Get Engaged With Fresh Local Produce

Originally printed in the June 2020 issue of Produce Business.

[Excerpted from United Fresh Produce Association’s Wholesaler-Distributor Peer Resource Series]

As spring turns into summer, and as people start to break free from stay-at-home mandates, you will undoubtedly see “Fresh Local Produce” stands popping up in the parking lots of churches, retail outlets, on the sidewalks of Main Street in small towns all across America. In the South, some of these stands start popping up with beautiful homegrown tomatoes and cucumbers as early as April. It really goes to show that there is a market for local produce, and people will search it out and support it, no matter what time of year. What seemed trendy just a few years ago is now mainstream, and it has grown popular in part because of the support wholesale distributors have given local farmers for decades.

Recognizing the power of this movement, we decided to get engaged. One of our first objectives was to get the farms we work with GAP-certified. He worked with the farms to help them understand the requirements, and we worked with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture on the timing of the audits. We also coordinated with our transportation department and sales team to revise certain trucking lanes from May to October that allow our trucks to backhaul our local farmers’ products. As the program developed, we created marketing programs to promote the actual farms and their families.

In addition to supporting local farmers, here are some suggestion we, as wholesaler-distributors, can do to sustain this enormously popular movement and keep local fresh produce flourishing:

ADVOCATE. Burdensome regulations and labor insecurities are crippling the small farmer. To help them, we as an industry, must use our collective voice to get our legislators to make it easier to get reliable, legal labor into the fields across America. If farmers know they will have workers to plant, pick and pack, they will keep farming. They will also take good care of the labor, especially since in many cases it is the same crew year after year. However, unfair fines and penalties discourage local farmers from continuing on with their farms.

BE A FACILITATOR. Assist your local growers with common sense Good Agricultural Practices. Get your state’s Department of Agriculture to visit with these growers if they haven’t done so. You probably already have a relationship with someone at the Ag Dept. in your state. Share those contacts, bring both parties together and educate your growers on what they need to know about food safety. With PTI, FSMA, GFSI, GAP and HACCP acronyms taking their place in our daily conversations, we need to explain what they mean to the people growing the produce.

As wholesalers and distributors, we are right in the middle of this movement.

GET PERSONAL WITH THE FARMER. Visit the farm and really understand their operation. Local is personal, and we have to be able to tell the story as if we were part of the family. And to tell it, you have to know it. We have to be able to tell our retail and foodservice customers the biography of the great people who have their hands in the dirt.

GET SOCIAL. Not in the sense of a good old-fashioned barn-raising, but with media. Use your marketing team to help set up websites and social media outlets for the growers you know best. Create links from your company website to the farms that you pull from. Take pictures and create some POS for store and restaurants.

SEND MONEY. There’s nothing farmers like more than getting mail — as in a check for the fruits of their labor. We, as suppliers to the big guys, know we are going to have to wait 14, 21 or 30 days to clear our A/R. We gladly accept those terms. But don’t hold up the money going to the farm — pay in 7-10 days, or less if you can. It shows commitment and trust and strengthens your bond.

TRUCK IT. If you have trucks on the road, use them. Yes, you might have to send your driver a bit off-route to get to the farm, but explore those options. It gets hot in the summer, and many small farmers won’t have coolers at the packing sheds. But, you can start getting the field heat out of the product as soon as you hit the farm. Having control of the product also reduces the chance that something food-safety related can go wrong, so put it on your rig and get it to market, cool and quick.

NOW HIRING. That’s right … hire a farmer or their family members. Most of these kids know what hard work is. They have seen the sun come up as they roll out plastic, fire up the tractor, stake plants, etc… you get the picture. These young farmers talk the talk, and can solidify your position in the local produce community.

As the Local effort continues to grow, take advantage of the unique opportunity. As wholesalers and distributors, we are right in the middle of this movement. No segment of the industry is better prepared to facilitate the sustainable success of local farmers and local produce than we are.

Michael Wise is president of Horton Fruit Company, a Louisville, KY family-owned business that is involved in all aspects of the produce supply chain from source to store, including growing, repacking, processing, and full-line distribution.