Ohio growers benefit from being ‘local’ for a huge population.
Originally printed in the June 2022 issue of Produce Business.
With a storied agricultural tradition, Ohio growers ship produce across much of the United States, as a growing range of crops meets the demands of consumers looking for seasonal fresh produce.
Ohio food retailers large and small acknowledge the importance of local produce. Recently, Cincinnati, OH-based Kroger Co. announced it was launching the second year of its Go Fresh & Local Supplier Accelerator program, designed to enhance the selection of local items sold across its store portfolio. The program provides a pathway for growers and producers across Ohio and the United States to work directly with Kroger. The emphasis is expanding its fresh departments, including produce.
“Kroger is fully committed to supporting a diverse group of innovative, local suppliers who can bring a great assortment of fresh products to our customers,” says Stuart Aitken, the company’s chief merchant and marketing officer.
The devotion to local produce is such that Acme Fresh Markets, in its online pickup or delivery shopping directory, allows consumers to filter by local. The local selection includes branded and Acme own-brand items.
Fresh Encounter, Findlay, OH, which operates 98 supermarkets under the banners Great Scot, Community Markets, Sack n Save, King Saver, Germantown Fresh Market, Remke Markets, Chief Supermarkets and Needler’s Fresh Market banners across Ohio, Indiana, and northern Kentucky, and Save-A-Lots in Florida, recognizes the strong desire for Ohio produce in its operation.
“We promote local heavily in our ads, in social media and we have signs that are created to attract our customers to our displays: ‘Look What’s Local,’” says Dave Rhodes, director of produce and floral, Fresh Encounter.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) coordinates the Ohio Proud program, a multifaceted effort that builds on the strength of the produce sector and the pride consumers have in the Buckeye State’s agricultural sector and traditions.
Ohio Proud member products are at least 50% raised, grown or processed in the state, according to Ashley McDonald, Ohio Proud program manager and specialty crop block grant coordinator, “so we are naturally a great fit to work with farmers and other sectors to help promote and incorporate produce.”
McDonald says they are currently promoting the farmers market season, creating producer training videos and working with farm-to-school programs in a cohesive, statewide marketing campaign called Local Menu Takeover to get more local fruits, vegetables and other items into school meals.
Ohio Proud promotes the direct sale of produce by growers, and heavily taps social media. Digital efforts promote both Ohio Proud as a brand and the program’s website, which connects consumers with local produce. The program is even partnering with the state’s tourism organization to direct consumers to those places where local produce is available.
However, the Ohio Proud initiative supports local produce beyond the farmers market, and that includes the state’s main retail sector.
“We usually switch to retail promotions through the holidays and winter season,” McDonald says.
And Ohio Proud has initiatives that encompass foodservice as well as retail. It has an affiliate membership and Ohio Proud On the Menu, which allows restaurants to use the program’s logo. “It’s a win-win, because while they get another marketing tool for free, we get additional brand awareness for our Ohio Proud paid members,” she says.
BUCKEYE STATE BOUNTY
One reason for the strength of local produce is the abundance and variety of fruits and vegetables grown in Ohio.
Among growers, Buurma Farms, Willard, OH, has a variety of commodities under cultivation, including such main crops as radishes, beets, lettuces, parsleys, Southern greens, sweet corn, green onions and celery; and also farms or packs cilantro, dill, cabbages, cucumbers, zucchini, yellow squash, hard squash, green beans, eggplant, kohlrabi, turnips, parsnips, pickles, bell peppers, specialty hot peppers, carrots and ornamentals.
Chadd Buurma, Buurma Farms president, says promotion of local growers is a factor in the market and says anything out to a range of 300 or 400 miles can be considered local by standards of the region, although the definition doesn’t quite stretch to the 1,200 or so miles it takes for Buurma Farm products to reach consumers in Miami, FL.
That being said, Buurma likes the advantages afforded by doing business nearby.
“We like to keep our produce as close to home as possible,” he says.
He maintains that supermarket chains in his market area understand many customers want local produce.
“Chain stores we work with are very big about promoting homegrown,” Buurma says. “When I walk into grocery stores, I see pictures of our family in the produce section. When I go grocery shopping with my wife and go to the produce section, I see that people want homegrown and they’re grabbing it more.”
With the demand for local produce, Buurma says, the company’s branded produce has enjoyed preference. “We do some private label, but the majority of what we do is Buurma label. We have gotten requests from our retailers for the Buurma label. It identifies that product is homegrown. That’s what people want.”
In Ohio and throughout the Midwest, Kathy Michael Sponheim, co-owner, Michael Family Farms, Urbana, OH, says three major consumption patterns have positively affected their business.
