Described by packers, wholesalers and retailers as a tremendous trend with demand consistently exceeding supply, local is the produce of choice across the midsection of the country.
As hot as local has become with consumers in the central U.S., organic produce has seen passions cool, according to several produce professionals in the region.
“Local is killing organics,” said Nick Conforti, vice president for C&C Produce, North Kansas City, Mo.
“Local has eclipsed organic,” said Brent Bielski, general manager for Greenberg Fruit Co., Omaha, Neb.
“Local is more of a growth area than organic,” said Del Housworth, produce buyer for Balls Food Stores, Kansas City, Kan. “It is increasing every year for us.”
One of the Balls banners is Hen House, which has 11 stores in the Kansas City metro area and participates in the Buy Fresh, Buy Local program. Hen House stores promote the local produce through Meet the Grower events, said Bill Esch, Balls vice president of merchandising.
The Buy Fresh, Buy Local program includes third-party audits to verify the local nature of the produce, Esch said. In-store promotions feature point-of-sale materials reminding consumers that local produce is “thousands of miles fresher.”
In his role with Balls, Housworth buys for the Hen House and Price Chopper banners. Earlier this year he picked up the responsibility of buying for B&R Stores Inc., Lincoln, Neb. With those additional stores, Housworth said his need for local produce doubled.
“We define local as within 250 miles,” Housworth said, “except for Andy Daniels Candy Corn, and that’s 263 miles out.”
Bielski said local is a “tremendous trend.”
Local growers seem to be popping up in response, he said, but there are still some supply issues. The drought this year made it difficult for many growers in the central plains to meet orders for sweet corn and musk melons, he said.
“The biggest challenge for local is committing to having a specific amount of product at a specific time,” Bielski said of the growers and suppliers who must meet retailers’ demands.
At C&C Produce, saleswoman Jackie Meyer agreed that meeting demands for local produce from various customer sectors can be a challenge.
“Everyone wants local — retailers, restaurants, schools,” Meyer said. “Our local programs begin in April and run through November.”
To meet demands, Conforti said the company added a local berry program this year, but demand still exceeds supply.
Another regional supplier, Associated Wholesale Grocers, Kansas City, Kan., is receiving more requests for more local produce from its member retailers and other customers, said Gary Myracle, executive director for produce field procurement.
Myracle said AWG has added growers in southeast Missouri in response to those demands. Those growers should take some of the pressure off, especially when new federal rules for commercial truck drivers are considered, Myracle said.
Less transportation requiring less fuel is one of the appealing aspects consumers often cite when asked about why they want local produce, and Myracle said shorter driving times required by new hours-of-service rules for truckers play into that.
The shorter driving time adds a transportation day for produce making the trip from the West Coast, he said.