Consumers are seeking local produce more consistently, local growers are getting up to speed, and retailers are partnering with them to sell their products.Produce managers can expect more volume and more variety of local produce to offer their customers, industry sources said.
“More of our suppliers are really very local,” Tony Mirack, produce buyer/merchandiser, at three-unit McCaffrey's Markets, Langhorne, Pa., told SN.
“We're fortunate to have neighborhood farmers really close to home, and we're getting more variety from them. For the first time ever, we're getting sweet onions from Pennsylvania. There's enough volume, and the packaging is good, PLUed. They became available two weeks ago. We also were able for the first time to get doughnut peaches locally, and we have a local heirloom apple that nobody else has.”
Mirack went on to say that he has racheted up his search for locally grown, organic produce. He had made a deal this summer with a nearby New Jersey farmer who grows certified organic greens to provide him with several organic items. Then, Hurricane Irene intervened.
“A lot of his crops were destroyed, but the type of things we want — spring mix, micro greens, baby arugula and baby spinach — germinate pretty quickly. I think we'll still have them this fall.”
Apple orchards in Rhode Island took a bigger hit from Hurricane Irene, sending retailers looking for more local sources. At Brigido's Markets, North Providence, R.I., produce department manager Samantha Marshall said her major supplier of locally grown fruit — Harmony Farms — got a big part of its younger orchard knocked out by the storm.
“Harmony Farms is close, 17 miles away.” Marshall said last week she was anticipating her first local apples and then acorn squash from a different local supplier.
Larger chains generally use a larger geographical radius to define “local” than independents who may have the opportunity to buy direct. But, 233-unit Hy-Vee, West Des Moines, Iowa, is an exception. Since its stores operate with a degree of autonomy, they often make their own deals with local growers. For example, take Hy-Vee's Madison, Wis., store.
“Our goal here at Madison is to have a big variety of local produce and to keep increasing that variety,” Ryan Lindner, the store's produce manager said. “I'm also aggressively looking for local, organic produce. I'm on the hunt.”
Lindner defines local as Wisconsin grown, but the nearer the better, he said. “I do a lot of research, going to farmers' markets, meeting farmers, trying to find out who's growing what. I make it clear our door is open. I'll talk to any grower, but two things — quality and enough volume — have to be there.”
Lindner makes a big thing of local produce with signage, displays, and live visits from farmers.
“Just last week, I had a local farmer in here for five or six hours. He brought his high-school-age son and daughter with him. Customers loved talking to them. He let the customers know he's the farmer down the road that supplies us with sweet corn and green beans.”
Indeed, his farm is no more than five miles from the Hy-Vee store. Lindner estimates that in the height of growing season, 10% of his produce items are locally grown.
“That may not seem like a lot, but we have about a thousand items in produce, so 10% of that is 100 locally grown fruits and vegetables.”
Even Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., with several warehouses and more than a thousand units spread across the Southeast, attempts to buy locally whenever it's feasible, Maria Brous, company spokeswoman, told SN.
“Local continues to be at top of mind with many customers. However, local is perceived differently from person to person. We always choose local produce when possible. With operations in Florida and Georgia, we have great produce options with Plant City Strawberries, Florida oranges, Georgia peaches, Redlands peppers and green beans.”
With the advent of farmers markets and consumers' growing interest in where their food comes from, the future for local produce sales is bright. If retailers continue to partner with local growers and contract with them to sell a certain amount of product, “local” sales will continue to grow, one consultant said.
“With the marketing focus on local, and the increasing demand on local growers to increase acreage … some are considered to be deep in variety,” said Dick Spezzano, a former retailer, and founder of Spezzano Consulting Service, Monrovia, Calif. Recent partnering between retailers and local growers has spurred these growers to make their products more market-ready as well.
“They are also providing UPCs, GS1 UPCs, PLUs, and some nice packaging. It's amazing what can be done when you have a [purchase order] in hand.” Mirack at McCaffrey's agreed.
“Local farmers are getting more sophisticated. They see there's potential in the market,” Mirack said. “So they know they have to have the right packaging, UPC codes, quality, HACCP approved, and enough volume.”