Blessed be the homegrown ties

04/30/2002 12:00:00 AM
Jody Shee

(April 30) It’s part of your professional fiber. With summer comes local produce promotions. Bring on the wooden crates and tables with signs telling who grows the tomatoes, cantaloupe and corn.

Times have changed since the genesis of this retail tradition. Consumers increasingly are in tune with natural foods, sustainable local agriculture and food safety. Meanwhile, more state departments of agriculture are developing programs to help connect growers, consumers and retailers. Use this synergism to bring a fresh atmosphere to your homegrown promotions.

PROVIDE A NEIGHBORLY SETTING

Gardner’s Markets, Miami, builds community in the parking lot. It operates a farmers market each Sunday during the South Florida growing season to create weekly excitement and let customers interact with growers, says produce manager Debi Kendrick. The company operates five stores, but only one has a canopy and 22 stalls underneath from which growers peddle their tomatoes, lettuce, tropical fruit, squash and other produce January through April.

Parking lot activities for the kids make the shopping trip a family event, Kendrick says. The store rents the stalls for $20 per week to growers and uses the income to hire face painters, clowns, magicians and other performers.

As the farmers market closes on Sunday afternoon, Kendrick wanders around the stalls and buys produce from the growers to sell inside the store throughout the week.

The store merchandises the product on crate displays inside the front door and includes the growers’ names.

Shoppers’ weekly interaction with the growers in the parking lot helps build a connection to the produce inside. Additionally, each Monday and Thursday night a cooking demonstrator creates a recipe, often using the produce from the growers.

Supporting local growers when many are finding it hard to survive is a big focus for Clemens Markets Inc., Kulpsville, Pa., says director of produce Dave Blaich.

The 19 stores work closely with area growers to sell and promote their products. While large, corporate-driven retailers might find that difficult to do, he believes building relationships within the community helps give back to the community and is an important part of doing business.

INVEST IN GROWERS

If an area grower calls Blaich with a load of produce, he finds out more about it and adds the growers’ name to an authorization list. This allows the grower to contact the stores individually and allows the stores to call the grower to order product. The grower has to be able to deliver product directly to each store, though.

The stores frequently include the growers’ names in the ad and on a department sign. “It helps consumers who are aware of local farms and enables them to support their friends and neighbors,” he says.

Growers who are serious about getting product into Farm Fresh Markets based in Virginia Beach, Va., must meet with Chris Van Parys, vice president of produce operations.

“When I meet with a grower for the first time, it will be in a store so they get a feel for what we are doing. There can be misconceptions that (we) want the lowest cost. But they need to see the quality we expect,” Van Parys says.

The 37 Farm Fresh stores are owned and supplied by Supervalu Inc., Eden Prairie, Minn. Approved growers send their product to the Richmond, Va., Supervalu distribution center. “That’s helpful to me. I can’t call 37 stores and ask how the green beans look,” Van Parys says.

Supervalu also handles food safety issues with growers. “Because someone shows up at the door with cantaloupe doesn’t mean we’ll buy it. We have to know that in fact it is grown with proper herbicides and pesticides with proper food safety. All melons need a chlorine bath so they are bacteria free. Supervalu gets documentation. The grower also must carry insurance,” Van Parys says.

All this reflects the times in which we live, he adds. Twenty years ago he would have accepted 90 percent of the product brought to the back door. Today, food safety is first, he says.

WORK WITH THE STATE

Regardless of whether you have a warehouse to help handle your local grower buying decisions, you can work with your state department of agriculture.

Before Van Parys meets with a potential area grower/supplier, he calls a representative from the Virginia Department of Agriculture. Each growing area is in a zone with an overseeing manager. “They can tell who’s growing the right way, who has the best seeds, the best-yielding crops and when it’s best to promote,” he says.

Blaich with Clemens Markets contacts the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture for a list of growers who want to work with retailers. “We’re also on a list they provide to farmers of supermarkets that want to use a local farmer,” he says.

More states are developing promotional programs to raise awareness and build the local economy. Adopt a state slogan in your department and display the point-of-sale materials that many states offer.

Last August, Redner’s Markets Inc., Reading, Pa., attracted media coverage of a one-day event at one of its 32 stores when it hosted the state secretary of agriculture for a ceremony outside the store.

The ag secretary stood beside a 24-foot display of cantaloupe and tree fruit grown by area farmers. Pennsylvania Simply Delicious banners decorated the front of the display.

“We had 12 farmers who attended the ceremony and all were recognized that day for being an integral part of the Pennsylvania farming community,” says produce director Gary O’Brien.

Radio, television and newspaper reporters captured the story of the state’s Simply Delicious program, he says.

Check with your state department of agriculture to see if government officials participate in similar visits. In O’Brien’s case, the department of agriculture and the chain sent out press releases to the media inviting the coverage.

In its long-standing Jersey Fresh program, the New Jersey Department of Agriculture sends its secretary of agriculture out on retail visits at the start of the season, says Ronald Good, bureau chief of market development.

The department also provides general Jersey Fresh price cards and specific ones for sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers, peaches and blueberries. It also offers banners, 8-foot bin wraps and short radio spots.

Virginia’s Finest and Fresh from Florida also are solid programs for retailers in those states. There’s plenty of point-of-sale material available to carry the message through your department.

A few other states are beginning retail promotions to push homegrown produce. Pride of New York and Buy California are examples.

“We’re planning to come out with the Buy California program in mid-June or a little after. The main purpose will be informing Californian’s why it’s a good idea to buy California agricultural products, not just because it’s healthy and wholesome, but it’s good for the economy,” says Ralph Watts, chief executive officer for the Buy California program.

He notes that agriculture is nearly a $27 billion industry in California, and one in seven jobs in the state is related to agriculture. Therefore, the program message will be “Buy California. It’s good for the state. It’s good for you,” he says.

The program will include a logo, POS and possibly radio and television commercials, he adds.

New York also is in infant stages working with retailers in its Pride of New York program, says Jessica Chittenden, spokeswomanfor the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. Previously, the state geared its efforts toward roadside stands and farmers markets allowing them to brand their products with the New York label.

The new retail push results from a survey which says that consumers would be willing to buy New York state product and support local farmers if they knew the product was from New York, she says.

Therefore, for a $25 one-time membership fee, retailers can join the program and receive signs, price cards and posters. “Right now, we have a grant for cooperative ad dollars,” Chittenden says. Member retailers who want to promote New York products can apply for the funds and be reimbursed for half of the promotional or campaign dollars.

Think of ways to tie together your stores, customers, area growers, community and state for the benefit of each.



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