When it comes to sourcing organic produce, retailers frequently feel as if they are performing a juggling act: Consumers are demanding the stuff year-round, but availability and cost efficiencies limit sourcing choices. For some retailers, turning to larger and often faraway growers has been a solution, but the move is being met more and more with resistance from consumers who fail to see what has been gained, only what has been given up in the process.
?By far, freshness, quality and flavor have been sacrificed,? says Joe Scrimger, owner of Scrimger Farm, Life Time Foods, and Bio-Systems, all in Marlette, Mich.
Proponents believe a retailer shift toward buying locally grown produce would benefit everyone. Since smaller farmers often struggle to compete with larger growers directly on price—given labor, scale and other costs—competing indirectly with quality and variety is more feasible. Dean Schladweiler, produce manager at The Wedge in Minneapolis, believes a commitment to local growers can overcome such obstacles. ?We have developed a symbiotic relationship with our growers, and meet with them every year to work out issues such as meeting demand and pricing to ensure everyone is satisfied.? And, by relying more on locally grown produce, retailers stand to increase market share and develop a loyal customer base and a point of differentiation.
Scrimger and others note that a globalized system that favors volume has put many of the smaller farmers? futures in jeopardy and is impacting the environment. Too much energy and fuel is being consumed to produce and ship items destined not for local markets but for distant locales, they say. ?Much of the produce consumers purchase today is more likely to be grown thousands of miles away than by a local farmer and sold for less than it cost the farmer to grow it,? notes Scrimger.
Robert Schueller, assistant marketing director for Melissa?s/World Variety Produce in Los Angeles, believes retailers owe it to their customers to provide a balanced offering, and that might not always mean locally grown produce. ?Everyone loves locally grown produce, but unfortunately it is hard to rely on for all 12 months of the year. Shoppers count on finding the produce they need all year long.? And that?s not the only operational issue. Many question whether retailers can indeed shift back to assortments featuring locally grown produce given the industry?s triple threat: the globalized nature of today?s supply chain, the expectations of consumers and the pressures on retailers to be competitive.
For Schladweiler, the answer is a resounding ?absolutely.? Since its inception, the co-op?s philosophy has been to serve the local growers as long as and as much as it possibly can. In fact, during summer months almost half of all the produce The Wedge offers is locally grown. ?We?ve had relationships with many of these growers for years, and much of that is due to the variety and volumes each grows.?
Creating regional networks in certain markets is another option that may address sourcing concerns, but such arrangements usually require participants to go above and beyond their basic role as farmers—something not all of them are prepared to do.
A taste of controversy
As for the common criticism that taste is often lacking from large producers? wares, Schueller disagrees. In fact, he says, the opposite is often true. He cites an informal study published in the Winter 2004 issue of Eating Well magazine, which found consumers preferred the taste of organic broccoli shipped from California to Vermont over its locally, albeit conventionally grown, counterpart. ?While it?s good to support small farmers, it comes down to taste. You can?t generate repeat purchases if taste or quality is inconsistent, and that is sometimes the case with local produce,? Schueller says.
For his part, Schladweiler says that because produce sold at The Wedge is often picked in the morning and is on the shelf by afternoon, it arrives in better condition than produce traveling farther distances. ?It?s because of this quality and our focus on locally grown that many of our customers tell us they do their primary, if not all their produce shopping with us.?
Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, Calif., says there will always be both emotional and practical arguments when it comes to the role locally grown produce should play. He believes there is room for organics from all sizes of producers. ?Given the coexisting needs [of retailers and consumers] for good-quality produce all year long, I am not sure it is possible to rely solely on a locally grown organic program, even for the smallest retailers,? says Scowcroft. ?At this point in time, though, to satisfy consumers? needs, retailers should bring in produce from many locales to create a broad organic produce offering. That said, we believe that whenever possible locally growing farmers should be supported first.?
Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, notes that some outlets have already shifted to—or never stopped offering—local organic products. ?The proliferation of farmers? markets and [community supported agriculture] shows that there are shoppers out there who seek to buy directly from the farmer. If customers demand it, vendors will find a way to supply it.? However, she adds that most consumers want a variety of organic produce available year-round and at competitive prices. ?That also tells me that retailers who offer predominantly local organic products would have a way to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.? Schladweiler says that, with very few exceptions, availability has not been an issue.
The benefits in using local growers stretch beyond supporting the local community. ?There are tremendous health benefits in consuming locally grown commodities,? notes Scrimger. ?People who consume honey taken from local bees, for example, often develop immunity to pollens in that region. Since that mechanism is true all the way through the food system, it is reasonable to assume similar health benefits can be gained from other produce grown and consumed locally.? As the population ages and consumers increasingly seek out food as medicine, Scrimger and others believe attention to the health benefits of locally grown produce may be the catalyst the movement needs to push forward.
Communicating the message
In opposition to the Eating Well study, research conducted by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University found that if appearance and price are equal, consumers prefer to buy products that are locally grown or from family farms. Moreover, consumers? purchasing decisions appear to be influenced when products include growing information such as which farm the item is from and when it was picked. These same consumers also indicated they would be willing to pay as much as 15 percent more for local items.
The Community Alliance with Family Farmers, a grassroots group in Davis, Calif., is working with FoodRoutes, a national nonprofit resource, to spread the word. The pair has created a ?Buy Fresh, Buy Local? label for products from California?s central coast. So far, nearly 50 farmers are participating in the program, and the groups expect that number to increase as more retailers learn about the project. At last count seven other states were developing similar labeling programs.
For The Wedge Co-op, detailed signage at the point of purchase and education about the impact sustainable agriculture can make on a local economy have been instrumental in helping it communicate the ?grown locally? message. ?Our signs not only feature photos of the farm; they tell our shoppers about how the produce was grown and when it was picked,? says Schladweiler, adding that the information helps to create an intimate relationship between the co-op, grower and consumer. ?Many of our shoppers prefer to purchase locally grown produce and gravitate toward anything that supports sustainable agriculture or small family farms.?
Carol Radice is a free-lance writer in Vermont. Contact her at [email protected].
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 3/p. 86, 88