Marketing Southern Vegetables

Fresh Produce Selection

The Southeast’s bounty fills supermarket shelves with fresh, quality and nutritional product.

Vegetable Display

Photo Courtesy of Nickey Gregory

The commencement of spring brings increased interest in sporting events like baseball, picnics, grilling and other outdoor activities. As the Northern regions thaw, it’s also a time when retailers start planning for spring and summer promotions of local and regional produce, especially product that fills retail shelves in one or two days from harvest.

Grower-shippers throughout the South, including Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, field a variety of traditional Southern vegetables such as bell peppers, cucumbers, squash, green beans and sweet corn. In addition to helping keep their retail partners’ shelves stocked with Southern vegetables, growers are also expanding production of items traditionally grown in bigger volumes on the West Coast. Broccoli and leafy greens are appearing more on Eastern supermarket shelves.

“The South is very critical for buyers,” says Dug Schwalls, sales director for Southern Valley Fruit & Vegetable Inc., Norman Park, GA. “Everybody’s nationwide, but when you think about vegetables, you think of the South and California. Georgia, Florida and California are your most important produce states.”

Logistics Benefits

Southern growers, shippers, distributors and state agricultural agencies promote their proximity to major population centers. “It’s a fresher product than what comes from the West Coast,” says Elaine Lidholm, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) in Richmond, VA. “In Virginia and the Southeast states, with the advances in technology, cooling, handling and food safety, our growers can offer as good a quality or better than what buyers can get from the West Coast and with longer shelf life.”

The geographic location of Southern growers and ease of distribution to retail distribution centers offer logistical advantages. “The South offers a centralized distribution point year-round,” says Randy Bailey, president of Bailey Farms Inc., which grows and ships specialty peppers from Oxford, NC. “Logistically, we are within a day of Southern Florida or the Northeast.”

Birmingham, AL-based Kontos Fruit Co., which owns Flavor-Pic Tomato Co. Inc., ships vine-ripe grape, cherry and heirloom tomatoes to retail customers throughout the Southeast. “At Birmingham, the interstate highways converge, so getting product to these places is very easy,” says Mike Prather, director of sales and marketing. “In Alabama, we have an unusually long growing season, so we can service customers to where they don’t have to pull product from far away. The customers can get local product for about six months compared to other summer deals, which are six weeks.”

Buyers sending trucks to the South also save freight costs through back hauls. “Our market location is No. 1,” says Martin Eubanks, assistant commissioner of agriculture for the South Carolina Department of Agriculture in Columbia, SC. “We are centrally located with extensive interstate highway systems, making for easy access to all the East Coast and Mid-Atlantic markets.”

All-Important Climate

The South is vital for supplying produce to retailers, says Brett Bergmann, president and co-owner of Branch: A Family of Farms, based in South Bay, FL. Branch grows and ships sweet corn and green beans throughout the Southeast. “The South is a big deal and an important region,” he says. “There is a tremendous amount of merchandise coming out of the Southeast. When you get into production there, you are much closer to the markets. The freight lanes are generally less expensive than what they are when you ship from the tip of the peninsula in South Florida. When you’re in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee, you can go in any direction — north, south, east or west.”

The Southeast’s climate makes it ideal for almost year-round production of vegetables. “Given our geographic location, our climate and our history, North Carolina is a major player in the continuum of producing Southern vegetables,” notes Kevin Hardison, horticultural marketing specialist for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture (NCDA) in Raleigh, NC. “With our seasonality of product, North Carolina is pretty much open for business throughout the year for a variety of commodities.”


“If you put a good sign on it, produce will move. Having good signage, good production, good rotation and good cross-promotion with other items, that’s what sells produce.”

