This Midwestern produce powerhouse maintains deep community ties.
When the harvest of radishes, zucchini and sweet corn comes in at Buurma Farms in Willard, OH, every spring and summer, some of the state’s retailers go the extra mile to let consumers know about the opportunity to buy local.
Many of the produce cartons have “From Ohio” boldly printed on them, or bear the familiar Ohio Proud logo, but sometimes the message is also reinforced in a graphically spectacular manner.
“It says on the box that it is from Ohio, and we’ve been members of Ohio Proud since it started, but some retailers have large photos of the farm, and of some of the members of the family working in the field,” says Loren Buurma, treasurer of Buurma Farms. “Kroger had a 4-foot-by-10-foot sign hanging up over the produce.”
Loren’s ancestor, Frank Buurma, worked the celery fields outside Kalamazoo, MI, in the 19th century until he joined other Dutch immigrants who drained available swampland and turned Willard into a premier vegetable region.
Starting with celery planted in a four-acre plot — Frank’s share of the reclaimed swamp — Buurma and his descendants built a 2,500-acre mixed vegetable operation with fields in two states using the most modern equipment to serve markets spanning the eastern two-thirds of the country.
“Local sweet corn is always the best, but we grow a lot of vegetable crops,” says Buurma. “We grow all the green and red leaf and Boston lettuces, radishes, beets; they’re all good.”
Ohio is well situated to supply most of the country with fresh summer produce, but the state’s farmers also have a long and proud history of bringing the fruits of their labor to local markets.
TRADITION OF BUYING LOCAL
Some Ohio shippers and retailers, such as Cincinnati-headquartered Kroger, have traditions of cooperating to encourage consumers to buy local produce that go back many decades.
“We’ve had great support from the retailers,” says Buurma. “Our best customers are the local ones.”
The state commissioned a consumer survey in 2007 and found 93 percent of the residents prefer to buy Ohio products over national brands, and 90 percent of those surveyed indicated they would even pay a few cents more for “made in Ohio.”
Agribusinesses, farmers, producers, manufacturers and retailers help consumers identify locally made-and-grown products using the Ohio Proud logo.
“There are currently 430 partners in the Ohio Proud program, representing 78 of Ohio’s 88 counties,” says Ashley McDonald, Ohio Proud program administrator at the Ohio Department of Agriculture, Reynoldsburg, OH. “Locally grown is of tremendous importance, especially over the past several years as consumers have become more interested and involved in learning about where their food comes from.”
“The Ohio Proud program champions products at least 50-percent raised, grown or processed in Ohio,” says McDonald. “We do in-store signage, promote customer identification of the Ohio Proud sticker when shopping at grocery stores and other local retailers, and encourage consumers to visit our interactive website to search for specific types of products, or for the companies in their community.”
Growers in the Buckeye State, as in most of the country, benefit from serving consumers who want their produce dollars to support farmers from just up the road.
“Locally grown has been wonderful for producers in many areas of the county,” says Ben Wiers, president of Wiers Farm Inc., Willard, OH. We’re part of Ohio Proud, and a lot of our customers are focused on locally grown.”
Wiers, like Buurma, is descended from one of the Dutch immigrant families that drained the swamps outside Willard to create one of the Midwest’s most productive vegetable-growing regions.
Today, the firm grows more than 45 different vegetable crops on reclaimed swamp ground outside Willard — and in fields more recently acquired in Florida — and ships the harvest to most of the country in its own fleet of refrigerated trucks.
Wiers and Buurma are both among the Ohio farming operations involved in an organization formed to facilitate sharing ideas on how to produce abundant supplies of safe, fresh fruits and vegetables.
“We have a mix of members,” says Cathy Pullins, president of the Ohio Produce Growers and Marketers Association, Frazeysburg, OH. “There are large commercial growers and smaller fruit and vegetable farmers. We have a summer tour when we highlight a particular farm, and that farmer shares its practices. Last year, it was Witten Farms in Southern Ohio. They’re known for their sweet corn. We took a tour of their sweet corn fields, greenhouses and new plantings of raspberries and blackberries.”
In addition to the farmer-to-farmer event, the association also has an annual conference bringing together Ohio produce farmers and university researchers.
“Produce Network is a two-day session early in the year,” says Pullins. “We have university people from Ohio State, Michigan State and others educating the farmers on their practices and letting us know about their research.”
Pullins’ family operates Champaign Berry Farm, an Urbana, OH, U-pic raspberry and blackberry operation that supplements its soybean and corn business.
The state’s farmers are finding ways to offer a growing diversity of agricultural items that qualify for the Ohio Proud label.
