GETTING FRESH

Graves' Supermarkets has cultivated a relationship with its local high school's farm program that enables the retailer to get the freshest possible produce and also strengthens its ties to the community.Community ties, the closeness to the product as it's grown, the gentlemen's agreements, the lower costs and access to shiny apples right off the tree characterize the unique retailer-school partnership.

Graves' Supermarkets has cultivated a relationship with its local high school's farm program that enables the retailer to get the freshest possible produce and also strengthens its ties to the community.

Community ties, the closeness to the product as it's grown, the gentlemen's agreements, the lower costs and access to shiny apples right off the tree characterize the unique retailer-school partnership. The nature of the relationships adds up to one plus after another for the family-owned supermarket company, especially since its store here in Presque Isle, Maine lies in the shadow of a Wal-Mart Stores supercenter that moved in practically next door, officials at the five-unit independent said.

What's most important, they said, is that customers love everything about the arrangement. The products are high quality, fresh and offered at a reasonable price. At the same time, customers see that Graves' is helping teach the younger generation a thing or two about food -- how it's grown and how it's sold -- and is putting money back into the local economy.

"Many of our customers have kids attending that school and some of them are involved in the farm program," said Charlie Beck, manager at the Graves' store here in Presque Isle, where the company also has its headquarters. "So, they're anticipating the high school's crops even before they're harvested. When strawberry season comes, it's hard to keep them on the shelf. So if we run out of a product from the farm, we roll out a big sign that says when we'll have it again. Customers want to know. The sign might say that we'll have strawberries again by 10 o'clock the next morning. There's sometimes a lag. For example, when it rains, they [the students] stop picking. It's not because they're afraid of the rain, but because the berries, if they're picked when they're wet, tend to mold."

While the high school farm supplies only a small percentage of the store's total produce over the year, there are seasonal items -- like the farm's strawberries -- that customers watch for, Beck said. He added that there's a particularly strong sense of community here in this small town near the Canadian border.

Presque Isle, a farming community with a population of less than 25,000, lies at least three hours away from any sizeable city like Bangor or Portland. Possibly because of their own community ties, people here are particularly happy to be able to support the high school farm and to buy other products that are locally grown.

Beck said his customers had anticipated apple season this year because word was out that the school's harvest was going to be big. This year's was the farm's biggest apple harvest yet. There were seven varieties, and Graves' displayed them in tote bags in a 5-by-4-foot display at the head of the produce aisle.

"This was the first year the apples really produced for us. It takes a while, a few years," said Aaron Buzza, the farm program coordinator at the Presque Isle Regional Career & Technology Center at Presque Isle High School.

Actually, an oversupply this year spurred the students to bake apple pies for sale. Graves' has sold some of those in its bakery and may make room for some in its frozen cases, Beck said. Next year, he expects to get fresh cider from the farm. The high school's vocational students have built a cider mill, which will be ready to start production next apple season.

It all started a few years ago, when the school was bequeathed 38 acres of land with the provision that a major part of it be made into a teaching farm. The 90 students now enrolled in the program are not from farm families, Buzza said.

"Those kids wouldn't have time to work on this one," he said. "These are some of our students who just want to know more about farming and food."

The students are not done when the crops are harvested. They have to figure out how to market the products. They're able to use their newfound merchandising skills at Graves' store, where they conduct occasional product demos.

"We're successful and a large part of it is because of the grocery stores' support," Buzza said.

His students will participate in Graves' Dec. 4 "Family Day," which kicks off the holiday season at the store.

"Charlie [Beck] is very supportive of our program. Earlier this fall, he was out here with his new produce manager to show her the farm operation."

Beck stressed his involvement and the necessity to get the produce manager acquainted with the farm and with Buzza so she'll know what's going to be available when. Both parties have benefited from easy back-and-forth communication as the various harvests get under way, he said.

The partnership generates savings for shoppers. For instance, buttercup squash at 49 cents a pound retail is a great value for Graves' customers, and that price also reflects a cooperative relationship that has grown up between the retailer and Buzza and Beck's other local suppliers.

"If Aaron has to unload a product, as he did this fall with buttercup squash, we'll take it if we possibly can. We take an appropriate markdown and pass on the savings to our customers. My normal retail for buttercup squash - if I order it from Hannaford [Graves' major wholesaler], with the distribution costs and all, I'd have to retail it at 99 cents and with not as much margin," Beck said.

He explained how it was possible for him at one store to take on a huge supply of squash.

"The man we buy our potatoes from let us store six 700-pound bins at his place at no charge. He had the space. We're a small enough community that we know or hear about these things."

Apples and squash are on display right now, but over the summer, Beck bought swiss chard, green beans, spinach and some corn as well as strawberries and cultivated blueberries from the school farm, which is inspected and licensed by the state.

"We can retail a lot of these products for 20 cents a pound less than if they came in through distribution channels because there's no distribution cost or packaging cost. Of course, all the products have to meet our quality standards," Beck said.

Season to season, Graves' buys as much produce as it can directly from local growers, but of the year's total supply, the larger percentage comes in wholesale.

"We don't think there's a better wholesale supplier around than Hannaford. Their quality is tops, and then these local products give us an edge. We took a hit when Wal-Mart came in, not more than 250 feet down the street, but our produce is far superior. Our customers came back," Beck said.

Graves' runs television commercials from time to time that show the high school students harvesting product. A headline says, "Fresh from the Farm Fields to our Tables."

ANOTHER HOT DEAL

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine -- Roasted potato bread, buttertop bread, braided cream cheese pastries and big cinnamon buns stand out in Graves' Supermarkets' in-store bakery.

They also represent a partnership with another high school that serves the retailer well.

"This is another undertaking that lets us offer something local," said Charlie Beck, store manager, at five-unit Graves' home store here. "It's all freshly made and it gives us something a little different. We're carrying 15 of their products, and probably will have more for the holiday season. Roasted potato, buttertop and honey-roasted wheat bread are good sellers. I take my margin down a little to make them more competitively priced." Beck described made-from-scratch products delivered several times a week from nearby Fort Fairfield [Maine] Middle High School's "Students Baking A Living Program." The products are merchandised on a rolling, wooden rack that the students made.

Graves' had been so satisfied with its partnership with the high school farm here that it wasn't a difficult decision when a couple of years ago the Fort Fairfield students proposed a deal involving their fresh-baked goods, said Beck, who has always been a champion of products produced in Maine.

The Students Baking A Living program aims to help prepare the teens for the work world as well as teach them how to bake, said Steven Golden, the program's director.

"We have four classes that cover introduction to baking, production, intensive production and marketing, and social responsibility, and some of our students take them all," Golden said. "We sell our products through three retailers -- an IGA and a Thriftway in addition to Graves' and we have a special promotion on our chocolate-almond coffee cakes at this time of year. Those will be sold in the stores and also in decorative tins by mail order."