Sharon Freas pushed her cart through the produce section of the Giant Food store in Herndon last weekend, buying the raw ingredients for today's Thanksgiving feast for her family. At the spot where the store sells a few specialty and organically grown produce items -- mushrooms, poblano chilies and the like -- she reached for a packet of organically grown thyme, enough to flavor stuffing for a table of eight.
Not long ago, growing produce organically -- without using pesticides or other artificial treatments -- was a fringe pursuit. Organic harvests were reaped by a few bohemians on small farms, to be consumed by patrons of a handful of like-minded restaurants and groceries.
But the organic sprigs of thyme that will land in Sharon Freas's stuffing are the result of a sprawling commercial enterprise. Freas's thyme made it through an international trade network of inspections, refrigerated trucks, international air freight and global positioning satellites.
In the past decade, some of those early, small organic produce farmers have become big-time merchants. Charlie Coiner, the co-owner of the company that supplied Freas's thyme, is one of them.
"Organic has become the hottest marketing weapon out there for food companies, whether they're small or massive," said Ellen Haas, a former Agriculture Department official who is the chief executive of Foodfit.com, a Web site about healthful eating. Indeed, some of the biggest agricultural companies in the world have jumped on the organic bandwagon as a way to improve profit margins in a business that is as competitive as any out there.
"They see it as a growing market, where so much of the food industry is static," Haas said.
Organic food is a $9 billion worldwide industry. It is becoming more modern and regulated; last month the Agriculture Department established standards for what is organic and how such food must be processed.
Fifteen years ago, organic produce distribution in Washington consisted of farmers like Coiner unloading their goods from the back of their trucks. Now, it is a thoroughly modern chain of commerce.
Coiner, now 50, is the latest of seven generations of Virginia farmers, but he doesn't quite match the stereotypes that designation conjures. After college, in the 1970s, he did volunteer work in Guatemala, where he picked up a liver parasite; in being treated, he got to know Patch Adams, the unconventional doctor later portrayed in a movie of the same name.
Starting in 1977, in what he calls his "hippie-dippy days," he ran an 80-acre farm in Jefferson County, W. Va., feeding Adams's patients and delivering organic herbs, lettuce, strawberries and tomatoes in his 1962 GMC van to a handful of restaurants and groceries in the District. He initially grew produce without chemical treatments so Adams could test whether patients were having allergic reactions to pesticides. Coiner's cultivation methods then were rare.
"There were not many out there," said Nora Poullion, an early customer of Coiner's who was one of the first to use organic ingredients at her D.C. restaurant, Restaurant Nora. "He was one of two farmers that were willing to grow organically and do things differently."
Coiner scratched out a decent living, but in 1989 he merged with Cooseman's, a European firm that supplies radicchio, Belgian endive and other produce from across the Atlantic. He and partner Lolo Mengel then turned their attention more toward importing and distributing produce -- organic and otherwise -- rather than just growing it.
He and Mengel own the majority of the U.S. operations of Cooseman's, and their importation goes well beyond the herbs and lettuce they started with. Their private company is now the largest distributor of specialty produce in town -- the mover of relatively small amounts of purple potatoes and baby zucchini. Coiner declined to disclose any financial information about the firm.
What began as a small farm is now a company with 60 employees in the District, 100 more in Miami, and about a million dollars a month in revenue, Coiner said. He started out growing 10 items and now distributes 600. Walking through the chilled storage rooms in the former meat-packing facility off Bladensburg Road, he pointed to a box of baby fennel.
"I once grew fennel on my farm in the '80s and I couldn't give it away," he said. "Now it's a great seller for us."
And food that was once supplied to Nora's and a few other places now goes to mainstream grocery stores like Giant and Safeway, and major restaurant suppliers like Sysco. In the Washington area, when a person eats vegetables, organic or not, whether at home or at a restaurant, there's a good chance the stuff came through the chilly rooms at Cooseman's facility in Northeast.
In the Pipeline
Along the way, Coiner has developed close relationships with several farmers in a handful of U.S. states as well as in Peru, Israel, Mexico, Costa Rica and Colombia who are his biggest suppliers. Sharon Freas's thyme got its start on one of those farms.
