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The Marketplace Calls for Environmental Stewardship

Impetus from a supermarket chain has brought IPM-labeled produce - both fresh and processed - to New York customers for the first time.

photo of the IPM label
The IPM label. Illustration: K. English

For the first time ever, New York supermarket customers can stock their shopping carts with a variety of IPM-labeled vegetables this year. Wegmans Food Markets, Inc. sells IPM-grown, fresh-market sweet corn in its Rochester-area stores and several types of frozen and canned vegetables bearing IPM labels in all of its stores. The labels explain that "Through IPM, growers use less pesticide over time by taking other steps to reduce pest damage. Your purchase supports the efforts of growers who truly care about the environment." The story behind these new labels is one of a food industry initiative and an enthusiastic response by the IPM Program. It is a story of new partnerships and environmental gains.

Steps in the Process

Wegmans first approached Cornell in 1994, seeking the means to offer its customers IPM-grown sweet corn. The retailer was examining new marketing strategies and wanted to test the marketplace with an IPM product. As a first step, the retailer's fresh-market sweet-corn growers were trained in IPM methods by IPM extension educators from Cornell. The training was funded and co-facilitated by PRO-TECH, a Cornell Cooperative Extension program whose mission was to enhance the sustainability and competitiveness of New York's fruit, vegetable, and ornamental horticulture industries through educational programs.

IPM-grown sweet corn - with signs promoting it as such - was sold at one store in 1995. It went over so well with customers that Wegmans decided to expand the IPM connection in two ways: 1) sell fresh-market IPM corn at all of its Rochester-area stores and 2) sell canned and frozen vegetables under IPM labels at all of its stores.

When Wegmans presented this second idea to Comstock Michigan Fruit, its supplier of processed fruits and vegetables, the grower-owned company was able to accommodate Wegmans immediately. Comstock selected 10 growers who already practiced IPM to grow processing vegetables for the Wegmans IPM label.

Comstock Michigan Fruit, no stranger to IPM, adopted IPM practices on all of its sweet corn acreage in 1991, with a resultant 50 percent drop in insecticide use. Its long-standing efforts to adopt IPM were recognized in 1996 with an "Excellence in IPM Award."

Once an agreement to market the IPM vegetables was reached, representatives from Wegmans, Comstock, and Cornell began working with growers on the details of carrying the plan to fruition. One crucial endeavor was the formulation of "IPM Elements" for processed beets, cabbage for sauerkraut, carrots, peas, snap beans, and sweet corn. These Elements are lists of agreed-upon IPM practices to be followed in producing crops that are to be sold under an IPM label.

Since many of the growers enlisted for this project had already adopted many IPM methods, they did not need to make major adjustments to comply with the Elements. The biggest challenge was to document their pest management practices more extensively than in the past. Growers were assigned points for adopting various practices on the lists of Elements, and a specific point total was determined as the required number to qualify a crop as IPM grown. Nearly 3,500 acres of fresh and processing vegetables were grown for IPM labeling in 1996. All of the growers involved in this project exceeded the required point level by about 15 percent.

As for the economics involved, IPM-labeled products were sold in the stores for the same price as other Wegmans-brand vegetables. Whatever the product, Wegmans did not have its own competing brand, but other brands of similar canned products were offered on the shelves.

This project is aimed at encouraging environmental stewardship. Wegmans is asking its agricultural producers to show progress in stewardship over a period of three years. The results of the point total above show that such progress is taking place and will likely continue. The project also seeks to measure the environmental impact of the pesticides used on each crop. Data collected in this regard were also very favorable in 1996. At least one grower did not use any herbicides, fungicides, or insecticides on one of his crops.

What Does It All Mean?

photo of labeled cans
Cans of IPM-labeled peas and corn. Photo: R. Way

The success of this effort has been due to the willingness of growers, the food processing and marketing industries, and Cornell to learn from one another and to venture into unknown territory. Wegmans views the IPM vegetables as "value-added" products. It has devoted significant advertising resources to the new products. In-store videotapes, brochures, television and radio spots, and an advertisement in its weekly newspaper insert have all been aimed at educating the public about IPM and about the environmental stewardship of New York farmers.

Bill Pool, manager of Food Safety and Regulation for Wegmans, describes the effects of the effort in this way: "Strong support for IPM was evident in a follow-up survey of 302 of our customers after we sold the first IPM-grown sweet corn. While the process of educating consumers about IPM will take some time, it's a wonderful opportunity to tell a very positive story about production agriculture."

Stories like the following one, shared with IPM staff by Dr. Christine Gruhn, biology professor at Nazareth College in Rochester, are proof positive that knowledge about IPM is spreading as a result of the Wegmans initiative. Gruhn typically asks the members of her freshman biology class whether any of them knows what IPM means. The answer is usually a unanimous "no." In the fall of 1996, though, 8 out of 20 students said "yes." When she asked them to name the source of their knowledge, all 8 named Wegmans.