Locally grown movement takes Heartland by storm

09/18/2009 02:10:13 PM
Bob Luder

Nick Conforti, vice president of Kansas City, Mo.-based C&C Produce, said he remembers a meeting he recently had with members of the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association in Denver. The information that came out of that meeting said a lot about the explosion of the locally grown produce movement sweeping the U.S., he said.

“They talked about local grown maybe one day replacing a lot of the organic,” Conforti said.

The nation’s heartland — including the areas surrounding Kansas City; Omaha, Neb.; and Des Moines, Iowa — has not been immune from the locally grown craze taking root all across the country. Conforti, for one, said his company currently has 10 local growers it buys from. C&C’s involvement doesn’t stop there.

“All of our growers have (Good Agricultural Practices) programs in place,” he said. “We purchased over $500,000 worth of local grown goods this year. That’s up 40% from last year. I think all retailers are noticing that local grown is becoming the trend.”

That’s very true, at least according to one retail operator in the heartland.

“It’s huge and getting bigger and bigger all the time,” said Doug Riley, assistant vice president of produce operations for West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee.

“We not only encourage our stores to buy from local growers, but we then hold some local-grown product in our warehouse for stores when their supplies get short.”

Riley said a lot of Hy-Vee stores sponsor meet-the-grower days, where local growers make appearances and meet and mingle with customers. The stores also produce posters which show pictures and give information on local growers.

Distributors also are heavily involved in locally grown.

“We’re seeing it requested from the smallest to the largest customers we have,” said Brent Bielski, general manager of Greenberg Fruit Co., Omaha, Neb.

“It became popular and strong last year. I’d say it started three or four years ago. We work with three or four farmers in our area. And you just see it mentioned a lot more, seeing it in local ads during the week.”

The only real drawback with locally grown in the heartland is the length of the growing season, which typically runs from early July to early- to mid-September.

“We have about nine growers we work with,” said Brendan Comito, chief operating officer of Capital City Fruit Co. Inc., Norwalk, Iowa. “Half are in Iowa, the other half outside, in Nebraska, Missouri and Illinois. Farmers markets are really big here. There’s that perception of freshness. People feel a close connection to the grower.”

Of course, in Iowa, sweet corn is a local-grown favorite.

“It’s almost a sort of symbol of recognition,” said Gene Loffredo, president and chief executive officer of Loffredo Fresh Produce Co. Inc., Des Moines, Iowa. “There’s just something about an Iowa ear of corn. Unfortunately, (the local grown season) doesn’t last long. But we definitely see a loss in retail business when home grown comes on. People just can’t wait for the season to come.”

As much as the locally grown movement has grown and spread over the previous few years, it’s still a market that’s under-supplied for the demand, said Anthony Totta, a produce consultant who owns Grow My Profits LLC in Lee’s Summit, Mo.

“There’s some nice quality produce produced in Missouri and Kansas, but it’s hard for retailers to contract totally with them because there’s not enough supply,” Totta said. “It’s growing, and it’s becoming more sophisticated. The challenges now are how to become consolidated and distribute it.”



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