— Mike Prather, Flavor-Pic Tomato Co

Baker Farms LLC, in Norman Park, GA, ships collards, kale and a variety of leafy greens including turnip roots, mustard greens, arugula, chards and cilantro to retailers, wholesalers and foodservice purveyors throughout the East Coast, Canada, Texas and Minnesota. Heath Wetherington, general manager, says proximity helps sell greens. “Geographically, in southwest Georgia, we have a good climate for leafy vegetables,” he says. “Most years, we are able to grow through the entire winter. The coastal air from the Gulf of Mexico makes it possible for us to grow in the summer and ship year-round.”

Tennessee grows significant volumes of tomatoes, greens, sweet corn, cucumbers, bell peppers, melons, pumpkins, as well as sweet potatoes. “Geographically, we have great logistics,” says Tammy Algood, marketing specialist for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA) in Nashville, TN. “For instance, in Knoxville, we’re within 500 miles of half the population of the United States. Thanks to both I-75 and I-40, producers have an easy and convenient way to get to many people quickly.”

As Southern growers produce a large concentration of specialty crops, state agriculture departments effectively promote their state’s produce. “There are three things the consumer wants to see at the point of purchase,” says Matthew Kulinski, deputy director of marketing for the Georgia Department of Agriculture (GDA) in Atlanta. “They want to see the Georgia Grown label and a photo of the farmer, if possible, as well as the farmer’s location. If a retailer can have any of those it will help.” Major Atlanta retailers do well promoting Georgia produce, says Kulinski.

Merchandising The South

OkraRetailers market and merchandise Southern vegetables through an abundance of displays, including posters featuring photos of growers. Timely communication between suppliers and retailers is essential, says Andrew Scott, director of marketing and business development for the Nickey Gregory Co. LLC in Atlanta. “Retailers need to communicate closely with growers, shippers and farmers as to product availability and for spikes in production so the chains can go on ad when the spikes occur,” he says. “Planning before the crop comes on is important.”

Matthews Ridgeview Farms, a sweet potato grower-shipper based in Wynne, AR, provides point-of-sale material to its retail partners. To receive feedback, it remains in contact with buyers after it ships a load. Retailers can help maintain a display’s effectiveness. “The biggest thing is to keep them clean, rotated and full,” says Kim Matthews, partner. “You can always do add-ons (cross-merchandising other items), but you should never let your basics slide. You can bring in an array of different products as far as different packaging, but it all goes back to your core. Keep your core right. Everything else is icing. If the cake is no good, it doesn’t matter what kind of icing you put on it.”

Parker Farms LLC, which grows and ships from its Oak Grove, VA, headquarters, provides retailers promotional support. Jimmy Carter, sales manager, says produce personnel needs to pay close attention to their products. “The best thing they can do is to turn the product over quickly,” he says. “Don’t give me a P.O. on Monday, tell me to deliver it on Wednesday, put it in the warehouse on Saturday, ship to the store on Sunday and it finally gets to the shelves on Monday. Cultural practices have gotten better for products to hold up, but there’s nothing better for sales than to see a beautiful item on the shelves. They sell themselves.”

Retailers should capitalize on the abundance of Southern vegetables. “Retailers should know vegetables are becoming a more prominent part of peoples’ eating habits,” says Gary James, director of sales for Walter P. Rawl & Sons, which grows and ships leafy greens, corn and squash from Pelion, SC. “With local and regional vegetable products being more affordable and accessible, merchandising Southern vegetables as not only locally and regionally grown, but the freshness, quality and nutritional value is key. In an ever-adapting and fast-paced market, people are more worried about the product being what they expect and what they want. Marketing and merchandising becomes less of a regional thing and more of what we bring to the table as a company and the values we run our company by.”

Fast-Track Promotions

Retailers should promote product frequently, at least every 30 to 60 days, says Bailey Farms’ Bailey. “There are more new creative ways to market these items now than in the past,” he says. “They’re using larger displays or larger varieties. They should try to tie-in the product with grilling events or sporting events.”

