One of Wholesome Waveís primary goals is to increase the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables to communities who would otherwise lack access. Programs like our Fruit & Veggie Rx and Double Value Coupon Program have helped increase food stamp redemption at farmersí markets by 350%, but they can be just as beneficial to farmers themselves! This week we had the opportunity to talk with Nelson Ceccarelli, the owner of Connecticutís Ceccarelli Farms. With the help of Wholesome Wave, Nelson has been able to successfully run farm stands serving communities that greatly appreciate his produce.

Hi, Nelson! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work with Wholesome Wave?

My name is Nelson Ceccarelli. We have a farm in Northford, CT. Iíve worked with Wholesome Wave for last two years. This year it was in a different role: we actually ran a farm stand at the Bridgeport Health Department and St. Vincentís Medical Center, whereas last year we supplied product but didnít actually run the markets ourselves.

What was the difference for you between supplying vs. running a farm stand?

Well I think there would have been a bigger advantage for both Wholesome Wave and ourselves this year, because they could concentrate on all the things they do without being directly involved in buying farm produce for farmersí markets and trying to judge what they need to bring every week. For us, we would bring product in and if we had any that we didnít use, we could bring it back and use it the next day somewhere else. It was probably a bigger job for them to figure out what were the appropriate quantities to purchase.

Are you the only producer at the Bridgeport market?

Yes. Itís kindof an interesting and unique setup, in that itís a WIC Certified farm stand. At both St. Vincentís and the Bridgeport Health Department, we work closely along with Wholesome Wave to set up a farm stand. I am the only vendor. As long as itís grown in CT, I can bring it there. Now, we grow a wide variety of produce, but we do not grow fruit. So we were able to buy fruit from local orchards Ė people we do business with Ė and bring it to the farmersí market to complement our produce.

Tell me a little bit about Ceccarelli Farms, and how you came to start these farm stands.

Well, my grandfather bought the farm in 1912. He had 12 children (8 boys and 4 girls), and the 8 brothers farmed here continuously until the mid-90ís. As they got older some of the brothers retired, and in í97 we were able to buy out the rest of the folks in the family that wanted to retire. So we were able to keep the farm, which was a big thing that we wanted to do. We never did any retail, it was always wholesale.

The main difference now is that, if my uncles worked all day and at the end of the day they made $1, they split that $1. And if they didnít, well they just didnít make any money. But now, itís just me with hired help and at the end of the day I have to pay that help, whether that dollar came in or not. And fundamentally, thatís a lot different. Because they could have a day where they werenít able to take in a dollar, and it might not be pleasant but theyíd survive it. But when that happens with me, I have to pay the guys. I canít tell them at the end of the day, ďWell, you didnít get paid today!Ē

The wholesale market on small acreage is not easy. In my opinion, you have to have large acreage to really come out on top because you canít make enough packages. Thereís just not enough land to do that. We didnít want to drop what we already do (we have some good customers), but we wanted to complement that and maybe have a way of increasing some of the profit margins. And the farmersí markets and the little retail stand we put up have really helped a lot.

How does your partnership with Wholesome Wave work now?

Over the winter we were contacted to see if we would have an interest in actually running the farm stands ourselves, rather than just supplying them. My first reaction was no, we probably wouldnít because Bridgeport is 30 miles from where we are. Itís traditionally been more of a wholesale than a resale operation for us, and I just wasnít certain that it would be advantageous for us. Then we talked it over here and said, wholesale hasnít always worked the best Ė we should give this a try. And our experience with these markets has been a ball! It was financially successful, and the best part for me Ė and this probably sounds corny Ė was that we really felt like we were serving an area that was under-served, as far as the availability of fresh produce. Where I live there are farm stands all over the place, but when you drive to Bridgeport you see most people just donít have that availability. And working with Wholesome Wave, we did a great deal of promotion for those two locations. We got a lot of people out! Having the farm stand at that location without the support of the Health Department and Wholesome Wave probably would not have worked. All the things we have there would have been the same, but it would not have been successful. And so the whole thing was just a rewarding experience, we really enjoyed both of those locations.

