For better or worse

Local food and farm advocates talk about the buyout trend

Dan Best, coordinator of the Sacramento Certified Farmers’ Markets, worries about the “corporate hijacking” of the term “farmers market.”

Dan Best, coordinator of the Sacramento Certified Farmers’ Markets, worries about the “corporate hijacking” of the term “farmers market.”

Photo By larry dalton

Was a little company selling out or was a big business buying in when the Kellogg Company bought Kashi in 2000, when the Coca-Cola Co. bought Odwalla in 2001, when Dean Foods bought Silk in 2002, and when the Colgate-Palmolive Company bought Tom’s of Maine in 2006?

So asks Doug Walter, membership director at the Davis Food Co-op. Walter manages the inventory and keeps the shelves stocked at the food cooperative, and in his 20 years in the business he has watched many small labels become absorbed by the swelling magma of corporate America—and to him, this is not entirely a bad thing.

“Big industries clearly see value in the organic and local market,” Walter said.

In turn, organic, locally produced or otherwise commendable goods are made available to a wider audience—if, that is, the original integrity of the product is preserved by its new owner.

Sometimes, Walter says, it is.

“When a corporation buys a brand, they must have some interest in what it originally was or in the values that gave the product its reputation, and they’ll try to maintain those,” he explained. “But will they give it some cost-benefit analysis? Sure.”

And that is when compromises are made.

One of the more infamous cases of a corporation watering down the integrity of a previously independent brand and swindling its consumers may be that of Dean Foods (see main story) furtively transforming its once-organic Silk soy milk into a conventional product. Dean attempted to pass off the altered one as “natural” to loyal consumers who had grown to trust the product as it was initially made.

“We were kind of appalled,” Walter recalled of the transition. “They had been predominantly organic and then completely changed without telling people, and we felt that was pretty deceptive.”

The raging popularity of farmers markets has also attracted the angling eyes of prospective business interests, for better or for worse. Save Mart, for instance, is calling its produce section a “farmers market.”

“This is a corporate hijacking of the term, which is supposed to describe a place where the farmer is present,” said Dan Best, the coordinator of the Sacramento Certified Farmers’ Markets. “The farmer is an integral part of the exchange.”

Best even reports that Home Depot had labeled its plant department as a “farmers market” at two local stores. He also points out a more subtle abuse of the term.

“We’re seeing places being called ‘farmers markets’ where 25 percent of the stalls are operated by farmers and the rest are massage chairs, live music, arts and crafts, and hot foods,” Best said. “That’s called a marketplace.”

Round Table Pizza has also joined the bandwagon, naming a pizza topped with heirloom tomatoes and vegetables the “Farmers Market Pizza.”

“But that might be good because it’s got Round Table using heirloom tomatoes,” Best noted.

On the whole, whether so much corporate investment and interest in the local-scale green market is good or bad for green things may be unclear. Walter at the Davis Food Co-op notes that two of the world’s largest corporations are now firm supporters of organic farming: Coca-Cola, as the maker of Odwalla juices, and Walmart Stores.

“I’m not necessarily happy (about that), but there is some value in it,” he said, adding that he has “a slightly higher suspicion of anything large.”

But the fact is, small green businesses may be the ones selling out, while many big ones are just seeing green.