ST. LOUIS — The locally grown produce movement that has caught fire across the country hasn’t been lost here. If only weather conditions would allow those flames to burn a little longer.
“The problem with home grown here is, it’s a great season, but it only lasts six to eight weeks,” said Steve Duello, category manager for produce for Dierbergs Markets Inc., Chesterfield.
For the second straight year, the St. Louis metro area endured a cooler-than-normal, wet spring. That was followed by a short but intense heat wave in June, followed by more rain in July. That’s delayed or curtailed volume of some local crops.
But demand for home-grown product remains strong at the retail level.
“We’re very locally grown driven,” said Marvin McDonald, produce category specialist for William A. Staub Inc., which has five stores and has been a presence in the area since 1901. “It seems like a close-knit group of people, people who have been coming here for ages and through generations. They all like the local, fresh produce. It moves well.”
The brand new Staub’s location in Ellisville hosts a farmers market every Thursday, where they pitch tents in the parking lot. McDonald said he buys a lot of Arkansas eggplant and tomatoes, Illinois yellow and green squash and raspberries, as well as Missouri cabbage, watermelon, peaches and nectarines.
“We even have morel mushrooms that sell for $35-45 per pound,” McDonald said. “St. Louis is big on herbs and mushrooms.
“We carry unique things others don’t, like truffles, which sell for something around $300 per pound. If they want to spend that, we’ll sell them.”
Local retail giant Schnucks also participates in a locally grown program, but Mike O’Brien, vice president of produce, said he didn’t see traditional goods going anywhere because of the region’s weather issues.
“(Locally grown is) a big deal for consumers,” O’Brien said. “But it’s not as easy for Missouri because of weather patterns. Traditional suppliers are still very important. They’re not going away.”
The trend also seems to be catching on in foodservice.
“All foodservice periodicals are talking up local grown,” said Sam Sanfillipo, chief executive officer of Sun Farm Foodservice. “The problem is getting all the growers to get into some of the items chefs are looking for. There are a lot of farmers markets, and chefs love that, because they can walk around and see what they like.”
Dierbergs, which merchandises its lobby areas with locally grown produce, sources corn, beets and tomatoes locally, Duello said, and has held relationships with local growers for more than 20 years.
“It’s a huge deal because everyone wants to capitalize on everything, from high transportations costs, to traceability and food safety issues, to just the trend toward wanting produce local and fresh,” Duello said. “But we’ve found that the biggest thing for consumers is they like supporting the local economy.”