Smart partners will increase the ring in the produce department
“The Wolverine State” grows a variety of fruits and vegetables that retailers can depend on to keep their produce aisles well-stocked. Throughout the summer, Michigan shippers truck product to supermarkets in the Midwest and East Coast, and some commodities, including blueberries, have developed a reputation among overseas buyers. The state’s other commodities also possess a strong reputation in the buying community.
While well-known for the many apples it produces (Michigan is third in national volume), the Great Lakes State is second in carrot and celery production, according to statistics from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Michigan is the third leading blueberry producing state, but the largest east of the Rocky Mountains. The state is also No. 3 in shipping of asparagus, pumpkins and squash.
Michigan is fourth in tomatoes and cucumbers, but first in cucumbers for pickling. Cabbage is sixth, with bell peppers, green beans and sweet corn seventh. In peaches and strawberries, Michigan is in eighth place and 10th for fall potatoes. Michigan growers also harvest eggplant and onions and large volumes of sweet and tart cherries, which ship primarily as processed.
Climate, Distribution Advantages
The state produces more than 300 commodities grown on a commercial basis. According to the Lansing, MI-based Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development (MDARD), agriculture contributes $91.4 billion annually to the state’s economy, second in diversity only to California. With approximately 10 million acres of farmland and 52,194 farms, the economic impact of fruit and vegetable production is $758 million and $673 million, respectively.
Michigan’s secret to growing and supporting so many commodities is its micro-climates that make it a unique home for a variety of products, including chestnuts, cranberries and more, says Jennifer Holton, MDARD’s director of communications.
Tyler Hodges of Superior Sales Inc., a Hudsonville, MI-based grower-shipper of fruits and vegetables, says the different types of soil are a great benefit. “Each grower, depending on where they are in the state, can fine-tune one or two commodities they are good at growing,” she says.
Retailers acknowledge the benefits of Michigan’s climate and growing regions. “Michigan offers a diverse micro-climate and weather conditions that help to produce a wide variety of fruits and vegetables,” notes Jamie Postell, director of produce for Grand Rapids, MI-based Meijer Inc. “The area is ideal for growing apples, tomatoes, asparagus, cherries and blueberries, to name a few examples. Considering all of Meijer stores are within a six-state footprint around the Midwest, sourcing from Michigan means that our produce is not on the road as long – and we can get the shipment into stores faster.”
Michigan blueberries ship throughout North America and worldwide. Brian Bocock, vice president of product management for Salinas, CA-based Naturipe Farms LLC and the Grand Junction, MI-based MBG Marketing, attributes the fruit’s growing demand to the favorable micro-climates along Lake Michigan’s shore. The lake effect allows for milder winter growing conditions and cooler summers. “The micro-climates developed just about perfect growing conditions for blueberries, which gives them that fantastic flavor,” he says. “There are a lot of other things but Lake Michigan is the single biggest thing that makes Michigan blueberries unique. ”
Michigan is one of the leading blueberry producing states. In 2016, the state produced 100 million pounds of fruit, about 14 percent of U.S. and Canadian production, according to statistics from the Folsom, CA-based U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council. Production typically begins in late June and runs through the end of September. Fresh production accounts for about 55 percent of harvesting, up from 40 percent in the past, says Bocock.
Fresh Michigan blueberries play a key role in summer retail merchandising and make for strong berry patch promotional opportunities. As Eastern Seaboard production is nearly finished by late July, Michigan is the next closest area to supply volume to East Coast markets. The fruit doesn’t travel as far and freight rates aren’t as high as West Coast product, explains Bocock. Its Midwestern location allows many retailers to run local grown ads. “As July and August movement starts to slow in retail, especially in fresh produce, Michigan really offers a good volume of fruit with great quality and great flavor to help combat some of those slower sales weeks,” he says. “The berry category is really increasing each and every year in consumer pull-through in sales and movement and it’s driving retailers’ bottom line.”
True Blue Farms, based in Junction City, MI, grows, packs and sells blueberries from two southwest Michigan shipping locations. The lake effect climate and the way the Great Lakes formed the sandy loam, whose fertile soil provides root systems proper nutrition, created a “fruit belt,” an area favorable for fruit growing, explains Shelly Hartmann, co-owner. Fruit belts are common in the Great Lakes region, including Lake Erie’s southern shore.