“Here in Ohio, even with a varied climate, our growers are finding new and innovative ways to produce year-round — which has really driven Ohio’s greenhouse industry,” says McDonald. “We’re seeing more companies invest in the technology to give them a competitive advantage of growing acres of produce, in a controlled environment, at all times of year. Mix greenhouse growing with Ohio’s geographic location, and you’ve got a recipe for growers to be able to serve Ohio and our neighboring states a fresh, high-quality product.”
According to Tom Sirna, president of Sirna & Sons, Ravenna, OH, “There are even guys with 50 or 100 acres under glass so they can extend the local season. Every day, we hear from people who want to know what’s new. If it grows, we handle it, including specialty items and organic.”
Sirna & Sons has offered a variety of locally grown fruits and vegetables since Tom’s grandfather started the business in 1939. Tom, his brother Vince and sister Serena Sirna Wagner became the third generation of the family after their father Joseph, to run the business, which will be passed on to Tom’s kids, Anthony and Allie. As an integrated wholesaler, the company, still family owned and run, has developed a transportation wing of more than 80 trucks, and is preparing to expand shipments to independent retailers.
“We put in a new facility two years ago and the next scenario for us is increased sales to retailers,” says Sirna. “We will be going to independents and smaller chains that are still buying from people like us. The chain stores still need fills; for the chains our business will be fills. There used to be 50 Giant Eagle supermarkets in the Ohio area, and now there are seven or eight. The supermarket chains have the big cities, but there are still pockets of small towns where there are still independents. We could probably do 20 or 30 of these independents within our service area, which is most of the state of Ohio and into Western Pennsylvania.”
THE HEART OF THE COUNTRY
The Buckeye State is well positioned to ship a diversity of fresh fruits and vegetables to most of the country during the spring and summer harvest season.
“Ohio produce is unique in part due to the diversity of the types of growing, size of operations, and also the varying climate throughout the state,” says Alex DiNovo, president and chief operating officer of DNO Produce, Columbus, OH. “Ohio has many traditional field growing operations, as well as greenhouse entities. The size of operations throughout the state varies from small family farms to large entities that ship far outside of the state’s borders. Also, the microclimates and varying soil composition throughout the state provide a multitude of different terroirs that can enhance the flavor profiles and other characteristics of the produce.”
DNO is a wholesale operation and also customizes items from a 50,000-foot repack and fresh-cut facility using produce sourced from hundreds of growers in Ohio and around the world.
“The major commodities grown in Ohio are apples, beans, cabbage, corn, cucumber, greens, lettuces, peppers, potatoes, root vegetables, squash and tomatoes, among others,” says DiNovo.
Wiers Farm even developed its own line of more than 125 trucks, changing the brand name from Dutch Maid Produce to Dutch Logistics, in order to deliver fresher produce to markets serving most of the country’s people.
“We are vertically integrated; we have our own trucking company,” says Wiers. “We’re close to the majority of the population of the country,” says Wiers. “We can get the vegetables to the customers within 24 hours of harvest, so we offer freshness. It is harvested one day, and it will be in the store the next. We take it from the seed to the retail shelf.”
This vertically integrated operation can deliver in a timely manner a wide range of vegetables to most metropolitan markets.
“We grow an assortment of more than 40 different varieties of vegetables,” says Wiers. “Crops like peppers and sweet corn are high volume and very popular, but we also grow a lot of lettuces, cilantro, radishes and kale. People are more aware of the health benefits of some vegetables like kale. When news comes out about that, we’ll see spikes, and then it will settle down at higher levels than before.”
As suppliers to markets in metropolitan areas throughout the Midwest, Northeast, and Mid-Atlantic, many Ohio producers have learned to follow the most rigorous food safety practices.
“With food safety becoming increasingly important, we have worked together within the caramel apple industry to make caramel apples safer than ever with the use of spraying probiotics onto the apple to inhibit the growth of listeria,” says Chad Hakenbracht, vice president of production at Tastee Apple, Newcomerstown, OH. “This step is in addition to our washing and sanitation process we have been using and perfecting since the early 80s.”
Shippers view food safety practices in both their own facilities and the farms they do business with as an indispensable part of the business.
“GAP is critical,” says DiNovo, who is expanding his value-added and fresh-cut operation. “DNO’s Freshealth fresh-cut processing plant is Primus GFSI-certified, and as such we ensure that all of our vendors have a comprehensive food safety program in place. GAP is part of a comprehensive food safety program.”
Agriculture is Ohio’s top industry. Ohio is home to more than 1,000 food processing companies and produces more than 200 commercial crops. Of these, the Buckeye State is a leading producer in more than 35 product sectors.
