Trendsetters on the East and West coasts often say it takes a decade for the heartland of the country to tune in to a fad — good or bad — but the locally grown food movement hasn’t followed that rule.
Growers, packers and distributors in the center of the country say their customers have always been interested in buying fresh fruits and vegetables from local and regional sources. However, they are happy to see national media attention and government incentives to further increase awareness of locally grown produce.
One such incentive program, available through the Missouri Department of Agriculture, is offering grants up to $200,000 to increase use of Missouri food in schools. Growers and others can apply through Oct. 31 for the grants. A 10% cash match is required.
School foodservice accounts are a large portion of the sales at C&C Produce, Kansas City, Mo., said vice president Nick Conforti, and schools are increasingly asking for locally grown produce. Retailers, restaurant operators and other C&C customers are no different.
“Already this year our local sales are up 38% compared to 2013,” Conforti said. “All of the commodities around here came in great this year, very high quality and good volumes. The apple harvest is just beginning and it looks like a bumper crop, so I wouldn’t be surprised if our local sales end up 40% higher than last year by the time we’re done.”
Conforti said this season has been particularly good for quality and volumes of watermelons and cantaloupes. He believes the western Kansas and southern Missouri potato crops are also in good shape because of optimal growing conditions this season.
Dave Haun, owner of Haun Potato, Merriam, Kan., said retailers around the Midwest are increasingly asking for regionally grown onions and potatoes, but he said some restaurant operators are more interested in established regional reputations for menu promotions.
“A lot of foodservice accounts, especially restaurants, specifically ask for things like Idaho potatoes,” Haun said.
In Omaha, local continues to be an increasingly important selling point for Greenberg Fruit Co., said Brent Bielski, general manager.
“Retail is driving the demand because of consumer requests,” Bielski said. “We are fortunate to have tremendous assets within (30 to 90 minutes) of Omaha to meet those requests much of the year.”
Some growers are hopeful the popularity of local produce will help consumers and retailers embrace the less lovely fruits of their labors.
Martin Goedken has had an asian pear orchard in Northwest Missouri since 1990. The trees started bearing fruit around 1995, but no one knew what they were at that time. Every year since then, Goedken has donated his entire Asian pear harvest to food pantries and other hunger programs.
But this year, when Goedken was delivering some other fresh produce to a nearby Hy-Vee store in Maryville, Mo., he pitched his pears again.
Apparently national media and foodie attention about the variety has reached semi-rural Missouri, because the produce manager at the Hy-Vee decided to try a couple of hundred pounds of Goedken’s fruit.
“They taste perfectly good,” Goedken said. “But these varieties I have aren’t the same as the imported ones. They are a little smaller and the skin can be a little rusty colored in spots. They aren’t as pretty, and sometimes that’s what grocery stores look at. We’ll just have to see if they sell.”
In the meantime, Goedken and his wife Lisa donated the remainder of the crop again this year.