VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- Farm Fresh Markets here is making a big thing of locally grown produce this year -- bigger than ever before.
The chain doubled the size of an outside display of locally grown vegetables to more than 16 feet, and rolled it out to most of its stores every single weekend instead of every other weekend, as it did last summer. Some stores featured the expanded displays in their lobbies all week long. And sales are gratifying, officials said. Item to item, sales are up 15% to 20% during the local growing season over sales of the same varieties sourced from other parts of the country, or world, earlier in the year. For instance, sales of locally grown cucumbers sell that much more briskly than those brought in from Florida earlier in the summer.
Yellow and green squash, red, white and russet potatoes, sweet potatoes, cabbage, green peppers, green beans and cucumbers -- all Virginia-grown -- present a striking wall of color against the store's front. It's the first thing customers see when they get out of their cars in the parking lot. The display got even more colorful and impressive when tomatoes, corn, watermelon and cantaloupe came into season here.
Inside and out, point-of-sale materials alert customers that the products are grown in Virginia. A large, durable, vinyl banner that's at least five feet long hangs over the display, proclaiming, "Virginia Grown Fresh Produce."
"The outside display creates excitement, and as customers become more educated about fruits and vegetables, they're demanding local products," said Chris Van Parys, vice president of produce operations at the 37-unit chain, a Supervalu subsidiary. "Studies we've run show that 80% of our customers want locally grown produce and are willing to pay more for it, but of course they don't have to pay more because we've taken the freight out. It's right in our backyard.
"You can see your numbers ramp up when the locally grown products come in. We can run green beans out of Florida at the same price as green beans out of Virginia, and we'll see a spike in sales of the Virginia beans. It can only be tied to the fact that they're locally grown."
Van Parys pointed out that when watermelon and corn are in season here, the sales of those two products zoom at least 20% over sales of their counterparts brought in from other places. But Farm Fresh does a particularly good job of educating customers about the local products, he said.
"The Department of Agriculture is very forthcoming with any point-of-sale materials we want. We use their posters and banners, and then we also post the name of the farmer who's our supplier. We pull almost entirely from the Eastern Shore and almost exclusively from one grower, a third- or fourth-generation farmer. Farm Fresh has dealt with him for years."
The chain also uses the Department of Agriculture's Virginia Grown logo in its ad circular. One week, the circular featured kale, collard greens, green beans, green cabbage, zucchini, yellow squash and super select cucumbers at special prices. Right above photos of the products, with Virginia Grown logos alongside, was this line: "Farm Fresh Supports Local Farmers!"
The typical Farm Fresh unit carries 450 items in its produce department, and while only a few varieties are locally grown, they still make up nearly 20% of produce sales during the local growing season, Van Parys said. That's partially because they're such high-tonnage items like cucumbers and corn and watermelon, he explained.
This is not the first year, by any means, the state has launched a Virginia Grown campaign. Like many other state agriculture departments [see "Greetings from the Produce State," SN, Oct. 30, 2000], it began several years ago to promote local fresh crops by helping retailers and food-service operators draw attention to them with ads and POS materials, and by paving the way between retailers and suppliers to open distribution roadblocks.
"I can tell you that this year they've been particularly aggressive. They're really getting behind the products, and they've been relentless in getting retailers out to tour farms so they get to know the growers, packers and shippers. And that vinyl banner they put out this year is high quality. Very colorful. It's a representation of all the Virginia-grown produce," Van Parys said.
The Department of Agriculture consistently does a good job of coordinating things, he added.
With a new and aggressive approach this year, the Department of Agriculture also recruited some of the best-known chefs in the area to talk up Virginia-grown fruits and vegetables. In fact, the campaign this year has the support of nationally recognized chefs like Todd Gray at Equinox, Washington, and Mark Herndon, chef at the Executive Mansion, Richmond, Va.
"Philosophically and practically, I support locally grown produce. It has a better, fresher flavor. There is nothing like the flavor, for example, of strawberries from the Rappahannock River region of Virginia. I was making a lot of strawberry shortcakes in June, and now I'm using a lot of local peas and beans," Gray told SN earlier this summer.
He's using the Department of Agriculture's colorful "Virginia Grown" logo on Equinox's menus.
In addition to Farm Fresh, other supermarket retailers participating in the Virginia Grown campaign with POS materials and dramatic displays include Ukrop's Super Markets, Community Pride Market, Harris Teeter, Kroger, Winn-Dixie, Food City and Magruder, a Virginia Department of Agriculture spokeswoman said.