A day in the life of the country’s
original organic produce distributor

Veritable Vegetable—80 percent women, $22 million in annual sales—does more than move veggies at a furious pace. Somewhere between a for-profit business and an advocacy group, it gives fair prices and an increasingly rare wholesale outlet to smaller-scale organic growers.

By Lisa M. Hamilton

At 2:45 pm, the produce warehouse at 1100 Cesar Chavez Avenue is a ghost town. Twelve hours later, as the surrounding city sleeps under blankets of fog, this place is so awake it seems to buzz. Workers push into damp coolers to retrieve boxes of x, y, and z, then push back to stack them atop the pallets already towering with countless other boxes. As they weave through the maze they dodge a forklift shuffling 800-pound bins of pumpkins and a new shipment of apples that’s moving against the tide, back toward the coolers. The noise of the shrink wrapper rips the air like the smacking of giant lips.

When they began working at 10 last night, these people took their time. But the pace has now quickened, as truck drivers arrive to whisk the pallets out of San Francisco and onto highways that fan across the West. By the time the sun rises, the warehouse will be empty.

Standing in the hollow building you can see why people traditionally hate distributors and other middlemen: they don’t actually make things, they just move them. The service is vital—all food must somehow travel from grower to consumer—but at most warehouses, the only product is profit. At 1100 Cesar Chavez Avenue, a.k.a. Veritable Vegetable, all that furious work in the middle of the night actually produces something tangible: change.

Bu Nygrens is the purchasing manager and second in charge at Veritable Vegetable, the country’s original organic produce distributor. Watching the late-night frenzy, she joked to me, “We’re no different from other produce companies—except we’re 80% women.”

Credit it to the estrogen or not, there is a pervasive fairness and generosity about Veritable. The highest-paid employees carry titles no higher than “manager” and earn no more than four times the company’s lowest wage.

That’s an anomaly in the gruff wholesaling business; not an advantage per se, but another long-time employee insists that it makes the place superior. “I can’t stand the big wholesale produce market on Jerrold Avenue,” she says. “Over there the guys are swearing and smoking and just being nasty to each other, like ‘Hey, get the ****ing nectarines.’ It’s not like that here. We’re nice to each other.”

Credit it to the estrogen or not, there is a pervasive fairness and generosity about Veritable. The highest-paid employees carry titles no higher than “manager” and earn no more than four times the company’s lowest wage. In order to uproot the stereotype that, as Bu puts it, “white, well-educated people work in the office and brown, non-English speaking people work in the warehouse,” they give all the workers decision-making power and duly reward labors both mental and physical.

Also unlike most distributors, at Veritable food is a noticeable presence throughout the office. The salesroom has a cutting-board table devoted to tastings of produce in stock. Four times a week the night workers have dinner cooked for them, and all employees are welcomed to join the makeshift, all-you-can-eat food co-op in the back of Cooler A. If produce can’t be sold from the warehouse it is given to the food bank; if inedible, it’s composted.

What makes the whole thing work is the respect and attention Veritable directs toward the growers who supply them. “We believe in the partnership paradigm,” Bu explained to me as we toured the warehouse. “Really, if the farmers aren’t there next year then we’re gone, too. At this point, we’re a cross between a for-profit business and an advocacy group.”

They started out as neither. Mary Jane Evans, the current general manager, explains that they began as a co-op seeking to “seize the means of production.” Dealing with farmers directly started for the same conceptual reason, yet through it the young radicals were inadvertently educated about how America’s agribusiness was strangling small farmers. When Mary Jane arrived in 1976, the co-op itself was folding but three members were continuing the produce distribution for a simple reason: the commitment to keeping their small farmers in business.

Twenty seven years later, Veritable Vegetable buys from 300 growers, and sells over $22 million worth of food to its 300 customers each year. Alongside them has grown the industry, whose supply is met increasingly by large growers and conglomerates drawn to the market for its profits. While gross organic food sales may have grown, family-size farms have actually lost some of their direct wholesale market share. Among other reasons, they can’t supply the mass quantities—say, 10 pallets of Romaine all at once—that major retailers need.

That’s where Veritable comes in. They sell some to places as big as Safeway, but mostly their customers are co-ops and other independent retailers. With other distributors, those small stores would buy the same anonymous organic produce as everyone else and the big growers would end up with that market share, too. With Veritable, the small farmers are able to reclaim that market.

It’s possible because Veritable’s mission remains that original commitment to farmers. When Bu toured me around the warehouse, we came upon a stack of peaches in the carrot cooler. Veritable had plenty of the same brand and variety already, but because the farmer had needed space in his tiny storeroom, they picked them up early.

