Ohio Proud: The Benefits of Sourcing Ohio Produce

Ohio SkylineThe state of Ohio plays an integral role in growing and distributing produce throughout Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus (pictured), OH, and the Midwest.

The buckeye state helps fill summer and fall demand for local produce.

Ben and Tyler Wiers

Ben Wiers, Tyler Wiers, Wiers Farm Inc.

Ohio offers a mix of farms and great cities. As one can drive 20 minutes in any direction and find him/herself in farm country, there’s closeness between agriculture and the cities. Ohio is proud of its produce. As soon as the days warm, buyers begin receiving calls for local produce. During the summer and through fall, the Midwestern state plays a key role in growing and distributing produce that satisfies retail and foodservice operators — and consumers — hungry for local and regional product. Retailers and restaurants feature the bounty of produce provided by Ohio’s growers in stores and on menus.

“Ohio does really well with vegetables,” says Tony Anselmo, chief marketing officer of Premier Produce One Inc., headquartered in Dayton, OH. The company distributes to foodservice customers throughout the state from distribution centers in Dayton, OH, Columbus, OH, and Cleveland. “It’s an exciting time when local comes in,” he says. “Ohio has a very good community; nearly everyone in Ohio knows a farmer or grew up near a farm. It’s definitely a farming state.”

Growing produce in one of the largest populated Midwestern states offers the advantage of easy delivery to large metropolitan areas, including Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus, OH. The Buckeye state is within 500 miles of 60 percent of the U.S. population and half of the Canadian population. That further expands food distribution as growers can deliver product to customers’ doors within 24 hours of being picked or processed.

“Ohio is in a wonderful situation, except for seasonality,” says Jeff Givens, local foods coordinator for Sanfillipo Produce Co. Inc., headquartered in Columbus, OH. “The state is on the main shipping routes. We can reach the East Coast and its massive population in 10 hours. We need to keep building on the foundation of providing a superior product to the customer fast. Local is a hot topic.”

Ohio Proud

Ohio Proud, the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s (ODA) agricultural marketing program, promotes local fruits and vegetables. The state’s geographic advantage is a formidable marketing tool, says Lori Panda, senior program manager of the Columbus-based Ohio Proud and Specialty Crop Block Grant programs. “The Ohio Proud program continues to grow as new companies join the program weekly due to retailers, distributors and restaurants promoting the program to them,” she says. “Consumers see locally grown as a fresher, better quality and safer product. They want to support Ohio’s economy, and by purchasing Ohio Proud products, they believe they are doing exactly that.”

Agriculture is Ohio’s No. 1 industry. The state’s 74,4000 farmers grow more than 200 crops, which offers Ohio’s consumers many options. In terms of planted vegetable acres, Ohio is tied with North Carolina for ninth place and is 14th in utilized production, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In fresh market production, the state is third in pumpkins, fifth in bell peppers, sixth in tomatoes, seventh in squash and sweet corn, and 11th in cabbage. In fruit, Ohio is the 10th biggest producer of strawberries. Its apple orchards are 11th, while its peach groves are 22nd. Ohio also grows grapes, which are grown primarily for wine.

The Ohio Proud campaign — and its logo — help market the state’s produce. “I don’t think the ‘local grown’ trends are going to go away,” says Ben Wiers, president of Wiers Farm Inc., which ships from Willard, OH. “There is a real connection being forged between farms and the end consumer. People in the Midwest love hearing the story of food that comes from their region. High-quality food benefits the local economy and lowers transportation costs — all pluses.”

Ohio produce is important for Louisville, KY-based Creation Gardens, which operates foodservice distribution operations in the Cincinnati region. “Local is huge. It’s everywhere,” says Krey Keeney, local and specialty produce purchaser.

The Ohio Proud campaign does well connecting consumers who want to buy local produce with local providers, says Douglas Bond, new product development manager and chef for Freshway Foods in Sidney, OH. Consumers can find farms and markets on the Ohio Proud website. “Consumers want to feel a connection with the source of their food,” says Bond. “Sharing stories about the specific farms that grow produce can help educate consumers about the bounty Ohio agriculture brings to the market.”

Locally grown means different things to different groups of people. “For retailers and restaurants, local may mean produce grown in the region,” says Bond. “For Ohio companies, the entire Great Lakes region is considered local. Locally processed is also viewed as local. Ohio produce is a key component of the local economy.”

