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Posted August 30, 2012

What's the Matter with Tops?

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Two recent newspaper stories about food, food production and food sales merged in my thoughts yesterday . The first is an encouraging article in the “Opinionator” section of the NY Times written by Mark Bittner, the Times columnist on food. Bittner wrote about investment banker Jeremy Grantham, co-founder and chief investment strategist for Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo & Co. LLC. Grantham himself had written an article in the company’s quarterly newsletter titled Welcome to Dystopia! Entering a Long-Term and Politically Dangerous Food Crisis. In it Grantham warns of a growing food crisis that can only, inevitably, be solved by, “eating sustainable, more-or-less organic and mostly regional food within a couple of generations.”

As an investor, Grantham has created foundations and is financing research in organic agriculture. He sternly points out that, “The U.S.D.A., the big ag schools, colleges, land grants, universities — they’re all behind standard farming, which is: sterilize the soil. Kill it dead, [then] put on fertilizer, fertilizer, fertilizer and water, and then beat the bugs back again with massive doses of insecticide and pesticide.” Grantham sees doom in continuing this model.

Grantham sees industrial food production as a dead end process with potentially disastrous consequences for the world if it’s not changed.

Grantham intends to directly finance organic farms of about 350 acres in size. He intends his research to show how much output such farms can produce and at what cost. He believes that although the costs to produce organic food seems high there are many savings in energy and materials when the industrial processes of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are eliminated.

The bottom line for this banker: industrial food production is a dead end process with potentially disastrous consequences for the world if it’s not changed. He makes a strong case.

The other article I noted came from the Democrat & Chronicle which reported that Tops Markets, Rochester’s only meaningful competitor to Wegmans, had posted modest profits of $9.5 million for the quarter, up $300,000 from the year before. However, sales were flat compared to last year. What improved profits? Drum roll please: they came from the Monopoly Game program the stores ran this spring.

These stories connected in my mind as a result of two recent experiences at Tops. I have been trying to make a careful comparison of produce prices in grocery stores compared to farmers markets and farm stands. Last week I visited the Tops store in Hamlin for the price of plum tomatoes. I was genuinely shocked when I found that the tomatoes in Tops were from MEXICO! I was dumbfounded. Here, in rural, agricultural Hamlin where 85% of the land is farmed and at the peak of the tomato season, Tops was selling high priced imports.

The second experience was the same as the first. I had a food processor filled with fresh basil on the way to pesto and ran out of homegrown garlic. Since I will not use garlic powder (ALL of it imported from China!) I drove to Tops to get some fresh bulbs. There weren't any, just dried out husks...imported from Mexico.

Tops made a big deal this summer proclaiming the local nature of their produce. Signs covering their windows stated that their vegetables came from local farms. Maybe it improves the bottom line to import lousy foreign tomatoes and garlic into the heart of NYS agriculture but I won’t buy it. I hope other consumers agree.

Written by: Pete Tonery
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    Stop in at ANY grocery store in any part of the country and you will see imported tomatoes and garlic, Pete. Picking on only Tops is unfair. But I get your point. We need to start somewhere. Many grocery stores are making efforts to incorporate more local produce and put out big banners and advertisements as such, while still also carrying imports of things that could be grown here. Yes, grocery stores need to support their local growers more. Absolutely. And locally grown food should be available to all people, regardless of income.

    I do think it's a two-way street. Many consumers expect to get things all year-round. There needs to be a shift in the way we think about food, both as consumers and as businesses. And if more consumers were vocal about supporting local products and refused to buy those imported goods that could be grown here, it would help.

    On a side note, anyone who would choose a tomato right now that was picked when it wasn't ripe so it could make a trek across the globe to your table in lieu of the AMAZING upstate NY tomatoes that are on the scene is crazy. Eat while you can, people. Nothing beats a just-picked summer ripe tomato grown locally. :)

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