Local's popularity, drought add pressure for St. Louis suppliers

08/03/2012 11:07:00 AM
Andy Nelson

ST. LOUIS — Demand for locally grown fruits and vegetables is strong in St. Louis, but meeting it in the face of heat and drought conditions can pose challenges for wholesalers.

Locally grown corn and cabbage suffered from the extreme summer heat, said Sal Pupillo, co-owner of H.R. Bushman & Son, a wholesaler on the St. Louis Produce Market.

The good thing about the Midwest in mid-summer, Pupillo said, is that if weather knocks out a commodity in one growing area, chances are you can get it from another.

Some local growers were reporting troubles finding enough labor to pick the local tomato crop, Pupillo said.

Whether the local deal is expanding, Pupillo said, is a matter of perspective.

“It depends on what you call local,” he said. “If you include neighboring states, then yes, it’s becoming bigger. Kentucky is a neighboring state.”

Effective marketing strategy

Whatever the definition, there’s no doubt local is an effective marketing tool.

“It’s a good selling point for people who advertise,” he said.

Locally grown continues to be a big draw for Vaccaro & Sons Produce, owner Dale Vaccaro said.

“It’s midsummer, so everyone’s excited about home grown,” he said.

Tomatoes, squash, watermelon, cantaloupe, eggplants, heirloom tomatoes, yellow tomatoes and “all sorts of oddball stuff — heirloom this, heirloom that” are among the locally grown fruits and vegetables Vaccaro & Sons sources for its customers.

Asked about recent market trends, Vaccaro doesn’t hesitate to name the biggest one: local.

Vaccaro & Sons typically sources locally grown within a 50-mile radius of St. Louis, Vaccaro said.

Locally grown is a big deal for Independent Fruit & Produce, another wholesaler on the St. Louis Produce Market, partner Steve Wielansky said. But 2012 has been a challenge.

“We do a lot of local in the summer, but this year has not really been good” because of the number of days the thermometer has topped 100 degrees, Wielansky said.

Tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers, cabbage, eggplant and watermelon are among the company’s big local sellers, he said.

Independent sources locally grown fruits and vegetables from Missouri and Illinois, Wielansky said.

Sun Farm Foodservice also sources more local product every year, said John Pollaci, president.

One of the company’s big suppliers of lettuce, tomatoes and other vegetables during the summer is Maryland Heights, Mo.-based Thies Farms, one of the larger farms in the region, Pollaci said.

“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.”



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