In preparation for the 38th EcoFarm Conference, staff member Deborah Yashar interviewed Mark Mulcahy, creator of the altar of produce that is set up on the main stage each year for the duration of the conference. Read on for a unique and inspiriting perspective from this organic retail pioneer.
How did you get started with organic produce?
“In the late 70’s and early 80’s I was reading Rachel Carson, Wendell Berry and Edward Abbey which peaked my interest in a better world. I started working at a coop that didn’t sell any organic food, which was curious to me. ‘Someone’s gotta be growing food without using chemicals,’ I thought. I learned how to become a produce buyer at the San Francisco Produce terminal and a merchandiser and educator when I started working at Locust Street Market in Walnut Creek, California. I remember telling the owners that I would take the job of produce manager if I could create an all-organic produce department. They agreed at a rate of $10 an hour. At the time I had a job that was paying $25 an hour. I went home to my wife and told her ‘Hey, I’ve got an opportunity that is good news and bad news.’ She said that if I believe in it, I gotta go for it. It took seven years to create the first all-organic produce department in the Bay Area," finally finding the last organic item and shipping organic mushrooms from Pennsylvania to complete the task.
How did you get involved with EcoFarm Conference?
“When I first started in this industry we had to dream organics into existence. Now people walk around lamenting that every store carries organic food. I think it's fantastic! I truly believe that we as humans have the capacity to create the world we want. Dreaming is like falling in love. Sometimes you have to take a risk on that person. It takes work to make it happen. But you have to take risks to make something better than what you have.
I once read 'Cooking is like love, you either enter into it with total abandon or not at all.' It takes work to make it happen. But you have to take risks and let go to make something better than what you have.
I remember walking into EcoFarm the first time I attended and feeling like I had come home. I had found my tribe. I’ve heard many people say this over the years. I dove right in, joining the board and started teaching workshops about selling organic food for growers."
In 2002 Mark was honored with the Steward of Sustainable Agriculture or Sustie Award, together with Good Natured Grocery - the only retailer to ever earn this award.
How do you go about designing the altar?
"It starts with a dream, with an idea, and no idea is too far out. I already have one for this year. It will include lights...and squash. Seeds are always integral as everything begins with a seed. My wife always helps with the sketches and logistics before the altar ever goes up. Once I’m at EcoFarm, I always open it up for people to come help and contribute their creativity."
How does creating the produce altar relate to your work in the produce aisle?
"My motivation comes from the same place. I want to inspire you to buy a fruit or vegetable that you didn’t think you would buy. It’s also about teaching retailers - If you stack the boxes this way, it will change the way people shop and make your job easier. In essence I want to teach them what is going to make the best shopping experience so that people walk in and say “wow” and walk out changed from the experience!"
How did the produce aisle become your “candyland?”
"Growing up, I had never really tried good food until I was fourteen and started working in restaurants. I tasted Mexican food, then prime rib. I realized there was more to this world than I had ever even experienced and became more and more curious. When I started working in the coop I got to witness the seasons change through food. It had never really been on my radar screen before that. That was it. I went in for a summer job, and to this day, produce is what I do. I remember having a real peach for the first time. The sweet acid balance and that texture of a perfectly ripe O’Henry. Everyone in the world should have this experience. People say that I’m way too picky when it comes to produce - but no, I just know how it should taste when everything has come together in a moment of perfection. I know what joy tastes like and want others to as well.”
What motivates you to create the altar each year?
"I want to others to feel what’s its like to come home. This is my way to honor all the work that everybody does - to farmers, farmworkers, retailers, the chefs, the marketers...My way of saying thank you to them without much fanfare. Once it’s up, I go check on it once a day and then quietly take it down before the dance. It’s fun to overhear people talk about it. I enjoy making this small contribution."
Any final thoughts?
"I thought all these years that my calling was to be an activist to change the food system, until I realized it was really just to learn how to be a bringer of joy. I truly believe that a piece of food, and the flavors and textures and story behind it, can change someone’s day for the better. I can change a person’s day by sharing something wonderful with them. That is what my work is about."
Mark Mulcahy is an award winning retail consultant, educator, and organic advocate. He is the owner of Organic Options, which provides consulting for co-ops and independent retailers, distributors and consumers worldwide. With more than 35 years in the organic produce industry, Mark is well known for his creative merchandising, effective training techniques, passion for produce, successful financial strategies and dedication to sustainable agriculture.
Online registration for the 38th EcoFarm Conference opens Mon, October 30 at www.eco-farm.org
photo credit: Trav Williams of Broken Banjo Photography