Freshness is crucial. Because leafy greens don’t tend to receive the same shelf space as salad products, packaging must capture shoppers’ eyes, notes Baker Farms’ Wetherington. “Erect colorful displays,” he says. “When people walk by that fresh section with greens, they see a little color mixed in with the packaging. As leafy greens are so perishable, even a one day advantage helps. If retailers keep it fresh and make sure their supplier is supplying premium products, they will sell themselves.”

When Lewis Walker, president of Crossville, TN-based V. L. Walker Co., Inc., walks into stores, he sees effective displays. “The displays have been good,” he says. “They are doing a good job. How good a store is depends on the produce manager. If he’s sharp, really digging around and really cares, everything will look presentable and sellable. When we pick it, it starts to go downhill. When they do a good job having a nice display, and when they monitor product like they should, it works for everyone.” V.L. Walker ships green beans, squash and other vegetables from Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina and New York.

A key to merchandising local and regional is highlighting its origin. Buyers should know the product’s window for local promotions, says Chris Rawl, president of Clayton Rawl Farms, which grows and ships leafy greens from Lexington, SC. “They should know the product is coming from down the road and that the quality is good,” he says. “I’ve seen photos and signs up when the product wasn’t in-season locally.” The displays Rawl has viewed appear solid. “They make some big displays, especially with products like sweet corn, because it’s a volume mover,” he says. “It’s important to create large displays. They must be eye-catching. Displays mean a lot to buyers passing by.” When retailers place displays in the front parts of the store, the displays garner high amounts of interest and purchases from shoppers who might not have planned to visit the produce department, says Rawl.

Local Advantage

Grower-shippers point to the logistical benefits of sourcing local. “When we harvest from Georgia and send to distribution centers in Atlanta or North Carolina, the produce is less than 24-hours old versus five days,” says Southern Valley’s Schwalls. “Because it’s locally grown, you will get more shelf life. Being in the South has made for a huge advantage to having product closer to the retailers’ geographic locations.” Southern Valley grows and ships a variety of vegetables, including bell peppers, cucumbers, squash, eggplant, cabbage, green beans and peppers to retailers throughout the eastern half of the United States and Canada. On occasion, it will ship as far west as California.


“You are seeing more of the traditional California row crops being grown in Georgia and Florida, including broccoli, cauliflower, lettuces, Napa cabbage, baby and cello carrots, and even persimmons.”

— Andrew Scott, Nickey Gregory Co. LLC

In Virginia, local is the word. Through its Virginia Grown program, the state promotes its green beans and squash, which begin in June; cucumbers and peppers, which start in July; potatoes and tomatoes, which commence in June; and apples, which harvest in the fall with storage product shipped through the spring. “Virginia Grown produce is in high demand,” says VDACS’ Lidholm. “I believe there’s more interest every year.” The agency provides retailers point-of-purchase materials, signage and other information to help merchandise Virginia produce.

Flavor-Pic works with retailers big on local produce. “They want to drive it down as local as they can get it,” says Prather. “Local promotions bring more consumer awareness about having state agricultural products. A lot of it is people wanting to know where their food comes from.”

Parker Farms receives letters from shoppers who recognize the company’s name on the packages of corn, cucumbers, squash and bell peppers they purchase. Some even personally visit the farm. One family’s road trip included a stop at Parker Farms’ Virginia farm, where they toured its operations. “There’s a lot of interest nowadays about the grower and knowing where their food comes from,” says Parker. “When shipping out of Mexico or other places, they don’t necessarily know who’s producing it or how it’s produced, but they can drive to farms in the South.”

Tennessee growers continue to benefit from calls for local produce. In the spring, the TDA receives many requests for materials from retailers who are starting to plan summer promotions. “We continue to see consumer demand for local produce,” says TDA’s Algood. “The requests are for signage that falls in line with the statewide Pick Tennessee Products campaign.”