Retail and consumer interest in local and growing awareness for where food originates has coincided with an increase in production of Michigan fresh asparagus. The state has been increasing its fresh sales each year, expanding about a million pounds annually, explains John Bakker, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, headquartered in Dewitt, MI. A decade ago, processing constituted 80 percent of production. Today, fresh usage has climbed to 60 percent of production.
“When I started in 2002 as executive director, Michigan had a poor reputation in the fresh market as being an unreliable supplier,” says Bakker. “We worked hard on that, and it has changed. As we’ve done more packing, some of the fresh sheds have gone to some automated equipment. I would say our quality improves every year.” Michigan growers ship to retail customers east of the Mississippi River as well as into Texas. Harvesting begins in May and is usually finished by the end of June.
Stephanie Pierce, sales manager for Cherry Capital Foods, a Traverse City, MI-based food distributor, works with Michigan farmers, growers and producers, locally and regionally. “There’s collaboration statewide to buy Michigan grown, from government to non-profit organizations, businesses, healthcare and education,” she says.
Another state program is Pure Michigan. While its primary purpose is to attract tourism, Nate Stone, who oversees special projects at Ben B. Schwartz & Sons Inc., a wholesale distributor of fresh fruits and vegetables in Detroit, says the program also offers a lot of support to growers.
While the acknowledged key to real estate is location, location, location, the well-known phrase is applicable to other industries as well. Besides Michigan’s favorable natural resources, the state itself is in a good location to reach much of the rest of the country. Location is key for Todd Miedema, director of marketing and partner at Hudsonville, MI-based Miedema Produce Inc., which grows and ships a variety of fruits and vegetables. Miedema points to Michigan’s location as a key to its agriculture success. “We are 12 to 15 hours from most of the country and within two days of all parts of the country, which means you can get things from location to market quickly,” he says.
Because of the state’s large variety of fruits and vegetables, it can offer retailers and buyers one-state shopping. The convenience can be a money saver for retailers. Todd Van Solkema, co-owner and chief executive of Byron Center, MI-based Van Solkema Produce, puts it succinctly: “If you are in the produce business, you need to be supporter of Michigan because of the full variety of items you can get, and few states can claim that,” he says. Van Solkema Produce grows, packs and ships a variety of fruits and vegetables.
Dominic Riggio, president and co-owner of Riggio Distribution, a Detroit wholesale produce distributor, points to the state’s reputation. “You see some of the best quality come out of Michigan,” he says. “We sell things coming out of the ground. Mother nature is the boss of everyone in our business, and there is something humbling about that.”
The hard work and old-school values are alive and well in Michigan’s produce industry. Miedema says there’s nothing extraordinary about what is happening in Michigan. “You have Midwestern people who pour themselves into their jobs,” Riggio says. “It’s not big businesses doing these things but individuals and family farms that do this, and they do it because they love it and have been doing so for generations.”
Like all businesses, those in Michigan’s fruit and vegetable industry must pay attention to the bottom lines, and those businesses exist only if they can make a sustainable profit. However, there’s a certain camaraderie and appreciation for what others do and their role in making the industry thrive. Stone appreciates growers who he says are equally as important to Michigan’s vibrant fruit and vegetable industry as the environment. “You could name any item and these guys can compete in quality against anybody in their growing season,” he says.
Relationships are important to Superior Sales’ Hodges. “We do whatever we can for growers and retailers and appreciate the opportunities to serve both our growers and retailers,” he says. The opportunity to represent growers and support their products brings joy to Dominic Russo, buying and sales manager of Detroit-based Rocky Produce. Russo says consumers have faith and trust in Michigan. The fourth generation family business distributes to retailers in the Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic, the South, and nearby Ontario, Canada
Make It Local
Local and regional marketing remains important for the apples and pears sold by Benton Harbor, MI-based Greg Orchards LLC. Barry Winkel, general manager, says Greg Orchards is trying to encourage growers to plant more apple orchards so the grower and packer can extend its shipment volume. Michigan ships apples to retailers as far away as Texas, Florida and throughout the Eastern United States, and to customers east of the Rocky Mountains. Harvesting typically begins in mid-August with storage product shipped through July.
