Wholesum Harvest Is Showing the Country How to Run An Organic & Sustainable Farm
You might not know it, but Arizona is home to one of the more forward-thinking farms in the country. Wholesum Harvest is a third generation, family-owned growing operation with locations in Amado and Nogales whose produce is distributed across the country. Not only do they know how to grow a juicy, flavorful, organic tomato, they also know how to operate a business that values the environment and their workers. Here are some of the impressive things the Crisantes family is doing to run a business with people, planet, and profit in mind.
Their journey in organic farming began with Theojary Crisantes Enciso, who while studying at the University of California Davis in the 1970s, became interested in organic growing principles because they promote human well-being and ecological balance. Organically grown food product is safer to eat, as people aren’t ingesting synthetic chemicals used in fertilizers and pesticides. Organic growing also protects workers and growers who would otherwise be exposed to high levels of chemicals on a constant basis. Wholesum Harvest became certified in the early 90’s. Certifications can be rigorous, and the organic certification is no exception. Wholesum is certified through Quality Assurance International, a leading USDA-accredited organic product certifying agency.
“As certified organic growers, our farms are free of prohibited materials. We never use synthetic herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers. Instead, we employ safe, organic farming methods, like cover cropping, crop rotation, planting timing and composting. We also use mechanical weed control and natural, biological pest control,” says the Wholesum Harvest website.
On the sustainability page of their website, Wholesum Harvest states they are striving to “leave the planet better than we found it” and they follow that statement up in many ways.
Growing crops requires plenty of water, so conservation of this limited resource is top of mind to the Wholesum team. They successfully recycle over 40% of the water they use by collecting water the plants don’t use through a gutter system and treating it onsite, which also helps recover fertilizer. In combination with a highly efficient drip irrigation system, this water recycling system allows Wholesum to grow one pound of tomatoes with about one-eighth of the amount of water used in a conventional system.
NATURAL PEST CONTROL
Plants attract pests that can damage or kill them, but instead of using chemical pest control, Wholesum brings in the good guys: wasps and spiders that make a meal out of harmful pests. Wasp eggs are placed throughout the greenhouses, and bee colonies are brought in to help pollinate.
NOURISHING THE LAND
At their location in Amado, Wholesum Harvest is working with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to better understand their land and how to be good stewards of it. In October they enrolled in the Conservation Stewardship Program which involved mapping current conservation activities and opportunities on the property and then designing a plan to remove invasive plants like buffelgrass, plant habitat for pollinators, monitor the native mesquite forest, and protect endangered species, including the Pima Pineapple Cactus which is present on the property. Wholesum’s Sustainability Manager Hannah La Luzerne said that working with the NRCS was a very positive experience and that they have benefited from the extra technical assistance.
Wholesum takes advantage of Arizona’s sunshine and has installed solar at their Nogales facility. Currently 34% of the energy used there comes from solar generation. They continuously work on ways to reduce their energy consumption and are researching other renewable energy sources like a biomass boiler.
Some of the effects of transporting produce across the country includes waste from packaging and carbon emissions. Wholesum worked with supply chain analysis company CHEP to find more sustainable ways to transport their product. They now use reusable pallets which keep more than eleven tons of pallet waste out of landfills. They also purchase carbon offset credits, which fund projects that reduce greenhouse gases. Wholesum’s first offset project provided sustainable stoves to 30,000 Mexican families, which replaced unsafe and inefficient cooking methods.
A large growing operation like Wholesum Harvest requires a lot of employees to make things function smoothly. Many agriculture jobs are seasonal, with employees mainly needed during harvest and planting seasons. Wholesum however provides year round employment to workers, which is a bit of a rarity in the agriculture industry.
Wholesum has shown their commitment to their staff and their supply chain by becoming Fair Trade certified. The certification is a rigorous process that requires businesses, and those in their supply chain, to have safe healthy working conditions for employees, strong environmental processes in place and transparency in their operations. Wholesum’s operations in Mexico have been Fair Trade certified since 2012 and in October 2016, their Amado and Nogales locations jointly became the first Fair Trade certified operation in the US.
Fair Trade requires that Wholesum provide healthcare, child care, housing (if workers are migrants), clear wage reporting and scheduled pay days among many other benefits. One of the most incredible aspects of the certification is that Wholesum workers have been able to implement impactful community programs with funds from the Fair Trade premium (an extra amount paid per box of Fair Trade product that goes directly back to the workers). These include the building of a park, a community center, a soccer field, a nonprofit grocery store, a tortilla factory and a laundry mat. They have also been able to give out zero interest home loans, created more than thirteen jobs, and donated to help hurricane victims. These projects are voted on by the entire worker body and administered by a democratically elected committee of Wholesum’s workers. In turn, workers are empowered to invest in their communities and do so according to what they determine to be the most important needs.
Community Involvement & Advocacy
The Wholesum team is proud of their community involvement. They have been members of Local First Arizona for several years, and participated in the Social Entrepreneurship Summit in 2016. They frequently speak at conferences, sharing best practices and lessons learned with others in their field. They donate produce to local food banks, and last year they joined forces with other growers to send over 34,000 lbs of organic produce to victims of flooding in Louisiana. Earlier this year, they brought several of their customers down to Mexico to build a community center in the town where many of their workers live.
Wholesum staff sit on the Boards of the Sustainable Food Trade Association and Fair Trade USA and have been active on a special task force at the National Organic Standards Board. They advocate for organic growing practices through a program with Vitalis Organic Seeds called “Vitalis Born, Wholesum Raised.” This partnership is a commitment from Wholesum that their organic produce begins with an organic seed.
When companies like Wholesum operate at such a high level, they often start seeking the same behavior in their supply chain. Wholesum is no exception, requiring all the growers they work with to be organic. And while they don’t require them to be Fair Trade initially, they do expect growers to pursue the certification eventually to demonstrate alignment with the mission, vision, and values of the Wholesum brand. For growers that need help achieving these high standards, Wholesum has a dedicated staff available to share their knowledge and best practices.
The next time you are scoping out the veggie selection at your local grocery store, be on the lookout for the Wholesum Harvest label. You’ll rest assured that you are supporting a company that is doing good in so many different ways.
A presentation on Building the Business Case for Environmental Sustainability will be led by Ricardo Cristantes from Wholesum Harvest at the 2017 SOCENT Summit. You’ll learn how this growing operation incorporates sustainability into its operations, how they get buy-in from stakeholders, the effect it is having on the bottom line and engaging employees. Learn more.
The Local Impact Champion series highlights Local First Arizona members who go above and beyond in supporting their local community. For more information, email Helene@localfirstaz.com.