NEW YORK -- Wegmans Food Markets is expanding its selection of produce grown locally using integrated pest management techniques, after successfully launching a sweet corn program last year. This season, Wegmans plans to merchandise berries, cherries and squash -- along with sweet corn -- grown with IPM techniques, according to Colleen Wegman, category manager for natural foods for the Rochester, N.Y.-based chain. Consumers have responded overwhelmingly to the IPM-grown produce, because it uses earth-friendly growing techniques but doesn't cost much more than conventional fresh produce, said Wegman, speaking at a workshop here sponsored by the National Foundation for Integrated Pest Management Education, Austin, Texas, and the International Food Information Council Foundation, Washington. IPM involves the managed use of various pest control tactics designed to cause the least damage to the environment. An example is using beneficial insects, rather than pesticides, to control crop-destroying bugs. While IPM is often a component of organic farming, growers using IPM techniques can use synthetic pesticides if crops are being threatened with significant damage. IPM is more labor-intensive than conventional farming, but growers nearly make up the difference through savings on chemical pesticides, Wegman said.
The supermarket chain has formed a partnership with Cornell University
to verify that growers are using proper IPM techniques.
The 52-unit chain works closely with local farmers who provide fresh produce for the stores, she said. Two years ago, Wegmans asked some of its growers to experiment with IPM. "At Wegman's, we have a very big responsibility to communicate the benefits of integrated pest management to consumers," she said. "We also have a responsibility to guarantee an outlet for this kind of product." One particular sweet corn grower took up the challenge last year. That grower provided IPM-grown sweet corn to a store in Rochester.
Wegmans, in turn, provided signs explaining what IPM is and talking up its environmental benefits. "Consumers believed in it," Wegman said. "They told us that through their purchases, and through a study we conducted."
Last August, Wegmans polled consumers about the IPM program. More than 85% of respondents said they would prefer sweet corn grown using IPM.
An overwhelming majority also said it was a good idea for Wegmans to encourage growers to grow using IPM, she said. Consumers also said they would like to see more fruits and vegetables grown with IPM. This year, several other growers of sweet corn have signed on to the project, so that the majority of sweet corn sold in the chain's Rochester-area stores will be grown through IPM. The project continues to mushroom. Next month, Wegmans is rolling out a store-label line of canned vegetables grown with IPM techniques. The chain is also developing a brochure to explain IPM to consumers, she said. Wegman said the chain is pleased with the response, particularly since many of its consumers are not the type to demand organic produce and other natural foods. "We do sell organics, and it only reaches a very small segment of our consumers. We will continue to support organics, but it's very expensive. IPM produce is not," she said. The Rochester unit that sold the IPM-grown sweet corn last season also sold organically grown sweet corn. While the conventional and IPM produce were almost identical in price, Wegman estimated that the organically grown sweet corn had as much as a 25% higher markup.