What makes the whole thing work is the respect and attention Veritable directs toward the growers who supply them. “We believe in the partnership paradigm,” says purchasing manager Bu Nygrens. “Really, if the farmers aren’t there next year then we’re gone, too.”

Around the corner, a man stood over a yellow garbage can marked COMPOST. He was repacking some other cases of peaches, eliminating the bruised ones. It’s hardly within the middleman’s buy-low-sell-high strategy to cull the product, but as Bu said, “Stores don’t have time to deal with this. If we send them out unsorted, nobody will be happy.”

I asked whether the farmer who supplied the peaches would pay, and she replied, “We’ll take this one as a loss. If it’s really bad we’ll talk to the farmer. They trust us.”

Joe Perry will vouch for that. He bought his first tractor in 1949 and has sold at wholesale markets since he was 16 and trucking lettuce to the old Fisherman’s Wharf. He has encountered buyers who accuse farmers of stealing, others who buy too much then dump it off for painfully low prices; still others who mean well but can’t stay in business.

“The people at Veritable are honest, though. They treat you well,” Joe said over the phone from his farm in Fremont. “Not only do they pick up the produce, they check in to see when I’ll be ready and the truckers call if they’re going to be late. And the buyers know the market well. They never buy more than they can sell at a good price. Small farmers have a hard time getting their product out, but they make it easier.”

In addition to offering logistical help, Veritable educates farmers about the market. When there rose a great demand for green coconuts but no organic ones were available, Bu encouraged her coconut grower to fill the niche. Every day Mary Jane reminds farmers to calculate distribution costs into their business plans—or create business plans to begin with—so they won’t sell crops for less than they actually cost to produce. Meanwhile, the buyers support growers as close to home as possible; in mid-October, 90% of the stock came from California.

And yet they still exist within an imperfect market, one that separates availability from season, weather, and politics as much as it can.

“The global market has had a big impact on buying habits,” Bu said as we walked through the cooler that holds avocados and citrus. “People used to get excited about the first potatoes of the year, or the first stonefruit. Now people expect them—everything—all the time.

“As long as price trumps cost and quantity trumps quality, the big players will dominate the market. Those are big issues and I don’t pretend to know how to solve them except in our small way.”

“So we’re in a tricky position. Usually Washington apples ripen later than California apples, but this year they came sooner. If the customers are asking for Golden Delicious and we can get them from up north, then what? Do we say no?”

Price, too, is a factor in the constant juggling of business and beliefs. In early October, the tail end of the Santa Barbara avocado season, pallets were already arriving from Chile. Bu looked at the boxes sitting next to each other and sighed heavily.

“Back when we weren’t such a frenetic society, a retailer might say, ‘Yes, I could get that same cheaper avocado that’s across the street, but taste this. Wouldn’t you pay 20 cents more to have this in your salad?’” But today the customers complained about prices and the retailers obediently passed the wish on, demanding boxes of size 48 Hass avocados for $52, not $72.

Bu and Mary Jane and the rest of the heart behind Veritable hope for a day when food prices are based in reality. They talk often of nutrition and food miles, of incorporating social values into prices, and of changing Americans’ opinion of farming from anachronism to vital service. “As long as price trumps cost and quantity trumps quality, the big players will dominate the market,” Mary Jane told me. “Those are big issues and I don’t pretend to know how to solve them except in our small way.”

That way is to keep individual identities present in the wholesale exchange. Veritable buys small amounts from growers so they can represent many at a time. Each item on their quote sheets comes with the name of the farm that grew it, sometimes even an extra call for attention. On October 2nd, Molino Creek’s Early Girl tomatoes came with the note: “dry farmed goodness, so amazing”.

Likewise, the newsletter they send to retailers is gently educational. On February 24, they wrote: “Supplies of asparagus from the Imperial Valley are strong. Our local supply from the Capay Valley and the Sacramento Delta region is still three weeks away.” Last December they profiled Ferris Family Farm, which sells them ginger. From it readers learned that the farm is on the north side of Kauai, in Hawaii, that the Ferrises have seven children and two acres of ginger, and that all nine family members harvest by hand the young rhizomes that Veritable was selling that day.

The idea is that the more buyers read these bits of information, the more they will understand the breadth and power of their choices. Perhaps the next time one buys ginger he will recognize the Ferris name or wonder if there are actual people behind the product listed with a lower price. Perhaps when his customers are ready for asparagus season, he will wonder when it actually starts in the land closest to him. Better yet, perhaps he will be that grocer who takes the time to pass the knowledge on. Perhaps he will become the one who convinces his customer she must try the silky texture of this superior avocado, and tell him that it isn’t worth an extra 20 cents.