FIELD TO TABLE

Locally grown food has blossomed as factors converge to make it more appealing than ever. News reports have put questionable imports in the spotlight. FDA inspectors have been reduced in number. Food safety issues have hit the news. Shipping costs continue upward. Meanwhile, some purists who once sought organic products now say buying locally is what's best for the environment. With all that going

Locally grown food has blossomed as factors converge to make it more appealing than ever.

News reports have put questionable imports in the spotlight. FDA inspectors have been reduced in number. Food safety issues have hit the news. Shipping costs continue upward.

Meanwhile, some purists who once sought organic products now say buying locally is what's best for the environment.

With all that going on, consumers, who have long put a high value on freshness and taste, say they want to know where their food is coming from.

Meanwhile, government programs, educational workshops and funding from state agriculture departments have driven the expansion of farmers' markets.

“Farmers' markets have always been popular, but now with [consumers' ] fear of big farmers, their resurgence is particularly important,” said consultant Ray Klocke, former supermarket executive and president of The Klocke Advantage, Scottsdale, Ariz.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's latest figures, released in December 2006, show that 4,385 farmers' markets were in operation in the United States in 2006, up 7% from the year before, and up a whopping 40% from 2002. Sales reached $1 billion in 2005, the USDA says.

Some retailers have complained that farmers' markets cut into their sales at high harvest season, but others don't believe it. They told SN that anything that whips up excitement about fresh produce is a good thing, no matter how it comes about.

Indeed, one retailer, David Skogen, owner of Skogen's Festival Markets, LaCrosse, Wis., invited local farmers to set up right in his front yard, so to speak.

Did it cut into produce sales inside the store?

“Absolutely not. Just the opposite,” Skogen told SN earlier this month. “It builds store traffic, goodwill and good relationships with the farmers and with our customers.”

Skogen put the first farmers' market in one of his parking lots a few years ago. Now he has farmers' markets going strong in the parking lots of 10 of his 12 stores.

The latest one opened this June, in the parking lot of a brand-new 80,000-square-foot Festival store in Appleton, Wis. Within two weeks of its grand opening, the parking lot on Sunday morning was full of people shopping three aisles of farmers and other vendors set up there.

Now, every Sunday morning, come rain or shine, locals crowd into the farmers' markets in Skogen's parking lots, after which they often finish their shopping inside the stores.

“The first year, we knew we were taking a risk, but sometimes you just have to not be afraid of being wrong,” Skogen said.

“We definitely weren't wrong.”

Skogen ran his produce sales numbers year-to-date that year against the previous year's, factoring in a 10% increase, which had been the normal rate of growth, and found his produce sales in-store were up significantly from the previous year.

“By now we have 50 vendors in most of our lots on Sunday mornings. We'll definitely continue doing this. It's a fun thing,” Skogen said.

There's no big price competition either, Skogen explained.

“We're pretty competitive on most items.”

In the past year or so, consumers who previously had expected to get a bargain at farmers' markets are coming away talking about the rising prices.

Indeed, SN talked to a reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer last week who had sent out a team to compare the prices of five items between area farmers' markets and area supermarkets.

The findings were a little surprising. The farmers' market prices for the items averaged 28% higher than comparable items purchased at local supermarkets.

That price discrepancy, however, in no way is keeping shoppers away from farmers' markets.

They are as popular as ever, even as alternative ways of getting farm products to the table without a middleman spring up. Cooperatives and Community Supported Agriculture groups are growing in popularity. In Cleveland, there's a co-op that serves the inner city with produce from small area farms

LOCAL SOURCING

In light of all these trends, many supermarket produce managers have beefed up their efforts in the past couple of years to establish relationships with local growers.

When they do, they make a big thing of letting their customers know the products are sourced locally.

For instance, they put up posters telling the farmer's story, showing his picture, and indicating how often he delivers fresh product. During the middle of the growing season, that will often be daily, or even twice daily.

The bigger the chain, however, the more cumbersome it is to source locally, sources told SN.

They do it when they can, but they make sure they're not calling something local that their customers don't consider local.

“We are very careful not to mislead our customers,” said Maria Brous, spokeswoman for Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla. “We're in five states, and we try to keep our buying within the state. We always try to support homegrown, because it supports the local economy.”

In Texas, at 42-unit United Supermarkets, customers are asking for really local products, picked right nearby, and the chain tries to accommodate them.

“We are seeing increased demand to provide our store guests as much local produce as we can,” said Tommy Wilkins, director of produce procurement at Lubbock, Texas-based United.

“We're working on increasing our options as they become available. Often, the percentage of local product varies due to weather-related shortages.”

It's difficult to locate local farmers who are producing enough of a particular product so they can deliver a consistent supply to stores.

One consultant who works extensively with retailers told SN it can be done, if supermarket management is really serious about buying locally.

“Naturally, it's the local, regional independents who can do it best — companies like Ukrop's and Ball's,” said Howard Solganik, president, Culinary Resources, Dayton, Ohio.

“But others could do it. They have to put someone in their organization who can work hand-in-hand with local farmers to show them how to label and package to the retailer's requirements.”

He pointed out that Whole Foods Market has such a person dedicated to cultivating local farm sources. Then there are smaller chains, too, that appoint one person to find adequate local products during the summer season.

“Farmers tell you they give up trying to get into supermarkets because they just get beat up on price,” Solganik said.

“Farmers are farmers; they don't want to bargain for a price. They don't want to be retailers.”

One Ohio retailer, Heinen's, has taken off with local produce. Its produce assortment is up to 50% locally grown product during peak harvest season.

That, however, is because they have Terry Romp as their produce specialist, and Romp is something of an anomaly. He's a fourth-generation produce man who has also been on the other side of the aisle, in wholesale. Consequently, he knows a huge number of producers, large, small and in between. [See “Heinen's Promotes Local Produce,” SN, July 25, 2006.]

Heinen's hired Romp last year and specifically charged him with expanding its sourcing of local product.

“We've sorted out what we think are the best and the right-size growers for our needs,” Romp told SN.

Since the end of last year's growing season, Romp has nearly doubled the number of growers he deals with, and the locally sourced product he's displaying right now in August tops what he had at this time last year by about 25%, he said. Produce sales, too, are up about 12%.

Altogether, it's been a success story, because customers are happy. They comment on the freshness and quality of the products, Romp said.

Even when the produce assortment at mainstream supermarkets is mostly not locally grown, there is obviously an influence from outdoor markets.

Where they can, some supermarkets are displaying summer produce outside in their parking lots or along the front of the building.

Whether supermarkets consider farmers' markets competition or not, they should visit the ones in their area for ideas and for sources, Solganik suggested.

“They can see what's out there, maybe meet some suppliers they could deal with, and even find some merchandising ideas,” Solganik said. “One retailer I was with saw corn displayed on a stalk at one of those outdoor markets and he was impressed. He said he could do that.”