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Valley produce flows again to Market Basket

  • Orlando Matul sorts potatoes at Szawlowski Potoato Farm in Hatfield.<br/>(Gazette/Yoshitaka Hamada)

    Orlando Matul sorts potatoes at Szawlowski Potoato Farm in Hatfield.
    (Gazette/Yoshitaka Hamada)

  • Cristian Fernandez picks up a bag of potatoes at Szawlowski Potato Farm in Hatfield.<br/>(Gazette/Yoshitaka Hamada)

    Cristian Fernandez picks up a bag of potatoes at Szawlowski Potato Farm in Hatfield.
    (Gazette/Yoshitaka Hamada)

  • Orlando Matul sorts potatoes at Szawlowski Potoato Farm in Hatfield.<br/>(Gazette/Yoshitaka Hamada)
  • Cristian Fernandez picks up a bag of potatoes at Szawlowski Potato Farm in Hatfield.<br/>(Gazette/Yoshitaka Hamada)

WHATELY — Gary Gemme, co-owner of Harvest Farm, said he got the call last week that he has been waiting on for six weeks. It was from a buyer for Market Basket, looking to order cabbage, kale and collard greens to fill the supermarket shelves that have been empty since mid-July due to a workers’ strike that ended last Thursday.

“I felt like having a party,” Gemme said Tuesday. “It was a great day.”

Harvest Farm and some other Pioneer Valley farms were left in the lurch in the middle of the growing season when Market Basket’s 71 stores shut down because employees refused to work in stores or warehouses. Some farmers were able to find other buyers to purchase their produce, but that meant a glut of certain kinds of produce on the market, said Kurt Wolter, a foreman at Harvest Farm on Long Plain Road.

The farmers let about 3 acres of cabbage and other greens rot in the field because they would have lost money by spending time and money harvesting. “There’s no reason to harvest if we can’t sell it,” Wolter said.

Frank Ciesluk of Ciesluk Farm in Deerfield said he was unable to sell about 25 to 30 acres of corn because Market Basket was closed. “That’s probably $80,000 we won’t have this year,” he said. “It hurt us really badly.”

Most of Market Basket’s 25,000 workers started walking off the job in mid-July, demanding the reinstatement of longtime CEO Arthur T. Demoulas, who was ousted by his rivals in the family-owned company. On Thursday, the supermarket chain announced it had reached a deal for Demoulas to buy the majority stake of the company for $1.5 billion.

The calls went out Friday for produce and other products needed to get Market Basket back in business.

“We’re thrilled,” Wolter said Tuesday. “We’ve been working double-time to fill the orders because they need to replenish their stores and warehouses.”

Philip Korman, executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture in South Deerfield, said there was some worry among Pioneer Valley farmers that the produce that normally got shipped to Market Basket would instead flood the local market here. He said he did not know if that actually happened during the six weeks Market Basket stores were closed.

Growers hurt

Ciesluk said he sells some corn at his farm stand at 564 Greenfield Road, but most of it he sells wholesale through two vendors, one of which is the Pioneer Valley Growers Association. Both vendors sold predominantly to Market Basket, so they would not buy the sweet corn he had grown. “It hurt us tremendously,” he said.

He was able to sell some corn to other buyers, including Whole Foods, but said he could not find enough buyers because the market was flooded.

Now that Market Basket is buying produce again, things are looking up as his vendors are once again calling to purchase his corn. “We’ll have corn until the first frost,” he said.

But the 25 to 30 acres of corn he had hoped to sell over the last six weeks is now sitting overripe in the fields and is no longer suitable for human consumption. “We’ll chop it for silage to feed cows,” he said, but he will get a fraction of the price he would normally get for good corn.

Ciesluk said glumly that he wished the workers would have held their strike in the winter.

“You expect wind or storms or hurricanes,” to hurt profits, he said, “but this was out of the blue.”

Back to normal

Szawlowski Potato Farms, which is based in Hatfield but farms land all over Hampshire and Franklin counties, also missed its usual orders from Market Basket. But the farm was among those that were able to avoid financial loss by finding other buyers to fill the void.

Shelley Szawlowski, who is in charge of the farm’s sales and business operations, said Market Basket stores shut down just before the potatoes were ready for digging.

“We usually have a truck going there every day” during the work week from the end of July through September, Szawlowski said. With each truck carrying about 40,000 pounds of potatoes, that means Szawlowski Potato Farms had to find buyers to purchase 200,000 pounds of potatoes each week.

They were able to do so, but now those potatoes will be loaded on trucks bound for Market Basket stores in eastern Massachusetts and New Hampshire. “They’re on our priority list of good customers,” she said. “They were a very good customer to work with. We missed them.”

She said they sent their first truckload last weekend immediately after hearing from the company’s buyer.

“They gave us a whole week’s worth of orders,” she said. “We’re pretty much elated.”

While Szawlowski was expecting the call, she said it was a relief when it actually came. Just as Market Basket higher-ups are concerned that customers who have been shopping elsewhere for the last six weeks will not come back to their stores, Szawlowski said she worried a little that the chain might start buying potatoes from other growers, such as those in Maine.

Contrary to those who have predicted that the shutdown will cost Market Basket customers in the long run, Wolter at Harvest Farm said he believes more people will want to shop at the chain that made history with its successful non-union strike.

“We anticipate that their volume will even increase with all the publicity this has received,” he said.

Gemme said he did not know how much money his farm lost by letting 3 of its approximately 100 acres go unharvested. “It’s not catastrophic — it’s somewhat significant,” he said. But in an industry that depends on weather and many other factors, a 3 percent loss is not that unusual. “We’re used to getting beat up. We roll with it.”

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