Mother Nature packed plenty of drama into the first half of 2013, and Kentucky and Tennessee produce growers weren’t the only ones affected by it.
“It’s been a pretty good roller coaster with the markets and weather,” said Kenny Pendergrass, vice president of purchasing at distributor Dixie Produce, Inc., Chattanooga, Tenn. “I hate to think about what’s still to come.”
Too much rain, not enough rain, late starts — it’s been a little bit of everything.
“We’ve had some amazing situations, and so many things have been affected,” Pendergrass said. “It’s hard to pick a category where we can say, ‘This wasn’t affected.’”
Dixie Produce experienced one of the more interesting Memorial Days it’s had in a while, thanks to Mother Nature’s whims, and Pendergrass hoped the relative calm that had settled on the industry by the second of June would prevail.
“Overall, most markets now have corrected themselves,” with supplies and quality rising accordingly, Pendergrass said June 20.
Above-average rainfall in Tennessee and surrounding states, however, set back plantings and could affect the timing of some local production, Pendergrass said.
Acreage is up on everything this year for Louisville, Ky.-based Grow Farms, said Brian Knott, president.
That includes cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes, squash and other vegetables.
Severe winds set back some crops earlier in the deal. Squash and zucchini, for instance, were running about 10 days late — but by the second half of June quality was looking very good across the board, Knott said.
Distribution area grows
Dixie Produce has seen its distribution net increase in recent years, Pendergrass said.
“We’ve spread out some — we’re close to 300 miles now,” he said. “That’s where the business has taken us.”
For a distributor in a relatively small city, spreading your wings can be a good thing, Pendergrass said.
“Chattanooga’s not a huge market,” he said. “Because we’re going out so far, it opens up a lot of markets.”
Traveling farther does mean spending more money for fuel, and Dixie Produce has adjusted accordingly.
“We’re continuing to work on making our fleet more efficient,” Pendergrass said.
Where it can, the company is switching to smaller trucks that get better mileage, a process that began last year, he said.
Grow Farms ships within about a 500-mile radius of Louisville, Knott said.
This year, the company picked up a roma tomato grower in Indiana, expanding its reach.
It’s a good fit for the company, which has trucks on Interstate 65 taking deliveries to Indianapolis.
Now those trucks can pick up the Indiana product on their way back to Louisville, Knott said.
Middlemen pushed out
As big players such as Wal-Mart and Publix flex their muscles, the Tennessee retail scene has seen a contraction of business in what Pendergrass categorizes as the “middle” section of the industry.
“We’ve seen a reduction in the independents and a lot of consolidation,” he said.
One trend Knott sees growing is a shift away from the middleman in the delivery of fresh fruits and vegetables.
“We’re leaning more now than in the past to (sourcing) direct from the farm,” he said. “We’ve gotten pretty good at that over the past couple of years.”
The produce industry on the whole has contracted in the area served by Dixie Produce, Pendergrass said.
“Business is down,” he said. “It’s not that we’ve lost business, but the companies we have aren’t doing as much business.”
It’s not because people are eating out more, Pendergrass said. They’re cutting back everywhere.
“When people go to grocery stores, they’re cutting out the extras,” he said. “And people are making one trip. They’re not making those extra trips.”
Farmstand business also has suffered because of the trend, he said.
“People’s spending and buying habits are different than they were,” he said. “There’s not a lot of impulse buying.”