Retailers can’t get enough of what customers are demanding, and that’s good news for Skagit Valley-grown fruits and vegetables, suppliers in the region say.
Retailers showcase valley product in a number of ways, they note.
“We do displays, and we send out an e-mail newsletter that says this is what’s coming in and this is what the prices will be,” said Erin Treat, produce clerk and assistant outreach coordinator for the Skagit Valley Food Co-op in Mount Vernon, Wash. “We have a video series called ‘The Produce Report,’ and that comes out once a week highlighting local product and what you can do with it. We have cooking classes, farm tours, all kinds of ways people can get connected with local product.”
All retailers doing business in the region, including Wal-Mart, Safeway, Haggen’s and Kroger-owned Fred Meyer, promote valley produce heavily, said Dean Cunningham, vice president of Mount Vernon-based Washington Lettuce & Vegetable Co.
“They do a really good job with it,” he said. “People know it’s from the Skagit Valley.”
There’s plenty of Skagit Valley product to promote locally – perhaps even a little too much, said Cliff Corwin, marketing and sales manager with Skagit Valley’s Best, the marketing and sales branch of Mount Vernon-based Smith & Morrison Farms LLC.
“A couple of local chains do promote Washington-grown and things like that at times,” he said. “The valley has more production than local markets can use. Foodservice operations and local chains do buy and promote local and advertise it, but for our particular operation, it’s not a huge part of our business. There aren’t that many people up here, and 10 sheds grow and pack potatoes.”
All of the major chains access locally grown fruits and vegetables and promote them well, Corwin said.
“Safeway is a corporate organization, and they do buy from some people here and have some stuff here, as does Fred Meyer/Kroger, but they can’t really use all the area grows by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “All sheds do sell some product locally, but it’s not a huge part of our business.”
Seattle-based wholesaler Charlie’s Produce has its own label, and the distributor works with some local growers to market their products under that label, said Diane Dempster, manager of the company’s Farmer’s Own program.
The label is Farmer’s Own Organic.
“We make agreements with growers to grow product for us and they pack it in our label,” Dempster said. “There are four or five growers in the Mount Vernon area that pack under our label.”
Retailers line up for valley product when it’s in-season, and Charlie’s is happy to oblige, Dempster said.
“We have a big emphasis on buying local,” she said. “We do profiles of them and advertise the local product. It’s important to our customers that we buy local, and we promote that all the time.”
Charlie’s hosts a lunch once a year in which the company brings its customers and its growers together, Dempster said.
“It’s an important part of our customers’ interest to promote their products,” Dempster said. “Most of the customers don’t know much about farming but would like to. We see ourselves as a link between those two. What we do as wholesalers is bring them their product.”
Local retailers work to make a connection between consumers and growers, too, said Birdsview, Wash.-based Maureen Royal, saleswoman for Bridges Produce, Portland, Ore.
“The local Food Pavilion, as well as Safeway and Walmart, have some local product, for sure, and a lot of times, they have signs that tell about the local farmers,” she said.
Making that connection is an important tool, said Dale Hayton, sales manager at Valley Pride Sales, Mount Vernon.
“We’re seeing a lot more product origination signs in stores,” he said. “There are photo montages of growers with their product and so on. The retailers definitely recognize the consumer wants a connection to the local grower and product or where it’s from.”