There’s value, and sales, in Midwestern fruits and vegetables that travel fewer food miles from the grower to the retailer and the consumer.
Originally printed in the May 2022 issue of Produce Business.
The Midwest is a cornucopia of produce — fruits and vegetables grown there and shipped from there. But although it provides produce across the country, much of the market for Midwestern fruits and vegetables is within the region — and that’s not a bad thing.
Daniel Corsaro, president of Indianapolis Fruit, sees local as an important factor in produce sales today.
“Consumers’ affinity continues to grow for products cultivated close to home,” he says. “As transportation costs have risen, and logistics become more complex, demand for products grown regionally is on the rise. These regionally relevant items allow for more aggressive pricing, less food miles and contributions to micro-economies.”
The importance Midwestern food retailers put on local food and consumable products is considerable and especially pronounced in the case of regional giant Meijer, which recently announced its second annual Lift Local Supplier Event. Through the initiative, the Grand Rapids, MI, supercenter operator gives local businesses across its market area — including Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky — the opportunity to virtually showcase their fresh food, deli and bakery products, as well as the baby, personal care and wellness categories, for Meijer buyers and procurement teams.
“Our partnerships with vendors in our footprint allow us to directly impact our local economies,” says Peter Whitsett, Meijer executive vice president of merchandising and marketing. “By featuring local products, we’re able to support small businesses while providing our customers with a greater sense of community, offering items that resonate with their values and culture. This event helps us find those unique products and continue sourcing locally.”
A Meijer spokesperson points out that the event covers the entire food category, including produce. “We are actively looking for local producers and farmers in our region for produce. Last year’s event did successfully bring in some new local produce vendors, and we look forward to this year’s event introducing us to even more.”
Still, consumer attraction to local produce isn’t necessarily a fixed factor.
“Local is the toughest term to define in the industry,” Corsaro says. “Local is often defined differently by each merchant and based on mileage or geographic proximity. Our organization and many retailers have shifted to promoting more regional terminology versus local, allowing consumers to enjoy well-cultivated items grown nearby. Ultimately, each consumer will make his/her own decision on what is local or not.”
‘GROWN WHERE IT MATTERS’
Close to home is necessary to consider when it comes to produce sales in the Midwest, particularly now, says Loren Buurma, treasurer of Buurma Farms, Willard, OH.
“Local produce is a big deal and with the price of fuel and transportation cost this year, I expect that to continue,” he says.
“Our local and regional chain stores have been great to work with over the years,” Buurma adds. “They really do a wonderful job helping us promote the local items in season to make sure their customers are getting the freshest produce possible in their area.”
Kathy Michael Sponheim, co-owner, Michael Family Farms, Urbana, OH, says three major consumption patterns have positively affected the Michael Family Farms business.
“Buying local and consuming foods with fewer food miles are both great to keep dollars in our local economies and communities, but also for the environment with reduced transportation miles,” Sponheim says. “Eating more meals at home inspired a lot of people to fall in love with cooking again and our potatoes are a perfect canvas for all kinds of spices and flavors. Lastly the plant-based diet trend, though more prevalent on the coasts, has also influenced Midwesterners to fill their plate with more fruits and vegetables. This trend has moved many potatoes from side dish to main dish.”
Consumers favor produce that is grown in the region, and Michael Family Farms makes a point of it.
“Locally grown produce is very important in our core market, and we take intentional steps to market our potatoes as locally grown,” Sponheim says. “Our marketing campaign Grown Where it Matters highlights why we love to feed our neighbors, as most of our potatoes end up within five hours of our farm.”
In Indiana, local produce is well regarded and strides have been made to strengthen its position in the marketplace, says Bill Kercher, vice president of Sunrise Produce Inc. and Kercher’s Sunrise Orchards, of Goshen, IN.
“Local produce is extremely important for Indiana and our smaller communities within the state,” Kercher says. “Indiana growers have made significant strides over the last 15 years in diversifying acreage into different value-added crops, and we believe this diversification strengthens the state and our local communities, which benefit directly.”
He points to the company’s operation in Goshen, IN, as an example. “We sell our produce at our retail farm market and through many wholesale channels. We have an agritourism aspect to our farm that has helped to educate our local communities on how food is grown. There are typically 5,000-plus school-aged children who attend a field trip to our farm every season. This type of education helps consumers appreciate local produce, so that they are more likely to search it out in the local grocery store.”
Kercher says the state marketing program, Indiana Grown, has helped boost local produce efforts, providing grower members with access to Indiana Grown promotional materials that can be used on packaging and as POS materials.
As trends evolve, they take their own shape in the Midwest, but Jim Webber, produce supervisor of Econo Foods, Iron Mountain, MI, before he recently retired, says local produce and the enthusiasm for it, has been a happier trend that has developed.
