As Russ Shlagel watches the line of cars from Washington D.C. heading to his Waldorf, Md.. farm to pick strawberries, he knows buying local is no fad.
During the summer, those who can’t get to his farm know they can walk into any Giant Foods supermarket and find strawberries and fresh vegetables from Shlagel Farms prominently displayed along with produce from other local growers.
“We’ve increased acreage and sales every year we’ve worked with them,” said Shlagel, a trading partner of Landover, Md.-based Giant Foods since 1993.
“It would be a lot easier for their buyers to get on the phone with a broker and line up six weeks’ worth of items,” he said, “but they’re really committed to buying from small growers.”
Giant is even helping farmers achieve third-party food safety certification, said Shlagel, who planted his first 5,000 strawberry plants of the chandler variety on plastic in 1999. Last year he planted 70,000 on his former tobacco land.
Being local also helped the father of five sell 1-pound strawberry clamshells adorned with the Maryland’s Best logo to Austin, Texas- based Whole Foods Market.
“We’re not organic,” he said, “but the reduced carbon footprint of local crops fits their mandate.”
In the latest annual survey conducted by Annapolis-based Maryland Department of Agriculture, 78% of residents said they’d prefer to buy Maryland-grown produce, compared to 55% in 2005, said Mark Powell, chief of marketing and agribusiness development.
Powell said the number of farmers’ markets in the state has increased from 72 in 2005 to 130 today.
He said wealthy Maryland is also attracting “a little more upscale” supermarket chains including Matthews, N.C.-based Harris Teeter and Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans, which support local growers.
“Some people don’t think produce is truly local when it lands in a chain store,” said Ed Kee, secretary of agriculture for neighboring Delaware, “but it is.”
“The sheer volume of people walking into a grocery store offers a great opportunity to sell local,” Kee said, “and more and more farmers are delivering directly to stores.”
All 19 Delaware school districts now purchase local produce, said Kee, and the state’s 16 local farmer’s markets did $1.7 million in business last year.
A record 26 community farmer’s markets are setting up tents this summer, he said, including one in Wilmington.
Markets near the state’s resort beaches are the most successful.
Delaware Valley Farm Share, which partners with family farms in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, is even offering Wilmington office workers a chance to pre-order local produce for biweekly deliveries, Kee said.
John Johnston, owner of Locustville, Va.-based Pickpenny Produce, another long-time Giant Foods supplier, is encouraged by the chain’s support for his fresh vegetables, from beets to bok choy.
“There are still some purveyors who don’t care if produce comes from California or where it comes from,” Johnston said, “but local is strong, and the chains seem to be pushing it.”
When Shlagel began growing fresh-market produce in 1988, he said stores didn’t want local and crop extension services warned growers not to plant too much.
“Now when you plant something you think, ‘Gosh, I should’ve planted a few more rows!’” he said.
Local food will only sell, however, if growers maintain quality, said Shlagel, whose sons man eight farmers’ markets a week.
“If the quality’s there, and your product is good, nutritious and safe, people will want it.”