Was there a special moment that stuck out in your interactions with the community?

When we got started this year, what happened in CT was that somehow the WIC checks didnít get printed on time, and we were supposed to start these markets July 8th or 9th. When youíre in an area where the Bridgeport Health Department is, thereís no cash there; people just donít have money to go to that farm stand. We were all disappointed, and the Health Department really wanted this thing to get off. They somehow came up with a way to fund some $5 dollar coupons. They said, you might have to wait a month to get your money, which was no problem.

I saw the commitment on the Health Department and Wholesome Waveís part to make this work. Because it is a team. Even on the wholesale side, we always feel like weíre a team, that we can produce something and that those folks help us market it on the wholesale side, and itís really the same at that farm stand. To do the outreach to get people to know theyíre there, and get people out: thatís more than half the battle. That is when I knew that this thing was going to work.

What things are you particularly proud of accomplishing through this partnership?

The farm stand at the Health Department is really beautiful. Itís quite something what they did there, itís impressive. We did the Market Box Program on 2 different days there. Thatís a program where we put a box together, say with a $12 value, and we deliver them. And then Wholesome Wave delivers those to different locations where theyíre purchased for half price (subsidized through Wholesome Waveís incentive program) by people that are looking for fresh food. That was a lot of fun too, because I think we were reaching more people. I donít know exactly where those went, but I assume some of them go to people that maybe donít have the availability to get out to one of these locations. So we were able to reach even more people with that Market Box program.

How has working with Wholesome Wave affected your business?

Itís helped our bottom line, thereís no question Ė itís been a big boon for us. Weíre able to get a better value for the product by working with Wholesome Wave. Whatís transpired now is, if I took total sales from those two those farmersí market locations and the Market Box Program and totaled it up as one customer, they would then be our second largest customer.

Are you looking forward to working with Wholesome Wave again next year?

Iím hoping they invite me back. Itís honestly a privilege to work with those folks, and I sincerely mean that. Itís a fact. I really canít say enough about what they did to make that work. Maybe Iím repeating myself, but I could set up the best thing in the world and without the support and the outreach that those folks did, itís nothing. Iím telling you, I know what it would have been. And you know that effort, it really makes you want to go. You want these things to work for everybody, and it has. And I almost didnít do it!

What made you question this program initially?

The locations were 30 miles away, each way. And we really are busy with the wholesale. Weíre a busy operation, weíre growing a lot of acres, 125.

The thing about having our wholesale operation is, we have enough product. Thereís not much that we donít grow that I would have to buy for the markets; the only thing we do buy is the apples. And we didnít have to do that, but we felt that that was something was complementary and that people would want fresh fruit so we wanted to bring it. But because we grow a lot of things and we grow enough volume, thereís never weeks that I say, I canít bring tomatoes this week, or I canít bring string beans, or I canít bring corn Ė because weíre growing enough acres that we can do that.

Would you recommend working with farmersí markets or farm stands that have market incentives like Wholesome Waveís Double Value Coupon Program to other friends and farmers?

Well, think about that: if a person comes with a WIC check, and Wholesome Wave has a way of taking that $3 and making it $6, not only is that person who really needs fresh fruits and vegetables benefitingÖbut theyíre also helping me survive! I think itís quite an interesting concept, because itís helping both. Youíre really helping me to be viable, and youíre also helping people in communities that need help. What could be better than that? Youíre really getting quadruple bang for your buck, in my opinion, because youíre helping two groups. Youíre helping the producers, and youíre helping those consumers that really need the help. So if youíre asking me would Iíd recommend it, yeah. Itís really kind of a no-brainer.

Quite honestly, there are no drawbacks except one: for us, the hard part is finding good people to go to the markets every week. Because you may get some college kids this summer, and next summer, theyíve gotten a real job.

Is there anything from your farm that you noticed people really loved this summer?

We did really well with every item, but Iíd say the biggest seller would be sweet corn. People go crazy for that. But we do do some stuff that a lot of people donít do. We have okra, collards, cabbageÖand if you get in the right neighborhoods, which those markets are in, those are very popular items.