Ohio distributors invest in locally grown movement

11/30/2012 11:37:00 AM
Jim Offner

Sirna & Sons Produce, Ravenna, Ohio, is positioned to make the most of the homegrown produce craze that is sweeping Ohio and the rest of the U.S.

Sirna & Sons, a third-generation family-owned distributor, is 40 miles southeast of Cleveland and about 90 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, another market the wholesale distributor serves on a daily basis.

The company moved there from Aurora, Ohio, which is about 30 miles southeast of Cleveland, in 2006.

The company trucks its produce across the region.

Sirna & Sons, as do many Ohio produce wholesalers, participates in Ohio Proud, a homegrown marketing program the Ohio Department of Agriculture put together in 1993.

The ohioproud.org website says Ohio’s agriculture industry generates more than $107 billion a year for the state’s economy. 

“Everybody wants locally grown produce,” said Mark Mithalski, a buyer with Sirna & Sons.

That’s all the more reason Sirna planted its operation in Ravenna, said Vince Sirna, vice president.

“We needed it because we send eight to 10 trucks to the Pittsburgh market daily, but we also go to the Indiana border,” he said.

The company opened a distribution center in Norwalk, in western Ohio, in 2001.

“As long as the quality is there, the customers always want local,” Mithalski said.

That there is a huge demand for homegrown doesn’t stem from any increase in the trend of buying local or some other “feel-good type of mentality,” said Greg Fritz, president of Cleveland-based fresh-cut repacker Produce Packing Inc.

There are practical reasons for choosing product grown nearby, he said.

“Demand for homegrown — at least in our business — stems from the fact that’s it’s close, readily available for pick-up or delivery, good quality and a relatively good value compared to Californian, Mexican or Eastern Shore product,” he said.

Columbus, Ohio-based Sanfillipo Produce Co. Inc. says it is heavily invested in the local deal, said Jim Sanfillipo, a partner and sales manager with the distributor.

“In fact, about six years ago, I helped a group of 180 Amish families start their auction house,” Sanfillipo said.

Although the Amish and Mennonite growers represent a relatively small percentage of the state’s production, the number of such auctions has grown to 8 or 9, he said.

Restaurants in the major urban markets in Ohio have been particularly active in sourcing local product, said Jarrod Clabaugh, director of communications with the Columbus-based Ohio Restaurant Association.

“Local produce has become a very hot topic, a trend for consumers, and they’re asking for it,” Clabaugh said.

Lisa and David Schacht grow vegetables on about 60 acres on the edge of Columbus.

“There is increasing demand,” Lisa Schacht said.

The buy-local trend has generated increased demand each year, she said.

“The additional hype or notoriety of local has just made those buyers all the more aggressive looking for product,” she said.

The Schachts, who grow 20 crops, wind up the local season in October with pumpkins, Lisa Schacht said.

Their growing operation is called Schacht Family Farm.



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