its constantly looking for that perfect concoction of compost.
Wegman said simple growing practices like companion planting with herbs like basil, garlic or even marigolds to keep the bad bugs out and laying down black sheets of plastic to keep the weeds down are making a big difference.
"One of the biggest challenges when you don't use pesticides is weeding. It’s a killer literally in terms of backaches. Tremendous amount of work,” said Wegman. “There's a machine that pokes holes in the plastic and puts water in the hole."
Wegmans also uses drip irrigation and covercropping, on the organic farm that helps supply its Canandaigua and Pittsford Stores and restaurant Next Door Bar & Grill.
The number of hoop houses are also multiplying on the property. Wegman says the plastic greenhouses extend the organic growing season so Wegmans can produce year round.
“It’s a journey, it’s a constant learning, and I'm thrilled with what I see and I think the opportunity to produce organics much more efficiently in the future."
Organic produce is the fastest growing segment in Wegmans food markets. While Wegmans would not release financials, it said organic produce has seen double digit growth year after year for the last five years.
"The main thing we're trying to do is really make great tasting produce so people consume more, and we think that if people consume more produce, they'll be healthier and have a better life and again that's what our mission is at Wegmans."