“They’re getting more involved with wholesalers, and we need large quantities,” he said. “Some of these farmers show up with just a pale of lettuce.”
Cucumbers, squash, zucchini, peppers, beets, kohlrabi and heirloom tomatoes are among the other popular locally grown items supplied by Sun Farm.
Markets, chefs partner
Local is so hot in St. Louis now, some area farmers markets are partnering with area chefs who provide seed money for local growers to grow produce tailored to individual restaurants’ needs, Pollaci said.
Despite the popularity of local, there are still some drawbacks, Pollaci said. Some chefs are hesitant to put local on the menu because it goes out of season so quickly. For example, locally grown greens were off menus by early July because high temperatures this summer burned them all off, he said.
Irregular sizing also can be a challenge with local, Pollaci said. Pack sizes aren’t as regular as packs from conventional big shippers, and the head sizes of lettuce often vary.
“You’re not always sure what you’re getting.”
Locally grown is huge for retail chain Dierbergs, which has 24 stores in the area, said Steve Duello, produce category manager for Chesterfield, Mo.-based Dierbergs Markets Inc.
Locally grown is prominently displayed at the entrance to Dierbergs stores between July 1 and mid-August, when the company sells 24 or more fruits and vegetables from Missouri and Illinois at any given time, up from 12 to 15 items just three years ago.
Signs on local displays at Dierbergs feature photos of the farmers who grew the produce and information about them. Fruits and vegetables in the displays typically are picked 24 hours earlier — or even more recent.
In an era when customers are accustomed to year-round availability, locally grown is one category they’re willing to wait for, Duello said. Honeycrisp apples are among the few other items that fall into that category.
“Very few get the respect that local does,” he said. “If you ask customers, it’s among the most important (categories), if not the most. Everyone knows farmers have it tough. They’d rather support their local growers.”