Is Locally Grown Food Going Corporate?

Is locally grown food about to go corporate?

That's what I've been wondering as I've pondered Whole Foods' new deal with a small sustainable Long Island vegetable grower. The grocery chain is aiming to bring high quality locally grown salad mix, produced by Long Island-based Satur Farms, to several stores in Manhattan and on Long Island.

The hip downtown Chelsea, TriBeca, and Bowery Whole Foods markets in Manhattan will be among the first stores to receive the Satur product, which shipped its first batch of produce in mid-June. What could be more trendy than locally grown veggies delivered straight to the produce aisle? King Kullen, a Long Island-based chain, also stocks produce produced by nearby growers.

"Local food has grown beyond the culinary fringe," says Brian Halweil, editor of Edible East End magazine and senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute. "Some of the nation's largest and most forward-thinking agribusinesses are beginning to carve out a place for produce raised nearby."

Satur, which is not certified organic but does grow its crops on about 200 acres of land on the East End of Long Island according to organic standards, is owned by chef-turned-farmer Eberhard Muller and his wife, Paulette Satur. Muller once helmed the famed gastronomic temple, Lutece. For years, Satur has been supplying chefs like Daniel Boulud and Mario Batali as well as several local grocery chains in Manhattan. (For more on Satur, see Edible East End's High Summer issue coming this August.)

At Whole Foods, a five-ounce plastic tub of Satur's "Tender Sweet Local Baby Lettuce Blend" will run $4.99 -- the same price as the Earthbound Farm organic salad mixes. That's a pretty hefty price for greens -- even ones that arrive at the store in under 24 hours. But maybe it's not such a bad deal for a mix of carefully cultivated arugula, mesculin, baby spinach, and other lettuces.

Fred Kasak, Whole Food's senior produce and floral coordinator for the Northeast region, insists local won't follow the lead of organic to become a commodity. Large growers in California and Arizona have "degraded" the original pristine organic products developed during the 1980s and 90s, he says.

"There are land issues," explains Kasak, citing one of the main reasons that small local farmers won't go corporate. Farms like Satur could never get big enough to become mega-growers.

Clearly, the expansion of locally grown is a boon for small growers.

"Without volume, you can't exist," says Paulette Satur.

Still, you have to wonder. If locally grown vegetables are packed in plastic tubs, crammed into trucks, and shipped off to grocery stores, how different are they from any other produce section offering?

Yes, the produce arrives at the store much fresher than the product shipped from afar. Yes, the carbon footprint for delivering it is infinitely smaller.

But I can't chat with the farmer about his growing methods.

And I can't roam from farm stand to farm stand sampling just-picked strawberries, still warm from the noonday sun. Who thought the grocery store checkout line would become the new farm stand?