WESTBOROUGH, Mass. — BJ’s Wholesale Club here has announced that its “Farm to Club” local produce program will be expanded to all of its 195 stores in the 15 states where the company operates.
After a year spent developing the program and lining up growers, Farm to Club was originally launched on April 7, 2011 in Florida, where it was immediately successful. By the end of last year’s growing season, the program had been expanded to nine states, Rob Johnson, produce buyer for BJ’s Wholesale Club, told SN.
“We get a lot of feedback from our members. People are looking for more organics, they’re looking for more local, and they want to know where the products are coming from,” he said.
The program includes a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, such as zucchini, tomatoes, corn, green peppers, yellow squash and cucumbers, all clearly marked with a special “Farm to Club, Locally Grown” seal and displayed in specially labeled bins.
Johnson said that BJ’s has decided to define “local” as any produce item that is grown within the state where a store is located. For club members that want more detailed information, the company has also chosen to label the towns where the products were grown.
“When you come up to the product in our clubs in each state, on the top line [of signs] — for instance in Florida — it will say, ‘Grown in Florida,’ then it will say, ‘Plant City, Miami Lakes’ … So, when the member looks at the sign, it tells them the town within each state that the product was grown in,” he said.
He later noted that deciding how to define “local” was one of the greatest challenges when developing the program.
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the federal government have no regulations for [the marketing term] ‘local,’” he noted. “It’s a gray area. Here in Massachusetts I could bring in Connecticut corn and blueberries from New Hampshire and call it local. But what we decided to do as a company was, we put a stake in the ground, and said, ‘Everything grown in the same state as our club, we will call ‘local.’”
On-pack UPC codes also include the name of the farm where an item was grown, and members can check out farmer profiles on the company’s Facebook page. For example, an announcement on Facebook regarding this expansion of the Farm to Club program currently includes photos of supplier C&C Agricultural Farms, along with a short history of the operation.
“C&C Agricultural Farms in Miami Lakes, Fla., was started in 2008 with sweet potatoes and pumpkin by Ernesto Cordero and Carlos Rodriguez,” the post reads. “The two friends met many years ago when Carlos was involved in real estate and actually sold Ernesto and his family their first home … Today the business has grown to include tomatoes, jalapenos, eggplant, squash, cucumbers and bell peppers.”
Johnson agreed that concern about “food miles” and a belief that local food is fresher food are two of the trends driving the popularity of locally grown produce. But, he added that shoppers also believe that buying local is an opportunity to invest in their community.
“I think the No. 1 [factor] is that you’re helping out your community … the farm we’re using up here in Massachusetts, we’re already their No. 1 customer.”
The farm — Long Plain Farm in Whately, Mass. — is a third-generation family-owned business that used to grow tobacco. But, the current operators have transitioned the farm toward produce, Johnson said.
“He’s a third-generation farmer, and he’s absolutely thrilled that this is something that can help sustain his farm for generations to come, and pass it on to his family. We have a lot of stories like this, up and down the East Coast. We are helping out farmers in each state.”
Since the program’s launch, Johnson has developed buying relationships with between two to 10 growers in each of the 15 states where BJ’s operates.
This year, the program has already kicked off in Florida, and like last year, the program will roll out state-by-state during the next few months, following the south-to-north migration of growing seasons along the East Coast.
Johnson said that the program has posed logistical challenges, as expected. But, local foods were a category that the warehouse club’s members were demanding.
“We listen to our members,” Johnson said. “We understood the difficulties and the complexity of a program like this, but this is what our members wanted. If I’m buying [the same] products out of Mexico right now … I could actually get a better price for full trailer loads. But, we’re sacrificing margin on these items to help out the farmers in these states.”
So far, feedback from members — on Facebook and elsewhere — has been positive. “Glad to see your support for the local farmers. Way to go BJ’s!” one member wrote on their page recently. Others asked questions about the growers and whether local organics might be available in the future.
And, as Johnson pointed out, the program has allowed a multi-billion dollar company to help people build better connections with businesses in their local communities.
“We’re the vehicle to go between our members and the farms in their community. Hopefully, they’re seeing the farm, seeing the label, they know the town, they might know somebody that works there.”