In the 1990s, Fernando Tavera, a farmer who sells to Coiner, was looking to expand. He already was growing herbs and lettuce on his family's former cattle ranch and bought a patch of the highlands -- first farmed by the Incas about 600 years ago -- as a way to expand into different vegetables.
"The Inca land turned out to be perfect for organic farming," Tavera said on a recent visit to Washington to buy some farm equipment with Coiner's help.
Days before Freas had even sketched out her shopping list, Tavera's workers picked the thyme, sent it through an in-house inspection line and put big bundles in boxes that refrigerated trucks carried to the airport in Lima. After more inspections, the thyme was loaded into the belly of a commercial flight to Miami, then onto a Thursday-morning United Airlines flight from Miami to Dulles International Airport.
Jose Luis Santos was on his final run of the day when he pulled his refrigerated box truck into United's cargo dock at Dulles at 11 on Thursday morning. He had started at 4 a.m., delivering produce to grocery stores in the area. But this run was to bring in the produce, including the sprigs of thyme, from around the world to his employer, Cooseman's.
A United staffer brought Santos big boxes of frisee lettuce, dill, marjoram and thyme on a forklift, and he pushed them into place in the truck. At 11:25, he took his place in the cab of the truck, with the refrigeration unit behind rumbling like a helicopter just overhead. Santos used the radio feature on his cell phone to check in with the dispatcher to make sure there were no more pickups to make at Dulles.
"Santos, Santos, do we have anything from American, or just United?" he said.
There were no more pickups, and Santos, a Honduran immigrant who has worked at Cooseman's for 10 years, set off for the Cooseman's distribution center in Northeast Washington. In a decade driving trucks around the Washington area, he has learned a few tricks for avoiding traffic; on the way out to Dulles, he noticed a traffic backup on Interstate 66 going the other direction. So he exited onto the Capital Beltway, planning to zip around and enter the city on Interstate 395.
It was a mistake. After a couple of miles on the Beltway, traffic came to a near-halt. After a few minutes of barely moving, he heard his radio chirp up. "What's going on, Santos?"
The dispatcher was monitoring where the truck was with a satellite system that tracks the fleet.
"We're stuck, man. There's an accident or something," Santos said.
"Take 50," said the dispatcher.
Just as the truck neared the exit for Highway 50, however, traffic cleared. As it turned out, it was an accident that caused the 20-minute delay. Santos drove in on 395 after all, and he didn't face any problems until the intersection of Bladensburg Road and New York Avenue, two blocks from the Cooseman's headquarters. Road work there cost another 25 minutes; Santos arrived at about 1 p.m., the usually 50-minute trip having taken an hour and 35 minutes.
Onto the Shelf
Within an hour of Santos backing into the loading dock at Cooseman's, Gilma Sanchez and her staff of packers, with hairnets, rubber gloves and thick clothes to keep them warm in the refrigerated room, were transferring the big boxes of thyme, marjoram and dill into small packets for sale on grocery shelves. There are separate processing lines, one for packing organic produce, one for conventional produce, so that chemical residue from the latter doesn't contaminate the former.
Meanwhile, in the back office, emotions were running high as sales staff took orders during one of the busiest weeks of the year, the run-up to Thanksgiving. One worker was frustrated at how rude those placing orders were. The occasional expletive rang out across the room, crowded with salespeople speaking into headsets.
One of the orders was from Giant store No. 272, in Herndon, for, among other things, thyme and dill. The next morning, before most people were awake, Cooseman's drivers were packing up the order and delivering it to the store, where the herbs were soon put on the shelf for Sharon Freas to pick up, less than a week from the time they were picked in a different hemisphere.
Yet the evolution from a merchant delivering vegetables in a battered GMC van into a global trader hasn't fazed Coiner. As far as he's concerned, he's still in the same business he always was.
"I made one of those decisions on a night when I was sick 20 years ago -- that I would be involved with getting food to people," Coiner said. "I've had to learn how to be a businessman to make it viable."