West Coast To East Coast

Retailers are increasingly sourcing products traditionally grown in the West. Through freight savings and shelf-life gains, the expanded production of Western vegetables benefits growers, buyers and shoppers, says Nickey Gregory’s Scott. “You are seeing more of the traditional California row crops being grown in Georgia and Florida, including broccoli, cauliflower, lettuces, Napa cabbage, baby and cello carrots, and even persimmons,” he notices. “Due to low California water tables, shrinking farmland, drought, high freight rates and the time it takes to go from California to the Southeast, you are starting to see a movement away from California.”

The movement of retailers away from California depends on the retailer. Some stores remain 100 percent committed to West Coast product while others are open to trying the regional product, says Titan Farms’ Johnston. Titan Farms has grown broccoli for more than a decade. Food safety is a factor driving higher production. “You’re getting some retailers with food safety concerns trying to get away from iced broccoli,” he says. “Being able to ship iceless in shorter distances is what’s driving a lot of that. Ice is still the preferred method, but because of food safety challenges and other dynamics, customers are requesting iceless. The problem is, when you go iceless, the travel distance becomes a bigger factor.”

Parker Farms has been growing broccoli since 2003. The benefits include fewer fuel miles and less ice in the box. “There is a large barrier to entering the broccoli business and doing it right,” says Parker. “Ice takes tremendous amounts of overhead and capital investment to even begin to do it right. You can go out there and cut broccoli and put it in a box; but if you can’t ice it and handle it properly, you might as well not even do it.”

In the pursuit of no-waste products, NCDA’s Hardison says culinary professionals are using the tops of leafy greens, carrots, radishes and root beets in non-traditional ways. In addition to broccoli, growers are also growing sweet onions.

Challenges

A harsh growing season bedeviled Southern growers this year. The big challenge this spring was an abnormally warm winter, which accelerated crop maturities. The warmth was followed by a harmful freeze that caused significant damage to blueberries and peaches, which will limit supplies. “Heat remains a pivotal factor,” says Branch’s Bergmann. “Everything grows off heat units. Georgia has been warm this season. For the most part, the whole country has been warmer than normal.”

Because of lower prices for peanuts, cotton and field corn, many growers in southwest Georgia are turning more to sweet corn. “When those other items become more profitable, we will see some people hedging their bets to switch,” predicts Bergmann.

Southeast growers can’t produce the high broccoli yields California harvests, says Clayton Rawl Farms’ Rawl. California yields are double South Carolina’s. Transportation costs remain the South’s principal advantage. “California’s weather most of the time is a little more stable with lower humidity, which allows them to grow better quality products,” he says. “Broccoli can’t take much heat or a lot of cold.”

Labor remains the most alarming challenge for V.L. Walker Co. “The whole thing in the industry has been tough,” says Walker. “All growers and shippers I’ve talked with have had some issues; some less than others, but some have real big ones. It’s one of the major issues that will get even bigger. Every grower wants their workers to be happy and legal, but if we start losing our migrant workers who are legal, we will be in trouble.”

Despite production and harvesting challenges, Southeast grower-shippers can supply retailers an abundance of product to satisfy spring and summer demand.


Cross-Merchanidisng Success

Merchandising Southern vegetables with other products helps increase sales. Cross-merchandising bell peppers with meals tied to Cinco de Mayo celebrations can also help increase sales, says Daryl Johnston, vice president of sales and marketing for Titan Farms, a Ridge Spring, SC-based grower-shipper of bell peppers, broccoli and peaches.

“It’s always good to try to tie-in produce with other items to increase basket rings,” he says. “We do make suggestions on cross-merchandising. We try to be more of a consultant to our retail customers rather than being just a seller. We provide suggestions for cross-merchandising or different areas of opportunity,” according to Johnston.

Produce directors are investing a lot of time in displays promoting fresh local and regional produce through prominent signage and end cap displays. “The big thing is to pile it out, rotate it and sell it,” says Mike Prather, director of sales and marketing for Flavor Pic Tomato Co. Inc., based in Birmingham, AL. “Having good signage, good production, good rotation and good cross-promotion with other items, that’s what sells produce.”

