Growing an interest in agriculture

REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio – About 200 producers from across Ohio put off tending to their fields and crops May 24. But it wasn’t because of weather conditions or holiday picnics.
The producers were attending the Whole Foods Market Summit at the Ohio Department of Agriculture in Reynoldsburg.
Whole Foods Market is the largest natural and organic foods grocery chain in the world. This was the fourth of five planned summits in the mid-Atlantic region, said Michael Lowry, an employee with Whole Foods who helped coordinate the event with ODA.
Educate. The summits are held to educate local growers about Whole Foods and to create partnerships. Summits have been held in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, with the last one set for Louisville, Ky., next month.
“People are coming because of the new store in Dublin; they want to know what we are doing out of curiosity,” said Annamaria Friede, a Whole Foods Market buyer specializing in groceries.
According to Lowry, who works out of the regional office in Maryland, the Ohio summit has been the largest so far.
“It is obvious Ohio is tied to and is very passionate about agriculture,” he said.
The company was founded in 1980, in Austin, Texas, as one small store. It has now expanded to 187 stores in North America and the United Kingdom, with 30 of those stores in the mid-Atlantic region.
The company is growing so rapidly that sales double every three and half years, according to Ken Meyer, president of the mid-Atlantic region, which includes stores in Washington D.C., Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
“We’ve gotten to be a big company already, but we are still thinking small on the local level,” Meyer said.
His goal is to customize each store to reflect the needs of the community and local producers.
Getting involved. Tyrone Tuel of Portage County, who bought his first hog just over a year ago, came to the summit to see what type of products the company is looking for and how he can get involved. Since that first purchase, his operation grown to seven hogs, 75 chickens and he is going to try his hand at cut flowers this year.
Tuel came to the summit to gather information about which way he should go with his production.
The summit included several meetings that gave producers a chance to meet with buyers from the mid-Atlantic region about their product.
“One of the things that draws people in and that we wanted to get across today, is that if you have enough product to fill one store, you are just as important if you have enough to fill several,” Lowry said.
“Most of our producers would never have the mass of product needed to work with a huge chain, but here they can have the opportunity.”
New initiatives. One of the company’s new projects is to create farmers markets in the parking lots of stores. By doing this, Whole Foods hopes to bring the community and local producers together.
“We want it (the stores) to reflect community values. The success we’ve had is because of our partnerships, team members and customers,” Meyer said.
Another part of Whole Foods’ expansion is a loan program. Across the country, 30-35 people have used this loan system.
These loans in the mid-Atlantic region are in the pilot stages, but can be used for numerous expansion projects such as building facilities, flood irrigation systems or packaging materials, said Julia Obici, purchasing vice president of Whole Foods.
The benefits of these loans are low interest rates (5 percent to 9 percent), no penalty for early repayment, minimal paper work and short decision-making time frame. Loans are for expansion, not operating costs.
Quality standards. To qualify for a loan or to sell a product to Whole Foods, a producer must meet basic quality standards.
Some of these standards include:

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