“We promote it,” Webber says. “The farmers have pictures and we put them up and say something about our farmers and this is their sweet corn. It comes from this farm, and the same with peppers, zucchini, cucs. Almost every store here has a local potato they promote.”
NOT YOUR GRANDFATHER’S MARKET
With Midwestern produce peaking mid-June to August and available on the season shoulders as well, retailers have several months to capitalize on the bounty, Indianapolis Fruit’s Corsaro says. At the same time, growers’ agricultural capabilities advanced.
“The strength has been investments from growers in their techniques, systems and practices,” he says. “Midwestern growers can grow more and supply a larger volume of demand. Investing in organics has allowed some niche growers to become more relevant in mainstream supply chains.”
As Webber noted, consumers in the Midwest often have traditional leanings when it comes to food, but the region, extending from the Ohio Valley to the Great Plains, isn’t uniform in its appreciations.
“Traditionally, the Midwestern consumer as a whole lags being on-trend,” Corsaro says. “However as more medium metropolitan areas in the Midwest have started buzzing, consumers are thriving. As many consumers’ habits have changed over the last 24 months, so have Midwesterners. Midwesterners are cooking more at home and pushing their palate to new boundaries.”
Corsaro says a range of organizations support agriculture in the Midwest and retailers can take advantage of signage, consumer engagement and sampling they promote. But that’s not all.
“Our in-house marketing team prepares grower profiles, maps, POP/POS and other marketing collateral to drive front-end sales of Midwestern Grown products. Our field team spends most summer months executing thematic displays and store events focused on the promotion of Midwestern Grown items.”
In northern Ohio, Buurma Farms grows radishes, beets, lettuces, parsleys, southern greens, sweet corn, green onions and celery as main crops, but also farms or distributes cilantro, dill, cabbages, cucumbers, zucchini, yellow squash, hard squash, green beans, eggplant, kohlrabi, turnips, parsnips, pickles, bell peppers, specialty “hot” peppers, carrots and ornamentals. And it has been branding more product for practical as well as marketing reasons.
“Each year, we are sending out more branded product,” Buurma says, “and a lot of that has to do with our traceability program for all of our crops.”
Michael Family Farms grows red and round white potatoes as well as corn and soybeans as rotational and row crops. It also packs sweet potatoes for some of its Side Delights, convenience product lines, says Sponheim.
“Sales trends for fresh produce have been on the rise, particularly over the past two years as one’s health and wellness became center stage during the pandemic, as well as eating more meals at home,” Sponheim says.
She says staples remain strong, although new taste trends influence how Midwestern consumers prepare fruits and vegetables.
Branded products also are strong for Michael Family Farms today versus a few years ago when 75% was private label.
“Our Side Delights brand is a great communicator to the customer of the quality and expectations they know when purchasing our products,” Sponheim says. “Branded produce packaging is also an important avenue to share stories of nutrition information, recipe inspiration, our sustainability efforts and make grower/consumer connections.”
Sunrise Produce’s Kercher says over the past decade in the Hooiser State, cultivation of produce crops has gained steadily.
“The largest volume crops are sweet corn, pumpkins, melons, zucchini and yellow squash, hard squash, cabbage, broccoli, cucumbers, bell peppers, chili peppers and apples,” he says. “From our perspective, as a grower of many of these crops, our acreage is planned to be even with 2021. However, with input cost pressures increasing, some growers plan to scale back on crops that saw poor markets last season.”
Still, he expects to see good volume overall of most Indiana fruits and vegetables this season, including sweet corn, and adds, “Supply should be ample to support retailers and foodservice establishments in their promotion and marketing through our bulk, tray pack or fully husked, ready-to-cook foodservice cases.”
Branding is becoming more widespread in Indiana.
“We are seeing growers look for ways to differentiate their products, which tells us that branding is becoming more important,” Kercher says. “There has been a noticeable shift towards packaged items at retail, which has facilitated branding, messaging and storytelling.”
“Packaged product demand has increased as consumers want grab-and-go ease of purchase, and retailers are responding to this by sourcing more packaged produce. This is also making self-checkout feasible in grocery stores, and we have seen many retailers make investments in that technology. This has driven us and many other growers to make investments in packaging equipment on the farm to control cost per package and ensure quality and freshness.”
Econo Foods’ Webber says the past couple of years, “berries have been the big thing. We had the raspberries and blackberries in the ad every other week, then the strawberries and blueberries.”
Webber says that making things convenient for the consumer has been a big driving factor for Econo Foods, including presentations of items such as onions, carrots and potatoes in the meat department. The company has even made things easier by including produce items in ready-prep configurations.
“Now in the delis, we’re promoting grab-and-go meals at price points around $9.99,” he says. “A meal is more at McDonald’s, and ours is more appealing.”