SEATTLE — Local fruits and vegetables have a great amount of sway among retailers and foodservice operators in the Northwest.
“We purchase a lot of local products,” said Diane Dempster, organic commodity manager for Charlie’s Produce Seattle.
The firm has been buying from local farmers, organic and conventional, since it began.
Dempster managers the wholesale distributor’s homegrown organics program called Farmer’s Own. In season, the company offers a full line of local organic and conventional produce, she said.
“We have customers who are very interested in this program,” she said. “It is something we pride ourselves with.”
“There is a big move on local grown for our retail customer base as well as foodservice,” said John Janker, director of category management for Charlie’s Produce Seattle.
“They want to sell the story, know who the grower is,” he said. “That’s a big piece of what we do,” Janker said.
Local growers are often featured in retail ads and growers are often invited to make store appearances, he said.
Local produce is a big trend in the Pacific Northwest, and the only downside is that the growing season for crops such as strawberries is so short, said Ernie Spada Jr., owner of Duck Delivery and United Salad Co., Portland, Ore.
Dale Hayton, sales manager for Valley Pride Sales Inc., Mount Vernon, said local produce has appeal for retailers for a variety of reasons.
“We have seen some of the retailers want to identify with growers,” he said.
Some have put up photos of growers with local produce promotions, providing details on who the growers are and what they do.
Besides giving the consumer a connection with the grower, Hayton said retailers are buying local produce because it makes sense.
“It is more economical and I think our packs measure up to any other area,” he said. “We have pushed our growers to make the pack the retailers want — the right varieties and right crew necessary to make a high-quality product.
“We try to promote the local guys as much as we can,” said Steve Davis, produce buyer with Aloha Produce, Portland.
Local growers, notwithstanding favorable trends, are sometimes being squeezed out by cost considerations.
“Our customers will complain that the local product should be cheaper but their costs are bigger per box of produce,” he said.
With many of its customers mid- and lower-tier restaurants, Davis said he doesn’t have a lot of customers asking for local produce.
Tom Lively, senior account representative for Organically Grown Co., Eugene, Ore., said the company pushed the concept of regional organics. With a huge growing area in the Pacific Northwest, the company is more comfortable talking about regional organic produce.
“The reality is that you have to define local in a micro way,” he said.
While there is competition for local fruits and vegetables, Dempster said the Farmer’s Own program is assured supply making investments in local organic growers’ operations. Charlie’s Produce markets the program locally and nationwide.
“They pack in our label and we do the marketing for them,” Dempster said.
The company is no Johnny-come-lately to local produce, said Brian Namatame, director of procurement for Charlie’s Produce Seattle.
The company, the largest independent wholesaler on the West Coast, has facilities in Portland, Spokane, Seattle, Anchorage, Alaska, and Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
Local produce is one of the last remaining ways that independent retailers can differentiate themselves from chain stores, Janker said.
Dempster said one the goals of the Farmer’s Own program is linking individual growers to specific retailers. The company creates grower profiles so retailers and consumers can know the name of the suppliers.
Despite the resurgence of demand, local growers are being crowded out by development and tax burden, Namatame said. The company can offer those growers a stable market.
“What we found in the last couple of years, the organic consumer kept shopping,” Dempster said. “Stores that order a full line of organics are doing very well.”