Selling fruits and vegetables homegrown by the farmer down the road is turning into a regular cottage industry for retailers.Locally grown produce, properly promoted, benefits consumers, retailers and growers, according to produce executives.More and more produce executives are also realizing that buying locally plays well into their micromarketing goals. Accordingly, they are taking their marketing

Selling fruits and vegetables homegrown by the farmer down the road is turning into a regular cottage industry for retailers.

Locally grown produce, properly promoted, benefits consumers, retailers and growers, according to produce executives.

More and more produce executives are also realizing that buying locally plays well into their micromarketing goals. Accordingly, they are taking their marketing programs to new heights, such as placing the emphasis on individual farmers as their partners in a growing, community-oriented movement.

While some retailers are sophisticated enough to arrange growing contracts with smaller growers, others are taking the strategy even further down to its grass roots, and are actually buying extras from their customers' gardens.

Independents, as well as the largest chains, are staking out successful niches.

"We promote that which is grown locally," said Kevin Carter, senior buyer at Wal-Mart Supercenters in Bentonville, Ark.

He said Wal-Mart tries to foster the existence of small farmers in its many rural markets.

It's all part of the retailing giant's attempts to tailor its mix to different areas of the country, he added. Carter spoke about the strategy during the Annual Produce Conference in Monterey, Calif., last month.

"Being regionally correct in our merchandising offering is very important to Wal-Mart Supercenters. We need to promote the regionally important items. For example, people in the South want larger greens than those in the North," he said.

"When we have been regionally correct, and when we have been adequately responsible following the demographic needs of the consumers, the consumers have most often voted favorably with their wallets," he said. "Local and regional buying is one way we distinguish ourselves from the competition."

At the other end of the retailing spectrum, eight-store Osborne Grocery Co. in Denton, Texas, has developed a strong local deal of its own, for many of the same reasons.

"I find the customer really wants to know the origin of the produce," said Scott Lindgren, produce director. "Customers appreciate it, and it gives local people a market for their products."

He said Osborne Grocery Co. has developed a longtime working relationship with one particular local grower. "They do a good job, with good quality," he said.

Generally, Lindgren buys squash, cantaloupe and watermelon from the grower.

This year's drought has destroyed the grower's cantaloupe crop, however, "but we'll be buying their other crops," he said. Lindgren also sources quite a bit from local people who have backyard gardens.

"We buy tomatoes, okra, squash," he said. "Ninety percent of the people we buy from are our customers." The locally grown products are featured in a separate section, with signs to let customers know they are homegrown. "It gives the departments a farmer's market flair," he said. "Local produce knits the relationship with the retailer, consumer and grower," said Mark Vanderlinden, manager of produce merchandising at Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y.

Price Chopper has two distinct programs for obtaining local produce. One is to buy from area growers. The second involves working with local 4-H clubs, Vanderlinden said. The retailer supplies clubs with seeds, then sells the produce the children grow. "It's a nice relationship," he said. Like other retailers, Vanderlinden said consumers appreciate the "local" connection. They also respond well to the freshness of a product that's grown within the area, rather than shipped in from across the country.

At least one Midwestern retailer has seen the supply of local produce dry up, as people have neither the time nor the inclination for large gardens anymore. "We do local produce on a very limited scale," said Jerry Edwards, vice president for C&R Supermarkets in Macon, Mo. "It's nothing like it used to be five or 10 years ago. We just don't have people growing like they used to." People are still gardening, but they aren't growing extra anymore, he said. "We used to have people come in, wanting to sell us tomatoes and turnips," he said. C&R Supermarkets will still sell the local product it gets, because shoppers like the homegrown aspect, he said. Edwards said he does have one local grower who grows large muskmelons, along with others who bring in tomatoes and sweet corn. Shoppers are so pleased with Thriftway Stores' local produce program they discuss it during consumer research surveys, said Bill Earnest, produce merchandising manager for the Seattle-based group of independents. "We buy a lot of local produce," he said. "We've been doing it since I've been here, for at least 18 years." Homegrown programs benefit everyone involved, he said. "We've always made an effort to support local growers. And I just think it's a positive thing to the consumer. Consumers are interested in local produce. "It's an indication that product is fresher. It adds a neat touch," Earnest said. Thriftway features local produce in ads, along with in-store signs. "Additionally, some of our stores work out their own programs independently," he said. On some occasions, Thriftway will take promotions a step further. "If we find a good story, we'll get more involved," he said. Thriftway will feature growers, their families, farming histories or growing practices on more extensive signage. Last year, for example, Thriftway featured one grower who brought in a late cherry variety. Stores featured 2-foot by 2-foot signs about the grower and what made the cherry unique, he said. Giant Food in Landover, Md., has been so pleased with its local produce program that the chain gave it top billing on the cover of its annual report.

The unusually colorful report cover also marked the chain's 60th year in business.

"Local produce is a very current topic. We introduced it a couple of years ago, and last year our local produce program really took off and became very popular," Mark Roeder, a spokesman, told SN. "We're certainly expecting it to remain very popular this summer as well.

"The occasion of our 60th anniversary really presented us with an opportunity to do something special and really creative this year," he said. "Produce just lends itself to so much color that it was an exciting thing to put on the cover."

The report pictures a Giant employee working below a banner that reads "Locally Grown Produce." On the back cover, a consumer is shown looking through a display of melons marked "local."

Wal-Mart seeks the most direct relationships with its local farmers, according to Carter. That can include direct-store delivery of products. "We are equally as willing to buy on contract," he said. "We plan ahead before planting times and before farmer choices critical to their returns, in order to build long-term relationships with local growers and shippers. "We have definite category management recommendations, but we believe strongly in having our buyers understand the growing business, and we believe strongly in having our growers understand the retailer business," Carter said. Wal-Mart demands the same quality from its local growers as it does for its corporate accounts. It takes a long-term view of its relationships with local growers, he said. "It's about growing their sophistication for the future. We support the local grower with our marketing advice, company resources and financial support, if necessary, because we view that grower as an important part of merchandising for the future," he said. Thriftway's Earnest said he doesn't arrange contracts with growers, nor does he work much with direct-store deliveries.

"Like most of this business, it's done by a shake of the hand," he said. Most growers go through the warehouse of Thriftway's wholesaler, Associated Grocers in Seattle. "Most local growers don't have the trucks to make direct-store deliveries," he explained.

Like other retailers, Earnest said he has developed relationships with certain growers over the years.

"We can't support every local grower, but there are those we've come to work with every year." For Price Chopper, which has stores in four states, it's generally easier for local growers to deliver direct to stores, rather than the warehouse, Earnest said. Country Counter, Richfield, Ohio, sends out trucks to one local sweet corn grower, to ensure the product is in stores the same day it's harvested. "With corn that's key, because the longer it sits the more the sugar will starch up and it loses its flavor and sweetness," said Bruce Vaughn, vice president of perishables. "There's a very distinct taste advantage locally grown corn has vs. corn that's shipped in."

Country Corner has worked with that particular grower for almost 40 years, he said. "We have a long-term relationship established with him."