Valley Bounty: Big Y
For Big Y, the commitment to serving neighbors food from local farms started at the beginning. In 1936, Paul D’Amour and his brother, Gerry D’Amour, used their family savings to o purchase the Y Cash Market. The market grew, and in the 1950s the brothers opened the first modern supermarket in Chicopee and named it Big Y Supermarket.
Adam Hession, Director of Produce and Floral at Big Y, notes the company’s history runs parallel to many of the farms and food businesses in our area. “Big Y is a family-owned business, like many of our local partners who are also family-owned businesses,” he says. That shared understanding of both business model and the challenges unique to family-owned businesses anchor an abiding commitment to local farms and food in the western Massachusetts region.
Hession continues, “The cool thing about our local program is that it originated with the owners of our company back in 1936. We still have some of our earliest local partners like Calabrese Farm in Southwick, who sold to Paul and Gerry D’Amour directly.”
Calabrese Farm started in 1950 by Joe and Eleanor Calabrese in Southwick. They attended the Springfield Farmers’ Market, which began on city property on Lyman Street in Springfield. It was a daily market that Paul and Gerry D’Amour attended, where they bought produce from Calabrese and the other farms in the market.
Tom and Donna Calabrese continue the family tradition of farming in Southwick. Tom Calabrese notes the advantages for farmers working with Big Y, “They are very fair people who try to help the farmer and pay a little better than the other chains.”
Donna Calabrese adds, “They know the value of locally-grown for their stores over chain distributors.” Hession explains the hyperlocal relationships between farm and store, “For example, if a farm in East Longmeadow services and provides food for our East Longmeadow store, that very much resonates with customers.” Produce managers take requests from shoppers seriously, and customers ask freely for favorite crops, like corn or apples from farms in their community.
There are advantages for the supermarket and the customer when Big Y sources produce locally. Tom Calabrese says, “If they buy locally, the produce is fresh. It’s often picked the day before or on the same day. If they buy it through the national or regional distributors, that produce might have been picked a week ago. Buying fresh, local produce gives Big Y two or three days of extra shelf life, compared to buying it from Florida.”
Hession says the current number of local farm partners is constantly growing. “We’re up to over 100 different local partners in the produce department and continuing to look for ways to grow the program and to bring more partners on board,” he notes.
Big Y connects with new farms and food producers in our region to arrive at an arrangement that serves both small farms and larger ones. The Big Y model adapts, so some farmers deliver directly to a couple of stores, while others bring tractor trailer trucks to the Big Y warehouse for all 72 locations.
Hession explains, “There’s a lot of different ways farms become Big Y suppliers. Sometimes one farmer talks about Big Y to another farmer. Other times, we rely upon the feedback from our store teams, who can start the process by approaching a local farm in western Massachusetts or Connecticut to see if there’s an interest in selling produce to Big Y.” There’s also a section on the Big Y website where a local farmer can approach the grocer directly.
Hession notes, “The sustainability of local produce not traveling too far to get into our stores is a way we can help to care for the environment within our community. Not only does our local sourcing program provide food for our community, but it also provides a revenue stream for our farm and small business partners.”
Occasionally Hession and his buyers visit local farms. “We have some very longstanding relationships with farms. It’s so much fun to visit a farmer on their land, walk their fields and listen to them talk about their business. We see their passion and their commitment to providing the best produce to our Big Y customers. It’s one of the best parts of our work,” he notes.
Another way Big Y ignites passion for local produce is to support the farmers of the future. There are only a couple of student farms in the country, and the UMass Student Farm partnership with Big Y is in its 10th season. Many graduates continue to work at local farms that sell to Big Y, while others have gone on to start farms of their own.
Jeff Vocatura, Big Y Local Sales Manager, comments, “The farm is all organic and consists of students picking and farming the three or four crops they desire from seed to harvest. Typically, they start in January, and we meet with the students to outline the year’s program. They grow a summer crop and a fall crop.”
The Amherst Big Y was the first store to offer UMass Student Farm produce. Today the farm sells to the Amherst, Northampton, Southampton, and Greenfield stores. Vocatura adds, “Three years ago, we started warehouse deliveries, so we can help the farm move through any excess product and to get their product into all of our stores.”
When asked about the joy of his work, Hession responds, “The most fun our store teams have is working with our business partners to find ways to better support our community. Selling the best quality produce to the customer while supporting local farms everyday meets our commitments.”
Lisa Goodrich is communications coordinator for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, (CISA). Learn more about local farms, food, and markets in our online guide at buylocalfood.org.