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Cultivating Crops and Connections

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Boston Globe called him the “Produce King,” while the Boston Herald tagged him “The Willy Wonka of Produce.”

The monikers are apt.

Henry Wainer, 56, the Son part of Sid Wainer & Son, is president of the fastest-growing specialty produce and specialty food company in the United States.

An importer as well as an exporter, Mr. Wainer’s New Bedford company distributes his top-of-the-line produce to 23,000 of the nation’s cutting-edge restaurants on a daily basis.

Mr. Wainer gathers his goods from all over the world as well as locally. “I have a personal relationship with practically every farmer in the Northeast,” he says. “Everything I sell is from a farm. I don’t think there are five items in this building that aren’t farmed somehow.”

The company’s relationships with farmers grow stronger every year. “I purchase only the first pick of the harvest from farms dedicated to quality,” Mr. Wainer says.

Daniel Bruce, executive chef of the Boston Harbor Hotel and the hostelry’s chic Meritage Restaurant, says, “I’ve been buying off Henry for 16 years. And I’m only as loyal as the quality of the product.”

Sid Wainer & Son has about 500 employees (including workers in recently opened branches in England and Japan). Better than two-thirds of the workers are trained chefs, some of whom travel throughout the country aiding local chefs with their menus, while others are at the New Bedford headquarters at 2301 Purchase St., talking into headsets to buyers and purveyors around the world.

A short car ride from the Wainer building stands a greenhouse where an inner-city farming concept is under way. Microgreens — sprouts, really — are growing there under glass: baby beets, celery and arugula.

Chefs like the Boston Harbor Hotel’s Bruce snap up the mini-crop. “I use it as a topping to my salads,” Chef Bruce says. “They look great, taste great.”

In 1983, Mr. Wainer married Marion Goldman. They have four children and live in Dartmouth. Are any of the offspring showing signs of being a chip off the old block?

Mr. Wainer shrugs as he replies. “Anything I wanted to become was OK with my dad. And it’s the same with me and my children.”

Whichever way you look at it, Mr. Wainer has enough on his plate to keep a dozen executives busy. But he’s added more.

Four years ago, Mr. Wainer hatched another food idea: to have local farmers grow a variety of crops previously unknown in SouthCoast fields.

He puts it this way: “Our mission was to grow a variety of produce that’s never been grown in the Northeast. And deliver it to consumers three days fresher than they’ve ever gotten it before.”

In order to experiment with soil and climate, Mr. Wainer purchased Dartmouth’s 23-acre Bettencourt Farm four years ago. Today, the farm looks as the Bettencourts could only dream it would one day.

Picture this: a local farm with six varieties of melons, seven varieties of legumes and 17 varieties of tomatoes, including one from Belgium that looks like a miniature watermelon.

“We did 27 varieties of berries,” Mr. Wainer continues. “We’ve had a very successful harvest of blackberries. Why are we bringing berries out of Southern California when we can grow them right here?”

Mr. Wainer did his berry homework. He says, “I went to a variety of farms growing raspberries, blackberries, currants and loganberries. We plated 27 varieties and now we know what grows in our soil and climate. Now we want other farmers to grow the fruit for us.”

“This is not a money-making plan for us,” Mr. Wainer continues. “It’s a test to see what foreign products can be grown in New England rather than having it shipped to our company from places like Europe.”

Given the enormity of farm’s plantings (300 varieties of vegetables, fruits and herbs), we asked Mr. Wainer to supply us with a partial list of the produce. It includes fresh soy beans (edamame); lemon cucumbers; Opal, Thai, and Spicy Globe basils; African Blue herbs; heirloom tomatoes; Long Island cheese pumpkins; purslane, epazote (used in Mexican cooking); garlic chives; and a range of melons, such as Galia, Charantais, Cranshaw, Asian, and yellow watermelon.

As a farmer, has Mr. Wainer experienced any disappointments? Plants that just wouldn’t grow?

“There have been disappointments,” he answers. “You deal with them and go on trying new things.”

Mr. Wainer also owns the Fudrucker Farm, about 40 acres across the road from the Bettencourt Farm.It has a greenhouse in which 20 fig trees appear to be thriving. “There are 200 figs on those trees,” Mr. Wainer adds.

The 1800s farmhouse has been restored and redecorated (by Mrs. Wainer) into a picture-postcard residence.Chefs will be invited to spend time on the farm, walking the fields and picking vegetables which they may then turn into dishes in the farmhouse’s fully equipped kitchen.

All told, the Jansal Valley Farm (Jansal means blossoms of the sun in Japanese) is a promise of the farm of the future, a very green and happy place.

And Henry Wainer loves it. “It’s been my passion,” he says.

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