Suggestion Book

Norman Weiss, Weavers Way Purchasing Manager

Greetings and thanks for writing. As usual, suggestions and responses may have been edited for brevity, clarity and/or comedy. In addition, no idea, concept, issue, remark, phrase, description of event, word or word string should be taken seriously. This also applies to the previous sentence.

I recently came across a word I’ve never heard before — “ponics.” There is debate in the organic community about the role of ponics — hydroponics, aquaponics and another new one on me, bioponics. Organic agriculture eschews synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers partially because of their negative effects on soil health. (The effects of eating non-organically grown food on human health continues to be debated, as it has been for decades.) So what happens when there is no soil? Should hydroponics and related methods be considered organic if they don’t use synthetics, but don’t use soil either? 

Ponics allow for a high degree of human control since they are basically an environment totally created by people — typically indoors, with a highly controlled and engineered system of nutrients, water, light and temperature. No toxic pesticides, since no soil-borne bugs. No herbicides, since no weeds. Organic fertilizer if the grower chooses. No water runoff; typically, water is treated and recirculated. No cold snaps, heat waves or groundhogs. Ponic agriculture can be in population centers so shipping can be minimized. Sounds like healthy, local, fresh food available year round to lots of people. 

Of course, there is no “free lunch.” Some ponic systems use lots of fuel for electricity and heat (although some are in greenhouses so don’t use as much), there is no carbon sequestration like soil-rooted plants, and some people question if a technologically based system is missing things a biologically based system would have, including existing in an overall ecosystem. 

From what I’ve read, most farmers think there is a place for both, but what’s controversial is should ponics be eligible to be certified USDA Organic? Here we go again in our somewhat schizo food system. The National Organic Standards Board, created to advise the Agriculture Department on the National Organic Program (NOP is responsible for the organic seal you see on USDA-certified organic products) recommended: “Potting mixtures devoid of or deficient in organic matter capable of supporting a natural and diverse soil ecology are prohibited. For this reason, hydroponic and aeroponic systems are prohibited.” However, USDA Organic certifiers have already certified 17 hydroponic operations. 

There is also the issue of scale. Some people think if ponics get more official approval, then giant growers like Driscoll’s and Wholesum Harvest will dominate the organic produce landscape by growing tomatoes and cukes and berries and such in giant hermetically sealed buildings spanning hundreds of acres using some form of ponic technology, and is this what we want organic certification to reflect? 

Stay tuned to see how the USDA proceeds. 

Another interesting issue that has come up for me recently in the cooperative food biz is transparency. Supposedly, consumers, especially millennials, value transparency. You would think transparency is a basic co-op value, and it is often discussed, but I’ve rarely seen it mentioned in things like co-op mission statements and Ends policies, and it’s not explicit in the International Cooperative Principles that most co-ops subscribe to. The mission statement of our trade group, National Co-op Grocers, does mention a “transparent organization,” which I find a bit ironic because so much of what NCG publishes for member co-ops is labelled confidential. 

Merriam Webster Online’s definition of “transparency” includes:

2a: free from pretense or deceit
 b: easily detected or seen through
 c: readily understood: characterized by visibility or accessibility of information especially concerning business practices.

One of the reasons transparency in food producers is valuable to conscious consumerism is so that consumers can purchase and eat items we have some confidence in regarding the things we value, like good growing practices and fair labor. Since all the NCG co-ops have adopted the Field Day line as a primary brand to promote and sell to our members, shouldn’t we be sure that line reflects our values? Since many Field Day items include ingredients I know have had labor issues in the past (tomatoes, sugar, raisins), I started asking about the source of these ingredients. I was told the sourcing is proprietary information that will not be disclosed. So much for transparency. 

The reality is that although transparency should be linked to co-op values like member education and democratic participation — how can you participate in decisions if you don’t know the full picture? — co-ops have this sense that despite wanting to be cooperatives, they have to compete in the marketplace. Marketplace competition means co-ops are competing for sales and margin, just like other capitalist grocery providers, and therefore have trade secrets — proprietary recipes, confidential deals with suppliers, confidential compensation arrangements with staff, confidential documents and communications around expansion strategies, confidential shopper and sales data, confidential real estate deals, that are secret even from their own members. 

Interesting position co-ops find ourselves in these days. 

By the way, in response to my Field Day queries about the raisins and sugar in their raisin bran I received this: “All of the raisin and sugar suppliers that may be used in this product have answered yes to the following: Are you aware of and do you comply with relevant national law or the Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI) code of conduct with regards to ethical issues? and Do you have an ethical trading policy with respect to working conditions and workers’ rights?” and Do you currently have a program to assure that human trafficking and slavery do not exist in your operations and supply chain?” This is better than nothing, but this is regarding two ingredients in a brand consisting of hundreds of products and thousands of ingredients. The one way consumers do find out who actually produces food you see in stores? Recalls. When things go wrong, the FDA forces companies to be transparent. 

Funny biz we’re in.

snapshots, suggestions and responses:

s: “I really like the glass closed pitcher Bornelli Rocco, made in Italy — bought a second one for a gift — they sold quickly. I see they also have storage jars. Will you keep selling these?”

r: (Rick MA) Yes, we will have the pitchers. Always check The Mercantile for other options.

s: “Can we get large size, plain, low-fat or non-fat Chobani yogurt? It is very good and the politics are excellent — better than some of the other yogurt makers we carry.”

r: (Matt MA) I’m currently looking into expanding our Greek yogurt offerings due to demand. We’ll consider Chobani. You might also want to consider ordering a case if we end up not adding it.

s: “The Co-op carries many varieties of ‘all-purpose’ flour. Can we also carry one or two kinds of ‘no-purpose’ flour? I use it when baking during nihilistic existential moods.”

r: (Matt MA) In my experience, it is whoever is observing the flour at any given moment who designates its purpose. It’s quite easy to craft your own no-purpose flour at home! My favorite method is to take an old cigar box, fill it with flour and bury it in the park. If this sounds too labor-intensive, you can pour the flour onto the floor or even just leave the bag sitting on the counter for the rest of time. Hope this helps!

s: “As we no longer carry Nayonaise vegan spread, please may we find a similar type of vegan ‘mayonnaise’? Thank you!”

r: (Matt MA) We have several vegan “mayonnaise” selections, including Veganaise, Primal Kitchen (an avocado-based mayo substitute) and Just Mayo. If none of these meet your needs, I’d be happy to place a preorder for you.

s: “We’d like to request that you carry the Bionaturae Bilberry jam again. We miss it! Thanks.”

r: (Matt MA) Unfortunately, this item was cut due to low sales volume. It’s still available from our supplier if you’d like to order a case; contact me at for details.

s: “When will our farms start modifying crops with CRISPR gene-splicing technology? Our heirloom tomatoes taste great, but I’d like them to not have cracks, and fit my tomato slicer as I like a degree of uniformity and evenness in my life.”

r: (Norman) Due to our close partnership with W.B. Saul High School, we have relationships with teachers and we’ve asked about introducing CRISPR technology as today’s students need to be comfortable with technology, and experimenting with genome-editing seems like a good place to start. We’re hoping to jointly develop an app such that when you buy a tomato slicer from Amazon, a couple of our tomato plants are modified to produce tomatoes that will fit your slicer and produce the quantity of tomatoes you expect to use, kind of like a subscription. It is a bit of a commitment on your part, so if you fear commitment, that could be an issue. However, soon there will be CRISPR technology to weed out those kinds of unhealthy fears in people. Technology will soon allow for perfect food and perfect people, and then we can all finally relax in a ponics-perfect world.