"It's been huge," agrees Jeff Huckaby, general manager of Grimmway Farms' organic division. With Whole Foods' help, Grimmway has mushroomed from a roadside stand in the late 1960s to a massive farming operation that now includes the high-profile organic brands Bunny-Luv and Cal-Organic, which started selling organic produce to Whole Foods when both operations were fledgling, struggling wannabes.
Once Whole Foods made it past the start-up phase, its deep pockets and almost insatiable year-round appetite for organics helped stabilize a turbulent market. And when expanding producers are looking at an unexpected bumper crop of table-ready produce, they can ask for help.
"It's a give-and-take relationship," says Stephen Poklemba of Marfa, Texas-based Village Farms, which grows tomatoes in vast hydroponic greenhouses in Texas, Pennsylvania, and Mexico. "If crops are overproducing and we need to move product, I can talk to Whole Foods and they can do a push or get an ad put out to move more of that product."
What's left over when Whole Foods is done picking over the food is being funneled into an expanding processed-foods market.
"Whole Foods is given the best and the freshest," says Scowcroft. But producers always have a mountain of leftovers that don't make the cut. "So now you start developing secondary markets for mixed fruit juices, or perhaps start feeding your leftovers into a new market for organic processed foods."
But not everyone is happy to see the sector's success turn organic farmers into mainstream agribusinessmen.
Suppliers are quick to note the simmering tension that has long brewed between the small farms and the major agribusiness suppliers like Grimmway and Earthbound. As Whole Foods has swelled and lured other supermarkets into the business, buyers demand megasupplies of organic produce that can be delivered to stores as needed, year-round.
"There's tension with those 50-acre farmers who were making it but then lost their lettuce market," says Scowcroft. "Some are very unhappy about it, but others say that this is just the way it is. If you get a bigger market, somebody will do it bigger and better."
"Whole Foods used to have a lot of little suppliers," agrees Huckaby. "As they've grown and gotten bigger, they've had to have people who could provide produce for them year-round."
For its part, Whole Foods says it's up to each farmer as to how big they want to get.
"Oftentimes, a new source relationship will remain at the local or regional level," says Parker. "Sometimes, they don't want to grow beyond where they're at, and we're fine with that."
And plenty of those 50-acre farms that don't want to cater to big buyers like Whole Foods have been developing new, premium niches of their own, says Scowcroft. Some are catering to local communities only. Others have found ready buyers for fresh, high-priced organics among trendy restaurants.
And it’s very fresh. Some organic operations sprout twice-a-day harvests, at 10 a.m. and two p.m. “Think about it,” says Scowcroft. “Sweet corn an hour old.”
But the farms are pushing an envelope that’s been radically redesigned by Whole Foods.
“We feel that the image of organics has completely changed from being kind of a sacrifice to being a real indulgence,” says Myra Goodman, “meaning the best food, really upscale. And I think Whole Foods has played a big part in that.”