UPDATED: Does Greenling Really Help Local Farmers?

A few weeks ago, I posted an article on how much I love the Greenling service, a convenient way to get fresh fruits, vegetables, local goods and pre-prepped meal kits delivered right to your door.

Immediately after publication, more than one local farmer contacted me to say that, in their opinions, Greenling doesn't help them. In fact, they said it hurts local farmers. They did not want to go on-record with their comments, but suggested I look closer at where the produce is actually coming from.

Each Greenling order comes with a list of the vendors that supplied the goods. Here's a list of produce from a recent delivery, as well as the approximate distance of the suppliers from the 77002 zip code. These are ordered from closest to farthest away.

  • Bibb Lettuce, Bluebonnet Farms, 57 miles
  • Acorn Squash and Kale, Gundermann Acres, Wharton: 59 miles
  • Green Beans, Animal Farm, Cat Spring: 67 miles
  • Breakfast Radishes, Fruitful Hill Farm, Bastrop: 133 miles
  • Cutting Chicory, Tecolte Farm, Manor: 149 miles
  • Mesclun Salad and Garlic Chives, My Father's Farm, Sequin: 162 miles
  • Meyer Lemons, G&S Groves, McAllen: 344 miles
  • Apples, Top of Texas, Farwell: 613 miles

Top of Texas is a whopping 613 miles away. On the other hand, the items supplied were apples. It might be easier to grow them farther away from the blistering South Texas heat. 344 miles in the other direction, the lemons came from "The Valley," a Southern area known for growing a lot of hardy citrus.

As for the rest, the farthest one is My Father's Farm in Seguin: 162 miles away from the heart of Houston.

Ultimately, the question at-hand is, "What is local?" 25 miles from Houston? 50? Is it "local" as long as it comes from within Texas?

I spoke with Greenling CEO Bill Tolany, a former executive with Whole Foods. Tolany says that Greenling looks at more than just the local aspect. "It's about what's within the community and sourcing the best organic produce. We want what we supply to be high quality, local and sustainable."

He agrees that there's not really a definition of what "local" means. "There's definitely not a set number of miles and Texas is a larger state." Farmers in the area believe that Greenling is doing harm, not good.

UPDATED, 12/3/14, 3:15 p.m.: A farmer anonymously contributed the following insight in response to this question: "Why would you not want to work with Greenling?"

For the farmer, is the only man in our economy who has to buy everything he buys at retail--sell everything he sells at wholesale--and pay the freight both ways. --John F. Kennedy

"Greenling and other delivery services dumb down our branding and set the market price across other family farms, and not to the benefit of the farmer but to their business model. They are attractive to small farms that either don't want to do the marketing and distribution of their products themselves or who have broken the 'sell it before you grow it' rule.   

However, these farms typically struggle with making ends meet by yielding the retail dollar to the distributor. The term 'local' was never supposed to be something that had to be used as a marketing angle as far as farmers are concerned.  We assumed that 'local' was a natural description of real economy and was obvious to both neighbor and farmer.  Shrewd marketers have capitalized on making people feel good by providing what the consumers believe is product coming from and supporting a nearby farmer but in many instances this is not the case at all."

"They bring in produce from Austin and beyond, which I feel undermines our already fragile farm-to-market system here," said one anonymous source.

Tolany would not address the criticisms I relayed from the farmers who contacted me. "I can't really comment on that without knowing specifics. I'd be interested in how they've interacted with Greenling in the past."

Greenling's big advantage, of course, is that it delivers right to consumers' doorsteps. It's a service that a hard-working farmer likely doesn't have the time and resources to offer. Tolany says their service benefits farmers in that way by "providing an outlet to reach customers."

Ultimately, if you want to be sure you're supporting local farmers, and your definition of "local" is within 150 miles, the best bet is to make time to attend a farmer's market in the area.

Do I still love Greenling? Yes, I do. The convenience and quality is outstanding and the service is a boon when I'm too busy to go out. They always post who their vendors are for that week's shipment as well, so any concerned consumer can check online to see where their products are coming from.

However, there's nothing stopping me or anyone else from also supporting vendors at the farmer's markets around Houston and I absolutely will continue to do so. It's a good way to feed the conscience as well as the body.

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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook