Courtesy Ozark Farmers Co-opCraig 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.