First, consumers are looking to buy local and foods with fewer “food miles” traveled from farm to fork. She notes people recognize buying local keeps dollars in immediate communities and economies and that it’s good for the environment. Second, eating more meals at home, as consumers generally have been during COVID-19, inspired many to fall in love with cooking again, including potatoes, the company’s mainstay product. Finally, the trend toward plant-based diets has influenced consumers who now fill their plates with fruits and vegetables. For Sponheim, the added benefit of the trend has been moving potatoes from side to main dishes.
Jeff Givens of the Fruit Growers Marketing Association, Newcomerstown, OH, says the produce business in Ohio and the Midwest is evolving, but at its own pace.
The association is, at its core, a cooperative of apple orchards, but members also offer peaches, plums and pears, and a couple also raise berries.
Givens says the deal in Ohio generally kicks off with a little asparagus grown in the state, then switches to strawberries, “which is a growing crop.”
The main season features a range of commodities, such as cabbage, sweet corn, tomatoes, zucchini, yellow squash, cucumber, even jalapenos. The planting in the state flows south to north.
Some products have trend momentum, he adds. “Hot peppers are booming, as well as anything heirloom.” Chinese and African eggplant, Asian leafy greens also have experienced growth, and Givens says some customers have actually brought seeds to farmers and asked them to grow the crops. Healthy juicing has helped boost kale, collard greens and carrots.
Givens says local produce as a phenomenon has been a factor throughout the Midwest. He says 10 or 12 years ago, restaurants started getting involved with boutique farms, which eventually helped to boost the retail trend. Now, retailers prominently spotlight local Ohio produce.
The association now serves major retailers in part by customizing shipments of its products, Givens says. The association uses the close relationship and in-state shipments to do a little extra branding, even on private label bagged items. Givens says members even use closures to include information about themselves woven into the tracing data.
Yet, he adds, even if local is important to retailers and growers, so is variety and trends within various commodities. “The retailers we work with are constantly asking us to increase varieties and options,” he says.
Those options include packaged products, whether in bags or clamshells, which more consumers prefer. That’s a challenge for growers, he admits, as it complicates operations and drives up cost.
Buurma says organic has made gains in Ohio, but conventional still overwhelmingly dominates the state’s growing sector.
“Even if organic doubles in size, it’s not overtaking conventional,” Buurma says. “We do have some ground set aside where we could start some organics, but right now we’re going to grow with conventional. The labor part, I don’t know about, considering you have to do more hand weeding.”
Wholesaler Sirna & Sons, Ravenna, OH, has a seasonal focus on Ohio produce.
“During the Ohio local season — May to October — we do as much buying as we can from Ohio growers,” says Tom Sirna, the company’s president. “We spend close to $1 million a year in local purchases. Outside of the local season, we source primarily from the large, national growers in each of their respective growing regions. That can be regionally for certain commodities, or out West in California and Arizona for lettuce and Western veg.”
He adds Sirna & Sons supports local economies and growers when it can. “We especially felt this necessary throughout the pandemic. We continue to look for ways to source from Ohio-grown vendors, as long as they can pass our Supplier Approval Program in terms of food safety qualifications. Our wholesale boxes are branded with Ohio Proud labels, and we promote local products through seasonal marketing materials when we can.”
On the foodservice side, Tony Arena, owner of the Arena Produce Co., Columbus, OH, says the eat-away-from-home sector in the Buckeye State has emerged from COVID-19 restrictions into a “dog eat dog“ competitive environment that presents a new set of difficulties.
“Foodservice is still trying to recover from the pandemic and the labor shortage,” he says, adding bigger drop requirements from some distributors is also a challenge.
Sirna says his foodservice and institutional consumers are purchasing closer to home when they can. “There has been a continued increase in demand for local products,” he says. “Consumers have a growing interest in supporting small businesses.”
The wholesale business may not be fundamentally changing in Ohio, Sirna says, but consolidation is a factor. “There has been consolidation over the past several years, where companies have merged due to larger companies acquiring smaller operations,” he says. “The role of wholesalers is not necessarily changing, but more independent wholesale companies are finding a niche by being more flexible and accessible in comparison to the larger, broadline groups.”
To deal with labor difficulties, foodservice and institutional companies are turning to the use of more fresh-cut produce from trusted suppliers.
“We have definitely seen an increase in fresh-cuts business as a result of labor issues across the industry,” Sirna says. “Our customers are looking for ways to cut back on time and hands spent in the kitchen, and by doing so utilizing pre-cut item purchases. There has also been more of a demand for grab-and-go processed items, for healthy snacking alternatives.”
Sirna says the company brands products from its Christine’s Cuts division, but otherwise most products are not branded by Sirna. The Christine’s Cuts division, named for family matriarch Christine Sirna, is a woman-owned, Kosher and Primus GFS certified, 6,000 square foot produce processing facility Sirna acquired in 2016, that works with its own label.