Local Interest Growing

Local grown interest is increasing for Wiers. The north central Ohio grower-shipper has been shipping a variety of vegetables, including green beans, cabbage, celery, carrots, eggplant, greens, lettuce, radishes, summer squash, sweet corn, tomatoes and watermelon since 1896. “We’ve seen significant growth in the locally grown category,” Wiers says. “Our customer base is really emphasizing the Ohio grown and Midwest grown marketing. Locally grown produce is as popular as ever here in Ohio. The story of Ohio vegetable farming is only going to get told through smart advertising campaigns.”

Alex DiNovo

Alex DiNovo, DNO Produce Inc

Local has long been important for Columbus’ DNO Produce Inc.. The distributor, which ships to retailers and foodservice wholesalers throughout the Great Lakes region and the Midwest, including parts of Kentucky, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wisconsin, was a founding member of Ohio Proud. “Local is gaining in popularity,” says Alex DiNovo, vice president. “Consumers are more educated and understand that buying product locally has an impact on the economy. Combine that with social consciousness of some who don’t want to pay for product from California or Florida if they can help it. Millennials, in particular, are eating healthier and making better lifestyle choices like exercise. Local will be growing because people need to find differentiators. It’s one of the easiest things a restaurant can do to differentiate itself.”

DNO’s fresh-cut customers demand local products, particularly ingredient manufacturers and even ice cream producers. An egg roll company likes to use Ohio cabbage. “More and more every year, retailers are incorporating local,” says DiNovo. “What it comes down to, whether a restaurant or manufacturer, they want to distinguish themselves from the competition.”

Willard, OH-based Buurma Farms Inc.’s third-generation family operators serve retailers, foodservice purveyors and wholesale customers throughout the Eastern United States, as well as into California and Texas. Loren Buurma, co-owner, notes how in the past, Buurma would ship more packages earlier in the season and then begin ending in September. Today, the grower-shipper hits full stride by September and packs through October. Buurma attributes that to weather patterns and a larger product mix, which includes celery, cucumbers, lettuce, leafy greens, peppers, radishes, squash, corn, pumpkins and ornamentals. “Our season keeps going later,” he says. “Volume continues to increase in areas, along with Ohio’s reputation getting better or more known. Ohio has a lot to offer. We have a broad range of commodities and close proximity to most markets. We can provide fresh product to a lot of areas.”

Holthouse Farms of Ohio Inc., in Willard, OH, has been growing and shipping vegetables since the early 1900s. Holthouse ships cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, squash, hard squash, as well as greens, radishes and specialty peppers to retail and wholesale customers in Ohio and neighboring states, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Indiana. Kirk Holthouse, partner, says many buyers, including the foodservice sector, are always asking when harvesting will begin and where the product was harvested.

“We (Ohio) definitely have an important place in the summertime, specifically in the Midwest with all the retail chains, the foodservice community and terminal markets,” he says. “Buyers know in the summer, we’re close by. There’s a lot of people and a lot of business within 250 miles of us. People know that from May through October, it takes a number of states to feed the country. We are one of the ones people count on to help do that.”

“Buyers know in the summer, we’re close by. …People know that from May through October, it takes a number of states to feed the country. We are one of the ones people count on to help do that.”

— Kirk Holthouse, Holthouse Farms of Ohio Inc.

Holthouse says local interest is increasing and has been an ongoing development in the past two decades. “People like to buy local,” he says. “People are eating more fresh vegetables and are finding more ways to get them. These companies that ship your meals to your homes are adding fresh produce into their offerings. During the summer months, we would put our quality up with anyone in the country. Obviously, the closer you sell it, the more success you have. Our customers look forward to buying local and marketing it.”

Ohio vegetables are important for Greenline Foods Inc., a Bowling Green, OH-based fresh-cut processor owned by Guadalupe, CA-based Apio Inc. “It’s completely critical,” says Anne Byerly, vice president of marketing. “We like to source close to where we process. Having our largest green bean processing facility in Ohio, it’s incredibly helpful to source from Ohio growers in season. Customers love having local production and maximum shelf life. The closer we can be processing to point of retail sales, the better it is for both the trade customers and the consumers.”

R.S. Hanline & Co., based in Shelby, OH, has developed partnerships with local growers who supply the fresh-cut processor a variety of Ohio vegetables, including green beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, squash and corn. “We work closely with the local growers during the summer months,” says Corey Williams, retail and foodservice sales. “Locally grown produce is important. We want to do what we can to make sure awareness is brought to consumers. Ohio Proud or something that is tailored toward Ohio production drives home that at-home flavor for Ohio residents. We do our best to develop awareness of local grown product and how we can best market that to the large enterprise chains that we serve in the Midwest.”

