ST. LOUIS — Demand for locally grown fruits and vegetables continues to grow in the St. Louis area.
“Local” is definitely the buzzword of the moment, but it’s another example of how there’s really nothing new under the sun, said Jim Heimos, president of wholesaler George A. Heimos Produce Co. Inc.
“Years ago, we had 30 or 40 local farmers that hauled to my dad,” Heimos said. “Then the chains and foodservice got away from it.”
Transportation advances made it easier to truck in fruits and vegetables from California and other points west, so that’s what buyers wanted, Heimos said. Now, of course, the pendulum has swung back.
Poor growing weather has put a dent in some local programs this summer for St. Louis area retailer William A. Straub, said Greg Lehr, produce manager.
“There’s been a lack of homegrown peaches this year,” Lehr said.
By the second week of July, however, prospects for other locally grown favorites at Straub were looking up.
“Sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers, squash and other vegetables are on track,” Lehr said.
On the specialty side, Straub continues to source Gold Bud peaches from California. Volumes should be comparable to last year and yields and quality should be normal.
“I haven’t heard any reports,” he said. “They should start arriving in mid-August.”
Gold Buds are an easy sell for Straub’s customers.
“They have incomparable flavor,” Lehr said. “The uniqueness drives it.”
Straub also has expanded its sourcing base to include more suppliers east of the Mississippi.
“There are some Ohio and Indiana farmers we don’t generally do,” Lehr said. “We mostly source from the West Coast.”
One Amish Ohio grower in particular, Greenfields, has become a solid organic supplier for Straub.
“Our organic volume is up,” Lehr said. “That category stays strong. Availability is increasing.”
Not too long ago, for instance, good organic tomatoes were few and far between. Now, Lehr said, the category is getting close to solid year-round coverage.
The locally grown tomato category is doing particularly well for Chesterfield, Mo.-based retailer Dierbergs Markets Inc., said Steve Duello, produce category manager.
“Local continues to be a hot button,” Duello said. “It’s a big deal for our customers. They want to know when it’s here, and when it is, they really shop it.”
The area growers Dierbergs sources from were able to recover from the cold winter and sluggish start to spring quicker than expected, Duello said.
“When winter finally went away, everyone thought growers would be two or three weeks behind,” he said. “But once the weather turned, they caught up.”
Duello has heard nothing but good news about yields, appearance and eating quality.
“They’re off to a real strong start.”
Peaches, tomatoes, corn and watermelons from Missouri and Illinois are expected to once again be the top local sellers for Dierbergs in 2014, Duello said.
Dierbergs relies on a very strict definition when it talks about “local.”
“It has to be from the field to our store in 24 hours,” Duello said.
That means Dierbergs can’t source a lot of good fruits and vegetables from places like Kansas, Arkansas and Nebraska, Duello said — but the definition has proven to be a valuable one for the company.
“There’s nice corn in Kansas that we don’t buy,” he said. “But it’s worked for us for a lot of years, and we’re not looking to change it.”
In the first half of July Missouri melon crops were running a week to two weeks late, said Dan Pupillo Jr., president of Midwest Best Produce Inc.
With a glut of product from other growing areas, that wasn’t a problem, Pupillo said.
“We hope it buys enough time for Georgia to get out of the way, and for the markets to stabilize.”
Pupillo expects good quality and volumes when the local deals get into full swing.
“It was a pretty wet spring up here, but everybody in the Midwest seems to have a nice crop,” he said. “There shouldn’t be any shortages.”
While Midwest Produce is increasing its locally grown melon volumes, Pupillo said melon acreage in the areas around St. Louis has stayed fairly constant in recent years.
“One farm may go up 50 or 100 acres, but another one cuts back. There are some farms in Illinois that are small but growing. It’s stabilized in the past couple of years.”
In the two months of the summer when Missouri and Illinois farmers are producing, locally grown is a priority for Midwest Best, Pupillo said.
“We try to do as much as possible with local farmers.”
In the first half of July distributors were dealing with a slight glut of locally grown fruits and vegetables, said Steve Wielansky, partner in Independent Fruit & Produce.
“Summer’s been just OK,” he said. “Everything kind of came at once. There’s a little overabundance.”
The cold start to spring was one reason, Wielansky said.
“We’ve had lousy weather all year, so everyone planted and everything came on at once.”
Independent has been sourcing from the same Missouri and Illinois growers for the past 40 to 50 years, Wielansksy said. The company ships locally grown squash, cucumbers, peppers, cabbage, corn, eggplant and other commodities in the summer.
Because of the late starts in 2014, the size of this year’s deal was still up in the air as of early July.
“We don’t know yet on volumes,” Wielansky said. “It’s still too soon to tell.”
On the fruit side, Independent expects to ship locally grown peaches and apples through August.
Local deals were just kicking off in the first half of July for Vaccaro & Sons Produce, said Dale Vaccaro, the company’s president.
Vaccaro hadn’t heard of any problems with locally grown peaches, which started shipping in early July and were set to peak starting at the end of the month.
“Missouri orchards have plenty,” Vaccaro said. “They’ve had great growing weather.”
That holds true for watermelons, tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, spinach, zucchini, lettuce, green onions and other summer crops from Missouri and Illinois, which should mean abundant volumes across the board, he said.
“The word from everybody is that everything is looking good. I think we’ll have more than last year.”
Two Missouri and Illinois crops stand out in particular this summer for Vaccaro & Sons, Vaccaro said.
“I think it will be a real good year for tomatoes and peaches.”
Vaccaro ships locally grown grape, cherry and beefsteak tomatoes in the summer, Vaccaro said.