Craig and Patrice Jennings, West Plains, Mo., organized growers to form the Ozark Farmers Co-op, which provided Price Cutter grocery stores with locally grown tomatoes this year. Increased tomato plantings and the addition of another commodity or two are on tap for the co-op’s second year.
Craig and Patrice Jennings, West Plains, Mo., organized growers to form the Ozark Farmers Co-op, which provided Price Cutter grocery stores with locally grown tomatoes this year. Increased tomato plantings and the addition of another commodity or two are on tap for the co-op’s second year.

Described as “the darling” of current food trends, locally grown is a challenge from farm to fork.

But it’s a challenge fresh produce professionals say can be worth the effort if you want to attract and retain consumers and retailers.

“Locally grown is bigger than organic. It’s the top food trend,” said Mike Orf, vice president of produce for Hy-Vee Food Stores Inc., West Des Moines, Iowa.

“Local is the darling right now in food trends.”

Hy-Vee has more than 230 stores across eight states in the middle of the country.

Orf said the company’s practice of allowing individual stores tremendous latitude in management and procurement helps local produce managers meet specific consumer demands.

However, Orf said, all of those managers face the common challenges of a short sourcing season, logistics difficulties and less-than-perfect food safety systems in place at many smaller growing operations.

He said the key is finding good partners and visiting the growing and packing operations to review food safety practices.

Dennis Hughes, director of produce for RPCS Inc., formerly Pyramid Foods, has similar views on locally grown produce.

The chain, based in Rogersville, Mo., was founded with one store in 1919. Today, it operates 53 stores under 10 banners across southern Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas.

“Access to organic is better because there are established growers, but local is bigger than organic with our stores’ customers,” Hughes said. Up to 15% of the produce in the chain’s stores is locally grown, Hughes said, adding that demand for local labels really took off in the past year in the Midwest.

“One of the biggest challenges local growers have is getting consistency in sizes and quality. They have to mirror pack sizes and styles of major players because that is what our systems are set up for,” Hughes said.

This summer, Hughes had a new source for locally grown tomatoes.

Craig and Patrice Jennings, West Plains, Mo., founded the Ozark Farmers Co-op for the 2013 season. About a dozen growers contributed tomatoes, which Hughes said flew off store shelves.

Craig Jennings said the growers will meet this fall with Hughes to firm up plans for nest year, which will include a synchronized planting and delivery schedule. The co-op also is working on securing refrigerated space for short-term storage and pre-cooling to improve the shelf life of its produce.

Next year the co-op plans to have at least twice as many acres of tomatoes along with a coupled of other commodities yet to be determined.

Point A to Point B

One North Kansas City, Mo., supplier of fresh and fresh-cut produce said he understands why his retail and foodservice customers want the consistency Hughes mentioned — consumers like consistency.

“Consistent flavor profiles and quality are what keep consumers coming back for our products,” said Nick Conforti, vice president of C&C Produce, which has a fresh-cut sister company, Cool Creations.

Conforti said pack consistency is second only to the weather when it comes to challenges local growers in the Midwest face.

The other big issue for Conforti is getting the right produce at the right time, which is particularly difficult with the short harvest seasons in the middle of the U.S.

He said C&C’s sales of locally grown tripled in the past year, which more than tripled delivery issues. So Conforti added a staff position and hired Chris Shea to head up C&C’s local buying program.

“Last year we had 10 growers. This year Chris added 25 more,” Conforti said.

Brendan Comito, chief operating officer for Capital City Fruit, Norwalk, Iowa, also cited logistics as one of the biggest hurdles to meet demands for locally grown produce. He said Capital City’s own trucks often end up back hauling to make deadlines for locally grown orders.

“We pull product from the entire Midwest. The logistics are really challenging,” Comito said.


Food safety still an issue

While consumers may be blinded by their love of locally grown produce, distributors and retailers have their eyes wide open when it comes to the food safety practices of Midwest growers, which are frequently smaller and more informal than commercial operations in California, Florida and Texas.

King Fresh Produce, Dinuba, Calif., for example, has a regional office in northwest Missouri, where it sources some produce, said owner Keith Wilson.

His company grows table grapes, citrus and pomegranates in California, so he is familiar with food safety issues from the buying and selling sides.

“The smaller growers in the Midwest are a bit behind in food safety, but they are catching up,” Wilson said.

Greenberg Fruit Co., Omaha, Neb., requires growers to have specific food safety credentials.

Brent Bielski, general manager for Greenberg, said in addition to having two in-house people who are certified HACCP auditors who visit growers, the company requires growers to have food safety certifications and third-party audits.

In Kansas City at C&C Produce, locally grown sales leader Shea personally visits growers to check their food safety practices and programs, said vice president Conforti.

“Chris helps them make sure they reach GAP certification,” Conforti said. “The Missouri Department of Agriculture is also very helpful with growers who are seeking GAP certification. We also require third-party audits for our growers.”