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.
Grainger County was hit by strong hailstorms just after field crops were planted in April, but the storms missed Mixon Farms’ field tomatoes.
Mixon Farms also had three to four days in June with severe storms, but Mixon said she didn’t know of any damage.
“They (the tomatoes) are really beautiful,” Mixon said of the field tomatoes. “This area grows a really wonderful tomato. They have a rich flavor.”
Even Mixon Farms’ greenhouse tomatoes are grown in Grainger County soil. The plants are set in the ground, under a wood frame covered with plastic.
Grow Farms, Louisville, Ky., grows and ships Grainger County field and greenhouse tomatoes, said Brian Knott, president.
Demand for Grainger County tomatoes is strong, especially from retailer buyers, Knott said.
Orbit Tomato Corp., Memphis, Tenn., repacks tomatoes and red potatoes.
The majority of its business is in repacking round tomatoes into reusable plastic containers for a major retailer in Memphis, said Lee Forcherio, general manager. It also packs romas and a four-pack of green tomatoes, as well as red potatoes, for that chain.
Orbit sources tomatoes from across the U.S., and during the local tomato season, Orbit’s major-chain customer drops Orbit as a supplier. It prefers to deal directly with a local grower, Forcherio said.
“I don’t know if it’s a price thing or a just a public relations thing, but they go directly to the grower,” he said. “I could, theoretically, supply them with the local tomatoes.”
In general, retailers in Memphis support local growers, Forcherio said. He often sees point-of-sales signs promoting produce as homegrown or locally grown. Memphis retailers also frequently advertise local produce in print ads, he said.
“When it’s available, I think they do try to take advantage of it as much as they can,” Forcherio said.
Memphis retailers’ interest in local produce is not a new trend, but Forcherio said he’d noticed a bigger push for local farmers markets in the past two to three years.
“There’s been at least eight or 10 so-called farmers markets pop up in communities around Memphis,” Forcherio said.
The Pick Tennessee Products program has a website where consumers and buyers can find suppliers of items produced in Tennessee.
The program is funded through state appropriations, said Kyle Holmberg, marketing specialist at the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Nashville.
It is free marketing for participating producers, he said.
The department’s marketing specialists connect growers with retail chain buyers, including Abingdon, Va.-based Food City Stores, which often buys local produce, Holmberg said.
The main state-funded marketing for Kentucky’s fresh produce is Kentucky Proud.
Demand for local produce is strong in Kentucky, said Adam Watson, produce marketing specialist, Kentucky Department of Agriculture, Frankfort.
“There has always been some interest in local, but it’s in the forefront now,” Watson said. “We’re seeing more retailers coming to us and looking for Kentucky Proud items, often because consumers are asking for it.”