Safety Challenges

Meeting food safety standards remains a challenge for many small growers, which don’t always possess dedicated safety personnel. “The smaller Mom-and-Pop-sized growers are not really geared toward being high-end in food safety because they wonder if it’s worth the investment,” says Holthouse. For the smaller growers Holthouse and Buurma work with, the companies’ food safety staffers review the growers’ fields and facilities, and assist with audits. DNO helps its growers improve their food safety practices. In most cases, growers are already practicing good agricultural practices, but may not be documenting the procedures. More growers understand the regulations, says DiNovo. “Our job as distributors and processors is to make sure we are bringing the growers up to meet good food safety standards,” he says.

To help ensure safe food is grown and delivered to buyers and consumers, Ohio Proud works with ODA’s food safety division and Ohio State University’s extension to assist Ohio growers. ODA offers grower training required in the Produce Safety Rule, which is part of the Food Safety Modernization Act. The agency is working with grower associations to distribute information to growers via meetings, says Ohio Proud’s Panda.

Promoting Ohio Proud

Many Ohio retailers promote the state’s produce through in-store signage. Produce departments often merchandise the product via separate sections. Displays include photos of family farms, which help highlight the produce. “Produce is probably the easiest and most highlighted area in the stores,” says Panda.

Kirk Holthouse

Kirk Holthouse, Holthouse Farms of Ohio Inc.

Retailers work well with grower-shippers promoting the state’s produce. “The displays are becoming bigger, and signage is becoming greater each year,” says Buurma. “Our retailers have been working with us on promoting Ohio long before local became famous, before it came into demand.”

Retailers like to erect signage to promote local and growers. “Retailers do a good job promoting Ohio produce with sizable displays,” says Holthouse. “The grower signs make the deal more human. If shoppers
can see the person who actually grew, packed and sold the vegetable, it gives them a good feeling.”

Wiers Farm’s Wiers emphasizes its Ohio roots and family farming history through its packaging, website and social media. Many of its customers promote the local angle by filming commercials on its farm and displaying point-of-purchase information in stores and restaurants featuring the company. “It’s important for retailers and restaurants to tell a story that connects with the customers,” says Wiers. “For folks who have been raised in Ohio or in the Midwest, telling our 121-year-old story and being able to produce pictures and stories of Wiers’ ancestors working in Ohio soils and building their lives in Midwest fields can mean something, because many of them have the same kind of deep roots in this area.”

Exploding Dining Scene

“Our culinary scene has exploded. The Ohio restaurant community and our major metropolitan areas are on a huge push and are very much thriving,” says Premier Produce One’s Anselmo.

Chefs are trying new items and simultaneously are returning to the basics; they may be using fewer and less exotic items. “The scene has gone back to a little more simplicity,” says Anselmo. “For a while, chefs were using all the different layers and tall plates. Now, you see radishes, beets and parsnips on the menu.” Ohio restaurants are big users of Ohio sweet corn, leafy greens including collards, bunched greens and kale, as well as greenhouse vegetables.

Restaurants, including fast-food chains such as Chipotle, also do well promoting local on their menus. Holthouse Farms’ Holthouse says Mexican restaurants like to promote the local lettuce, peppers, onions, tomatoes and cilantro they use. “Chipotle is good at sourcing and promoting,” he says. “The chefs in Ohio do promote seasonal when they put them on their menus.”

In the past, high-end restaurants were the primary consumers of local produce. Today, many fast-casual restaurants source local. “You’re seeing local use in restaurants across the board,” says Creation Gardens’ Keeney. “You’re even seeing it in chain restaurants, in places like Cracker Barrel and P.F. Chang’s. All the chains and corporate restaurants, including schools, institutions and caterers, want local.”

Restaurants are offering more Ohio produce in their dishes. “Many independent restaurants are highlighting local foods on their menus with the Ohio Proud logo next to the dish or food item,” says Panda.

In the restaurants Buurma frequents, he is seeing more local items being offered on menus, as well as local microgreens. Restaurants publicize seasonal local products and will add a special salad or vegetable as a side. “Their appetite is strong for it,” he says. “This is more on the high-end restaurants, but I’m even seeing it in some of the nationwide chains when they do some promotions of local vegetables.”

Buurma believes local interest will continue to expand. “People want fresh produce,” he says.

Read how other state departments of agriculture amp up brand marketing.