Drought, freezes challenge local produce distributors

01/13/2012 10:45:00 AM
Pamela Riemenschneider

HOUSTON — Houston-area consumers looking forward to local strawberries were foiled by a freeze this season and a long-term drought in many of the state’s growing regions that has suppliers scrambling for local produce to supply growing demand.

“The growers lost a big part of the local deal due to the drought,” said Brent Erenwert, vice president of Brothers Produce. “It’s been tough.”

Fort Worth-based Ben E. Keith Foods has an extensive list of local produce it sends out to customers twice a week.

That list has been somewhat limited lately but still includes local greens, mushrooms, squash and other items in high demand.

“We do what we can to find local produce,” said Bill Sewell, director of produce and dairy. “Food safety is a big part of the local program.”

Ben E. Keith requires food safety audits and good agricultural practices of its local suppliers.

Houston-based Chefs’ Produce Co. carries as much local produce as it can, buyer Darryl Johnson said.

“If we can have Texas, people will stay with it,” he said.

Mex Flores Produce, a Houston-based grower-shipper of Mexican produce, decided to take local into its own hands this year.

“We started growing watermelons in Lavaca County,” about a hour and a half from Houston, said Mike Contreras, sales manager.

Lavaca County is about an hour and a half from Houston.

The first crop was planted this fall, Contreras said.

The definition of local is a challenge to pin down, however. Some define it as Texas-grown, but Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons LLC has a narrower focus.

“We’ll have something like Parker County peaches,” said Mike Acrement, produce operations specialist for Albertsons’s stores in the central Dallas metro area.

George Flores, produce manager for the Fresh By Brookshires store in Tyler, said local produce usually is within 100 miles of the store.

“Local is a big deal for us,” he said. “We are working with growers to ensure adequate supplies.”



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