Chicago, one of the largest U.S. metropolitan areas, is only a 100 mile drive, so freight costs are lower for Michigan apples vs. from the West Coast, explains Winkel. “Most of our markets are overnight,” he says. “Fruit can be picked and packed and delivered the next day or sometimes the same day. It’s not sitting in storage or on the road for very long.” For local, retail buyers often define the term as originating from surrounding states. That allows Michigan’s apple and peach packers to market their fruit as “local” to supermarkets not only in Michigan, but also in Chicago, northern Indiana and parts of Ohio.
Thanks to local demand, Michigan peaches are experiencing an increase in sales. The state doesn’t raise enough of the soft fruit to supply all the demand from Michigan’s supermarkets. “We are seeing a big increase in interest,” says Winkel. “If only we could grow more of them.” As production is alongside Lake Michigan, the fruit benefits from the warmer lake temperatures, which allow the groves to withstand low winter temperatures. The lake effect produces a later spring bloom and makes it less apt to suffer from early freezes, he says. Michigan harvests peaches beginning the third week of July and usually finishes by mid-September.
While Michigan offers retailers great choice, quality and convenience when it comes to the fruit and vegetable market, those in the industry also suggest how to market their product to shoppers. “Everyone wants to eat local,” observes Schwartz & Sons’ Stone. Whatever the actual reason, it is something for retailers to pay attention to. It’s important to market local home grown product so consumers can learn of the product’s availability, says Nick Huizinga, general manager of Hearty Fresh Inc., based in Byron Center, MI. Over the past few years, Hearty Fresh has placed a state label on each of its products, which has led to increased sales. The company grows, repacks and ships fruits and vegetables for retailers and wholesalers.
Cherry Capital Foods’ Pierce takes it further and says people perceive a taste difference when buying close to home. Unlike other products, produce is hyper localized and people are concerned about food miles. Cherry Capital Foods provides background information on farms as well as the products’ growing practices. “Consumers can imagine the face of a real person/family, which gives them a sense of the people involved in that product,” she says. Russo agrees and says consumers like to support local farmers and growers and be a part of a local movement.
While independent supermarkets can more easily establish a local connection and story, doing so is more difficult for the chains that need to buy in massive quantities. Detroit wholesale produce distributor Riggio Distribution helps chain stores source from growers that haven’t supplied them previously. “We deal with small local growers and put them in front of an audience that they would not be able to reach on their own,” says Dominic Riggio, president and co-owner. Ultimately, establishing local connections can be done by the chains as well, even if it is on a few select items.
Junction City, MI-based True Blue Farms’ in-store demonstrations allow the grower to meet shoppers, which allows customers to feel more confident about their purchase, says Shelly Hartmann, co-owner. True Blue Farms offers other more traditional retail merchandising suggestions, including providing recipes, sending out specials and offering coupons.
Distributors like to tout the state’s produce. Every growing region has its tendencies and specifications, and each geographical location produces something different. The diversity helps differentiate Michigan, says Riggio.
Grower-shipper Tyler Hodges of Superior Sales, Hudsonville, MI, notes Michigan serves as a hub for many items possessing exceptional flavor profiles. “We’re not just shipping bland and tasteless product, but good quality fruit and vegetables that go beyond a good appearance,” he says.
Nate Stone, who oversees special projects at Detroit-based Ben B. Schwartz & Sons Inc., likes to promote quality. “Michigan has the best blueberries, cherries and great apples,” he says. “There are so many varieties; they taste like they came off a tree in your backyard.”
At Grand Rapids, MI-based Meijer Inc., local is critical for its produce departments in and out of state. “Local produce helps the local community and our Michigan-based customers purchase produce grown in their home state,” says Jamie Postell, director of produce. “However, we see demand for Michigan produce from other Midwestern states like Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana because the state has a strong reputation for producing the best fruits and vegetables in the Midwest.”
Meijer’s promotes Michigan produce by starting at the store level and informing shoppers at the shelf particularly near seasonal items.