Reductions in funding to the Michigan Department of Agriculture led to severe cuts to the state’s Select Michigan program last year, but retailers and distributors say demand for locally grown produce continues to grow.

“It’s huge,” said Joe Santoro, area supervisor and buyer for Nino Salvaggio International Marketplace, St. Clair Shores.

“When Michigan product is available, whether it’s apples, blueberries or something else, it’s a big deal. We try to put Michigan first in all our stores.”

Santoro estimated that the independent retailer sources 30% of its fresh produce volume directly from growers during the local season, which runs from June into October.

He said Country Of Origin Labeling regulations that took effect in 2009 have resulted in more attention on where fruits and vegetables are grown.

“We check to make sure everything is labeled properly,” he said. “Our customers want to know where things are coming from. COOL has pushed us to Michigan-grown even more than before.”

Branching out in homegrown

Grand Rapids-based Meijer Inc. this year increased by 5% the amount of produce it sources from the five Midwest states where it operates. Roughly a third of the retailer’s summer and fall produce volume came from Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois or Kentucky.

“We have an extensive homegrown program,” said Meijer spokesman Frank Guglielmi. “We work very closely with farmers in the area. We branched out this year to increase the number of farmers we work with. It helps pump money into the local economy, which is needed.”

Meijer sources more than 75 different products from 85 growers in those five states. The company estimates that it has invested more than $60 million into area economies through its partnerships with local growers.

Meijer said in a news release that it is the largest purchaser of locally grown apples in the five-state region.

The retailer said it has increased its local volume by 10% in the past two years, including large increases in sweet corn (18%), watermelon (20%) and potato (30%) purchases.

Greater foodservice demand

Demand for local produce isn’t limited to retail business.

Sales manager Todd De Waard said Hudsonville-based Superior Sales Inc., has seen increased interest from foodservice customers, too.

“There is a continued push for more information on locally grown product,” he said. “We are finding the need for more farm visits by the customer, and more information on just where all the stuff is coming from. There seems to be a strong desire to connect the farmer to the customer.”

Ron Stewart, president and owner of Detroit-based Simon & Leeman Corp., agreed.

He said his company produces biographies and picture boards of the local growers it works with for customers.

“Restaurants put them in lobbies and say, ‘We’re featuring this farmer’s apples,’ — or whatever it is,” he said. “It’s a huge selling point. Hotels and white tablecloth restaurants are using them, too.”

“We’re seeing demand across the board, even some of the chain restaurants are promoting the fact that they’re using local products.”

Slow times for distributors

Local product is not as popular with some of the state’s produce distributors because much of the local product is sold directly by growers to retailers or foodservice companies.

“Most of our customers are close by, so when local stuff is in season they don’t need us,” said Steve Davis, president, S.B. Davis Co., Grand Rapids. “That makes August and September slow for us.”

Brandon Serra, salesman for Detroit Produce Terminal distributor Serra Bros. Inc., offered a more blunt opinion about the local deal.

“We can’t wait for the first frost,” he said. “We carry some local, but for the most part local growers surpass us and go right to the stores. It hurts our business. As soon as the Michigan deal is over, we can start making a profit again.”

Dominic Russo, produce buyer and sales for Rocky Produce Inc., Detroit, said it is possible for terminal market distributors to play a part in the local deal.

“We handle a lot of Michigan produce,” he said. “It seems every year we handle more of it. Many of our customers do get it directly from the farmers, but we find we can move quite a bit of it. It’s a growing trend, and people want it. Whatever role we can play in the process, we want to be involved.”

Salesman Michael Badalament of Detroit-based R.A.M. Produce Distributors, said the state has done a good job of promoting local product in the past.

“People want to support the local economy,” he said, “and the growers do a great job.”