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.”