Ohio produce shippers find connection with local food movement

06/02/2011 01:39:00 PM
Dan Gailbraith

WILLARD, Ohio — Ohio growers were local before local was cool, and the continuing emphasis on local sourcing should benefit marketers in 2011, Ohio sources say.

Local demand has been good for business, said Loren Buurma, co-owner of Willard-based Buurma Farms Inc.

Regional and national retailers with stores in Ohio and surrounding states are paying much closer attention to local deals and offering more ad support than in previous years, Buurma said.

Whereas in the past, a retailer might have been satisfied with a one- or two-week promotion of local produce, supermarkets this year want help in identifying new local items to promote each week.

"Local produce has been the buzzword, and it is helping us," said Kirk Holthouse, general manager of Willard-based Holthouse Farms of Ohio Inc.

Holthouse said retailers are actively looking for programs and pricing during the local produce season.

Nearby buyers can save money with local produce, Holthouse said. Instead of paying $6,000 to $7,000 per load for produce from the West Coast, local retailers can get a load from Ohio produce suppliers for $500 to $1,500.

Jim Wiers, president of Willard-based Wiers Farm Inc./Dutch Maid, said that the high cost of transportation could also boost local demand this year.

 “The local deal has been very good,” Wiers said. “If trucks out West have to come a greater distance to the consumer (than we do), that benefits us all the way around.”

Ohio vegetables also make good sense for buyers since the state is so close to large population centers, said Jeff Zellers, president of K.W. Zellers & Son, Inc., Hartville.

However, he said, local demand shouldn’t be considered as an easier way to sell inferior produce.

“We don’t want people to buy from us just because we are local,” Zellers said. “We want to give produce that the customer wants, and put up the varieties and packs they want.”

Fortunately for Ohio growers, surveys show a high level of confidence in local produce.

“What the surveys have shown is that consumers are most comfortable with food from their back yard, or if not their backyard, from the county, or the state, or food from a couple hundred miles away,” Wiers said.

The definition of local is not fixed, he said, but his company can ship its produce overnight to 60% of the U.S. population.

Urbana-based Michael Farms, Urbana, has offered a farm market retail store at its operation since 1980 to cater to the demand of the “walk-in” customer.

The retail operation has about 50 customers a day, which accounts for just a fraction of the business, said Todd Michael, vice president. About half of those customers purchase a carton size and the other half buys smaller quantities.

The company typically sells most of its commercial volume of produce within a 150-mile radius, to buyers in Ohio, central Michigan, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, Michael said.

“It is a help, and it has always been kind of our hook,” he said.

Many customers feature Michael Farms in pictures or point-of-sale signs so that the public can relate to growers.

“It may not always be practical, but when local is in season, there is a lot of benefits for everybody,” Michael said.

Deborah Hanline, office manager for John F. Stambaugh & Co., Plymouth, said that local demand has become very important to the dry onion marketer.

 “It never used to make a difference where the onions or any of the produce items came from, “she said.



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