“Generating roughly $124 billion a year for the state, food and agriculture is big business in Ohio, representing more than 200 crops and livestock,” says McDonald of the Ohio Department of Agriculture. “Ohio is known for growing major produce commodities such as tomatoes, apples, cucumbers and pumpkins for distribution in and out of the state.”
Of all the resources that make agriculture flourish in Ohio, strategic location may be the most important.
“Our state has an abundance of resources, including fresh water, fertile soils and a varied growing climate-but one of the greatest benefits of growing produce in Ohio is our location,” says McDonald. “Ohio is within 600 miles of 60 percent of both U.S. and Canadian populations, giving growers close access to their customers and ensuring the product consumers receive is as fresh as possible.”
Even growers with ties to the local area dating back to the 19th century treasure this strategic market advantage.
“We love selling in Ohio, but we are centrally located and ship to New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago or Nashville overnight,” says Buurma. “We can reach two-thirds of the country.”
A TALE OF THREE CITIES
Ohio has three distinct metropolitan areas — Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland — each with distinctive demographics, trends and produce markets.
The state capital, Columbus, home to the Ohio State University, has steadily grown over the past five decades from a little more than 500,000 residents to nearly 900,000, making it the state’s largest metropolitan area.
“Locally grown produce is incredibly important to the Columbus market, and many consumers like to see that restaurants and retailers support the local economy by offering local produce,” says Alex DiNovo, president and chief operating officer of DNO Produce, Columbus, OH. “Ohio residents understand that buying locally grown produce, whether in a store or at a restaurant supports the economy in a way similar to compound interest.
“An Ohio shopper purchases product from an Ohio store or restaurant that pays Ohio workers. That store purchased the produce from an Ohio farmer, who in turn had to pay their associates. All of those employees in the transaction chain likely spent their wages in the Ohio marketplace, thus compounding the local economic impact of the final purchase.”
Retailers and restaurants throughout this largest metropolitan area hear from their customers that they want locally grown produce.
“Everyone requests local because they are getting requests from their customers, and we’re able to grow what their customers want,” says Jeff Givens, local food coordinator at Sanfillipo Produce Co., Columbus, OH. “We serve restaurants, ethnic grocery stores and mainstream markets.”
The Sanfillipo family has been supplying the greater Columbus area with produce for more than a century and currently has strong local, specialty and fresh-cut programs.
“In the ethnic markets, we’re up 300 percent in local produce over the past five years,” says Givens. “They are asking us for bitter melons, red Thai chilies, sherlihon, a mustard leaf from Nepal, red habanera peppers and different kinds of beans. In most of those markets, the produce is displayed as coming from a location. The major retailers promote regional produce. Ohio is unique because we are ‘on-demand’ capable.”
While Columbus has boomed more than any other major city in Ohio, Cleveland suffered from the decline endured by much of the industrial Midwest, as the population dropped from a peak of 915,000 in 1950 to fewer than 400,000 residents in the most recent counts.
Nearly 30 percent of the retail produce in Cleveland is sold at Walmart, Sam’s Club or one of the dollar stores, according to Chain Store Market Guide.
The region is making somewhat of a cultural and culinary comeback, however, which visitor promotion agency Destination Cleveland pitches as offering “World-class experiences without the world-class ego.”
Wholesale produce distribution in Cleveland was consolidated 90 years ago with the opening of the Northern Ohio Food Terminal, which handled 40,000 rail carloads of food annually in the mid-1950s.
Although the emergence of corporate retailers with their own distribution centers and a declining population have taken their toll on the food terminal, a handful of wholesalers continue to thrive.
Cincinnati is home to Kroger. With more than 2,700 supermarkets, it is the third largest produce retailer in the country, trailing only Walmart and Safeway-Albertson’s.
Kroger has a staggering 44 percent produce market share in its hometown, according to Chain Store Market Guide, and also leads the way in the Columbus metro area with a nearly 40 percent share.
After steadily declining the last half of the 20th century, the Cincinnati population has held steady in recent years at around 300,000.
Many supermarkets and restaurants in all the cities in Ohio make a point of featuring produce grown by the state’s farmers.
“You’ll find a number of restaurants in Ohio using the Ohio Proud ‘On the Menu’ label on their menus and advertising,” says Ashley McDonald, Ohio Proud program administrator at the Ohio Department of Agriculture, Reynoldsburg, OH. “From national chains like Bob Evans to smaller, upscale restaurants like Barcelona in Columbus’ German Village, ‘On the Menu’ gives Ohio diners a quick and reliable way to know they’re eating local, even when dining out.
Another program we are involved with is Columbus City Schools’ “Ohio Days: My Plate, My State” initiative. Last year we assisted the school district in making connections with Ohio producers in order for the school district to reach their goal of serving their more than 52,000 students a full plate of Ohio-sourced foods once a month.”