Cross-merchandising Southern vegetables with related items help increase sales. Kevin Hardison, horticultural marketing specialist for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture (NCDA) in Raleigh, NC, says many retailers see success in promoting collards with sliced ham by placing meat products adjacent to the greens. “When the collards come in, you will see signs go up announcing the collards,” he says. “Retailers should cross-promote traditional staples, as well as take advantage of traditions and focus on seasonality. Black-eyed peas, a traditional New Year’s staple in some parts of the country, will be right there alongside the collards and other items for promotion.”

Retailers should provide recipes and information on cooking methods to help unfamiliar shoppers. Signage and point-of-sale materials, as well as demonstrations can help. During a store visit, Hardison saw many people purchase sweet potatoes after viewing a supermarket demonstration of grilling them. Because it displayed a different way of preparing sweet potatoes, the demonstration helped increase sales.


Western Vegetables In The South

Buyers are replacing traditional lettuces originating from California with East Coast-grown kale, collards and other greens. Broccoli continues to increase in production, says Matthew Kulinski, deputy director of marketing for the Georgia Department of Agriculture in Atlanta. “Row crop farmers aren’t getting the value from their crops like they used to, due to the strong dollar,” he explains. “We will see more farmers moving to higher value products like broccoli, vegetables and greens.”

Kale continues to climb the ladder of popularity for Baker Farms. More than a decade ago, kale constituted 20 percent of the grower-shipper’s sales. Today, it’s as big as its collards and has exploded in sales since 2013. “For other varieties, like broccoli and cauliflower, it will depend on seed companies working with growers to develop varieties specific to this region,” says Heath Wetherington, general manager of Baker Farms LLC, based in Norman Park, GA. “Seed companies are looking for ways to grow lettuce in this area. The homework is being done for developing products more suitable to this region.”

Arkansas growers are looking into growing sweet corn and onions while others are growing cabbage and lettuce. They are also researching different crops, including bell peppers.


Packaging Bonanza

Southeast growers findnew formats to market their products.

By Doug Ohlemeier

Southern grower-shippers are constantly updating packaging to better handle the shipping of their packages and provide retailers — and shoppers — more alternatives to sell their produce.

Within the past year, Birmingham, AL-based Flavor-Pic Tomato Co. Inc., has switched to packaging tomatoes in flow wrap. Because shrink wrap doesn’t allow produce to breathe, the packaging is giving customers more shelf life. Flow wrap provides a crinkly covering less tight than regular shrink wrap, says Mike Prather, Flavor Pic’s director of sales and marketing. “To me, it has a more modern look to it than shrink wrap, which is kind of old school,” he says. “The new flow wrap looks really good and has better eye appeal.”

To appeal to convenience seekers, Matthews Ridgeview Farms in Wynne, AR, offers microwaveable bags of sweet potatoes. The 18-ounce bags hold five to seven small sweet potatoes. The grower-shipper introduced the River Boat Steamers-branded product in partnership with Vardaman, MS-based Carter Edmondson Farms and N&W Farms Produce Inc. The line was named for the Mississippi River, which separates Matthews Ridgeview from the two companies. “Presentation and convenience are everything,” says Kim Matthews, a Matthews Ridgeview partner. “Sales have grown faster than any of us thought it would.”

Bailey Farms Inc., an Oxford, NC-based grower-shipper of specialty peppers, markets its products in a variety of packaging formats. “The newest packs are single-serve that target a low retail, just the amount of hot pepper you need to use,” says Randy Bailey, president. Bailey Farms introduced the 2.4-ounce packs last year.

V. L. Walker Co., headquartered in Crossville, TN, is shipping more green beans in smaller 15-pound containers instead of the regular 30-pound bushel containers. The smaller poundage keeps product fresher, says Lewis Walker, president. The grower-shipper is also packing more bagged beans.

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