Situated in close proximity to many small growers, Washington, D.C. and Baltimore-based wholesalers possess a logistical advantage in distributing local fruits and vegetables to retail and foodservice customers.
The buyers and consumers are increasing their appetites for the regional product, distributors report.
“It’s just growing,” said Gus Pappas, president of Washington, D.C.-based Pete Pappas & Sons Inc. “We are seeing increasing calls for local and the more people can get of it, the better, as that’s what everyone is looking for.”
As a tomato repacker, Pappas’ definition of local has expanded to include tomatoes from north Florida and South Carolina, to add to the tomatoes the wholesaler distributes from Virginia and the Eastern Shore.
“We usually start here during the end of June or the Fourth of July, but with all the hard winter we’ve had, we will have to see what happens,” Pappas said in early June. “Everything could be late this year.”
Buying from more than 50 growers, local remains a mainstay for Edward G. Rahll & Sons Inc., in Jessup, Md.
Buyer interest isn’t the only thing increasing.
Growers are changing their operations to help distributors, said T.J. Rahll, operations manager.
“In years before, there wasn’t the excitement there is now,” he said. “When the local came in, people said, ‘OK, we’re on board. Start sending.’ Now, the growers are calling us weeks ahead and informing us when the crops are ready.”
A number of distributors at the Maryland Wholesale Produce Market move a lot of local product.
The activity has helped make the terminal a focus for distribution of the region’s local produce, said Rose Harrell, director of facilities for the Jessup-based Maryland Food Center Authority, which owns and operates the market.
“There’s always that talk about food hubs,” she said. “We are a food hub. In today’s economy when society is looking for fresh and local products it’s really important that farmers have an outlet here where they can sell product to our tenants, who can distribute in larger areas than the farmers.”
While the desire to fill local demand is good, food safety considerations remain paramount for Jessup-based G. Cefalu & Bro. Inc. and Capital Seaboard.
The companies try to source as much local as they can but it enforces the same food safety standards with local growers that it requires for other grower-shippers, said Sal Cefalu, owner and director of CGC Holdings, the companies’ parent company.
“Because of the stringent food safety procedures we put in place during the last 10 years, we have to take that into consideration when buying local because some works and some doesn’t,” he said. “Whenever possible and when all the criteria are met, we do source local. It’s like in any of the parts of the food chain from the growers up. If they’re going to be in this industry over the next 10-25 years, they have to make a conscious commitment to keep raising that bar on safety.”
Cefalu purchases from many local growers and said the availability of local product also helps support the region’s economies.
While local isn’t a big part of the catalog of the Jessup-based Tony Vitrano Co., demand is increasing, said Tony Vitrano, president.
“We are doing more than we have done in the past,” he said. “It seems like it’s growing. Our customers prefer it. As the quality and quantity is improving, we are doing more of it.”