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If the produce industry had an ?it? girl, her name would be Local.
According to a recent poll by the Hartman Group, about half of American consumers have bought local produce in the past year. In a national survey, the Bellevue, Wash.-based consumer research firm also found that consumers listed ?locally grown or produced? as the fourth most important factor influencing their food and beverage purchases.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has referred to the demand for local and regional food as ?skyrocketing.? As part of the USDA?s 2009 ?Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food? initiative to strengthen small farms, cooperatives ? or food hubs ? have received more than $25 million in federal aid in the past five years, further helping to fuel the locally grown food boom.
Our national appetite for locally grown and organic produce has also translated to a burgeoning farmers? market culture in the United States. The USDA reports that the number of farmers? markets in the United States has grown from 1,755 markets in 1994 to more than 8,144 in 2013.
But it?s America?s supermarkets ? a growing number of which are building meaningful and lasting relationships with area farmers and cooperatives ? that are driving the local produce trend to the next level.
In its July ?National Fruit and Vegetable Retail Report,? the USDA noted, ?Retailers are supporting locally grown produce by featuring local farmers in ads so consumers understand where their produce is grown.? The total number of stores that featured ?Marked Local? produce was 73,484 for the month, representing 21 percent of total ads.
From supermarket delivery trucks featuring farmers? faces to vibrant in-store signage to online videos showing featured farms in action, progressive grocers are infusing local produce with connectivity, and their customers are hungry for more.
Bringing Local Home
Locally sourced foods and beverages are the hallmark of online grocer FreshDirect. The Long Island City, N.Y.-based retailer defines ?local? as products grown, raised, fished or made within 300 miles of New York City.
?We polled our customers and found that 82 percent of them care where their food comes from,? notes Eric Stone, FreshDirect senior category merchant for produce.
The grocer offers a map on its website that allows customers to see the exact location from which the fruits, vegetables, cheese or wine they might purchase hails. ?We believe in being transparent and letting the consumer decide whether something is local or not,? says Stone.
When FreshDirect began making deliveries in New York in 2002, it worked with two local farms to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to its customers. Today, the grocer collaborates with more than 70 farms for produce alone.
?I spend a lot of my time on the farms, building relationships,? explains Stone. ?At first, it was very difficult. Some of farmers had been burned before by retailers who didn?t take what they said they were going to, or they worked with them one year and were out the next. We actually had a farmer we knew come with us on the first trips to other farms so he could vouch for us. Now we?ve garnered a good reputation and farmers come to us.?
FreshDirect is devoted to promoting the farms from which its foods are sourced. ?We brand the farm where the food comes from and tell their story,? says Stone. In fact, the grocer has built a team dedicated to marketing local food, including a fleet of (increasingly electric) trucks and drivers for visiting farms and collecting produce every day.
?Farmers are good farmers, but they are not necessarily good marketers,? observes Stone. If a farm is lacking a logo or brand identity, FreshDirect will help it create one. The grocer promotes local farms through its delivery trucks, website, e-mail blasts and packaging.
?We feel local is about creating connections between our customers and the farms the produce is coming from,? he says.
Right now, local fruit season is in full swing. FreshDirect works with a number of area orchards and fruit-cultivating farms, including Red Jacket Orchards and Klein?s Kill Fruit Farms. Cherries, peaches, nectarines, grapes, plums, apples and more are all grown within reach.
?We celebrate local fruit,? says Stone. One of the most effective ways FreshDirect promotes it is by featuring sweet local favorites in its weekly ?President?s Picks? e-blast of the best of what?s in season. The page, which also appears on the FreshDirect website, is one of the grocer?s most trafficked.
As delicious as local summer fruit can be, there?s little more disappointing for shoppers than when they take that first bite of a peach or nectarine and are met with less than juicy fruit. Understanding this, FreshDirect has implemented one of the grocery industry?s boldest programs for selling better produce.
FreshDirect produce managers review their entire stock of produce each day, and then rank each fruit and vegetable according to a Daily Produce Rating System. Five stars means the product has never been better, four stars is great, three stars is good, two stars is average, and a single star is below average. The ratings are updated each morning on the FreshDirect website for all customers to consider.
One of the biggest challenges to offering customers a consistent selection of local produce is its limited seasonal availability in most parts the country. FreshDirect has found an innovative way around this vexing agricultural reality.
In partnership with area farmers, FreshDirect harvests produce at the peak of season and flash-freezes it for sale in its frozen food department, under the Hudson Valley Harvest label. A package of local frozen sweet corn, for example, reads, ?Grown by Altobelli Farm in Kinderhook, N.Y., traveled 43 miles to Kingston, N.Y., where it was shucked, cut and frozen.?
Once the bastion of subscriber-only services, community-supported agriculture (CSA) is now another way grocers are differentiating their local produce selections.
Lowes Foods, a Winston-Salem, N.C.-based chain with 100 stores throughout North and South Carolina, renamed its Locally Grown Club ?The Carolina Crate? this year. The expanded program, available in select Lowes Foods stores, invites customers to support local farmers and source ?unique produce items, which can be difficult to find at other grocery stores.?
The crates, or boxes, are available on Saturdays, beginning at 9 a.m., until they run out around mid-September. Each box, which contains 10 to 12 pounds of six to eight varieties of produce, sells for $26. Lowes suggests that this is enough to feed a family of four for a week.
Each box of peak-of-freshness produce also contains recipe ideas and information about the farms that supplied the goodies.
While Lowes has committed to buy the produce in advance, customers don?t have to pre-pay, nor do they have to subscribe, to purchase a box of locally grown produce.
The same is true for the newly launched CSA program at FreshDirect, which features three options at three price points. At $49.99, the most expensive box contains local eggs and cheese in addition to local produce. The two produce-only offerings are $34.99 and $27.99, respectively.
?It?s been very successful, but we?re still in the preliminary phase,? says Stone of the CSA boxes. ?It takes the guesswork out of what?s fresh and in abundance.? FreshDirect plans to expand the program in the future.
Supermarket chains with a passion for sourcing local produce, like Milwaukee-based Roundy?s Inc., have begun teaming with cooperatives as yet another way to meet customer demand for locally grown fruits and veggies.
Roundy?s and the Madison-based Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative began selling local produce this spring in all of the grocer?s Pick? n Save, Copps and Metro Market stores in the Badger State.
?Through this venture, Roundy?s will be able to offer its customers locally grown produce, including fruits and vegetables, all harvested within Wisconsin,? the 161-store operator said in a statement (Roundy?s has about 120 stores in the state).
?We polled our customers and found that 82 percent of them care where their food comes from.?
?Eric Stone, FreshDirect
?Farmers are good farmers, but they are not necessarily good marketers.?
?Eric Stone, FreshDirect