Strong demand for local produce in Kentucky and Tennessee is driven by cost concerns, consumer preferences and state-sponsored marketing programs.
Louisville, Ky.-based Frank A. Campisano & Sons Fruit Co. handles a lot of local produce, said Frank Campisano Jr., president.
“Homegrown is what everybody wants, and there’s no freight, either, which makes it cheaper,” Campisano said.
The biggest local crop is tomatoes, Campisano said, but green onions, squash, green peppers, cucumbers, watermelons and pumpkins also are important Kentucky-grown crops.
Dixie Produce Inc., Chattanooga, Tenn., buys from more than 45 area growers and distributes the produce within a 400-mile radius of the farms, said Lee Pittman, owner and president.
Local produce is important to foodservice and retailer buyers in Tennessee, as well, he said, and foodservice buyers are more aggressively seeking locally grown produce.
“I’m very farmer-oriented,” he said. “We were doing local before it was the chic thing to do.”
Dixie Produce provides point-of-sale materials for retailer customers to use with displays of local produce.
The company also requires all suppliers to be third-party audited, and it works with local growers on incorporating good food safety practices into their production, Pittman said.
There are many local growers Dixie Produce does not buy from because their standards are not high enough, Pittman said.
Among the local items Dixie Produce markets are tomatoes, eggplant, melon, squash, cabbage and okra. Tennessee’s tomatoes, in particular, are an important local item, Pittman said.
“They are well regarded for flavor, taste and shelf life,” he said.
Grainger County, Tenn., just east of Knoxville, Tenn., is famous within the state for its tomato production, said Annette Wszelaki, vegetable extension specialist, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
One Grainger County grower, John Mixon Farms, Rutledge, Tenn., grows tomatoes for North Carolina-based The Fresh Market Inc., a specialty grocery chain that operates more than 100 stores in 20 states, including Kentucky and Tennessee, according to its website.
Mixon Farms has grown tomatoes for The Fresh Market for about 20 years, said Rhonda Mixon, co-owner.
Mixon Farms has about 40 acres of tomatoes this year, and packs them in 25-pound boxes and repacks for The Fresh Market. Last year, the company packed about 32,000 boxes.
As of June 22, Mixon Farms had just finished harvesting tomatoes and was beginning to pick field tomatoes, Mixon said.