Make the most of the window for southern fruits and vegetables.
Promoting the flavors of southern produce will be key these next few months as consumers seek favorite summer fruits and vegetables for cooking, serving and celebrating. For retailers, this means bringing in juicy peaches and watermelons and creating abundant displays of zucchini and grape tomatoes. Staples, such as sweet potatoes and kale, will round out the extensive offering as the availability window leans into fall.
“As we continue to increase our produce offerings, we’re trying to be the Southeast source for all fruit and vegetable offerings,” says Lauren Dees, sales and marketing manager at Generation Farms in Vidalia, GA. “We’re increasing our acreage, and we’re trying to provide earlier and later harvest dates so that we can provide retailers with a larger window.”
Generation Farms sources its watermelons from both Florida and Georgia, and Dees explains the typical season runs from mid-June to early July. “We’re trying to extend that July window to a little later, and we’re trying to lower our carbon footprint so we can provide a cheaper product than from other areas,” she says. Dees indicates Southeast retailers tend to show a preference for locally-grown products. “Millennials as well as other purchasers like to see where their product comes from.”
LOCAL A BIG SELLING POINT
Jordan Carter, director of sales and marketing at watermelon marketer and shipper Leger & Son, Inc. of Cordele, GA, says buying local seems to be a national preference that won’t be shifting anytime soon. “Consumers all over the United States want to know where their food comes from, and the majority strive to buy locally-grown,” she says. “This is the new norm, and I don’t see it changing. In the U.S. we have become a health-conscious society, which is awesome.”
Kyle Tisdale, marketing specialist at the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, based in Columbia, agrees local has become very important for consumers, as they trust the quality and know their purchase can instill confidence in the local industry. He notes the Certified SC Grown program, which is free for growers in the state who meet all the right qualifications, is gaining traction. “Everybody knows to go to the local farmers market, but we wanted consumers that were just going to their local grocery store to be able to find that local product, as well,” says Tisdale. “Since then, it’s expanded. I wouldn’t say it’s super far-reaching. It’s recognized by a ton of retailers nationwide, but we still hone in on South Carolina or surrounding states in the Southeast.”
Tisdale adds, “If our growers have certified South Carolina on a bag and it’s sold in a Georgia grocery store with that logo on the bag, most people are still going to purchase it because that’s still considered local for a lot of consumers.” He indicates fruits with the label, especially peaches, are sold as far as the Rocky Mountains, but most are sold anywhere up and down the East Coast. Additional customers range from Texas north to importers based in Canada.
“For peaches, we’re the second-largest state behind California, and for watermelons we’re sixth nationally,” Tisdale reveals. He says the state is also in the top five for leafy greens, such as Collards, but these are more of a fall crop, as the heat of summer makes production challenging.
South Carolina’s watermelon season has its main harvest months from June to August, coinciding well with 4th of July festivities. “A few weeks before and a few weeks afterwards is when we’re really heavy on watermelons,” Tisdale says. “We always have them. We can grow them in South Carolina all the way through to October.”
Jordan Carter of Leger & Son, predicts excellent quality and consistent volume for this year’s watermelon season, which started in May in Florida, then transitions to Georgia around June 10, and then starts in Indiana around July 10. She encourages retailers to use eye-catching displays, show whole and cut watermelon side-by-side, utilize materials from the National Watermelon Promotion Board, and display nutritional information.
To help with merchandising, Leger & Son is releasing a new bin in 2020. “We partnered with International Paper for this project. The bin is made of recycled/sustainable, brown Kraft and there is minimal print and color,” she says. The idea behind the design was to create something simple, earth-friendly and appealing to the eye. “Consumers are not only interested in where their food comes from; they’re also interested in sustainable packaging. The bin we are releasing is natural,” explains Carter.
Meanwhile, green bean and fresh onion seasons are also in full swing at Generation Farms, with harvests set to finish in June and July respectively. The company also grows sweet onions year-round. Once the COVID-19 pandemic began, demand increased to higher than usual, according to Dees. “Onions are quite in demand but we don’t know if that will change,” she says. “We’re doing what we can providing the country with onions, and we’re doing the same program that we have been doing.” In addition to offering a complete organic program, it grows sweets, yellows, reds and whites.
HIGH DEMAND AHEAD FOR SWEET POTATOES
Rene Simon, director of the Louisiana Sweet Potato Commission, based in Baton Rouge, says sweet potato fields are generally planted from May 1 to July 1. Harvesting typically follows from late August for the earliest crop through to the end of October. The growing season is by no means long, but Simon emphasizes storage allows for it to be practically a year-round campaign, which is great for retailers.
“Most sweet potatoes are cured, meaning they’re held at a higher temperature with a low moisture for about two to three weeks, and then those sweet potatoes are put into cool storage and held at 57-60 degrees F with a little higher humidity, and they’re kept dark,” Simon says. “Although they’re harvested in that two-month window, we have sweet potatoes that are available year-round.”
Simon adds, “This past year Louisiana didn’t have a really good crop and Mississippi didn’t have a really good crop, so we are seeing, I wouldn’t say shortages, but we’re certainly seeing prices go up because of lack of supply.”
Similar to what was observed by Dees of Generation Farms with onions, Simon says the shelves were emptied of sweet potatoes in some supermarkets in response to COVID-19. “Sweet potatoes will last. They don’t go bad. Just stick them in the bottom of your pantry in a dark spot, and they’ll last a month or two down there.”
The end of the harvest in late October is perfect timing for Thanksgiving and Christmas sales, which Simon explains is when most consumers think of sweet potatoes. But his commission is trying to boost interest during the summer months, which are typically slower. “We’re trying to get people to understand that the sweet potato has diversity, it can be used year-round and you can actually grill them,” he says. “Put a little olive oil, a little rosemary and put some salt on them, and cut them into nice wedges and grill them when you’re grilling your chicken or your steak.”
Since 2015, the Louisiana Sweet Potato Commission has been encouraging more people to use sweet potatoes in seafood boils. “Traditionally, we’ve used a white potato but we’ve been trying to get people to incorporate a sweet potato into their boils. We’ve had some luck with that, too,” Simon says.
Simon explains Louisiana is the country’s fourth largest sweet potato grower, behind predominant market leaders North Carolina, Mississippi and California. The crop is also grown in Arkansas and Georgia.
Rebecca Scott, grower accounting and marketing director at Nash Produce in Kenly, NC, says there has been increased demand for sweet potatoes during the past five years, and her company has “accommodated accordingly.” Nash Produce started out as Dale Bone Farms in 1977 with just one cucumber grader, but in 2006 the company recognized a need for a sweet potato distribution center to aid movement of the crop from eastern North Carolina.
“While very different in taste, sweet potatoes and cucumbers are alike in the fact that they thrive in the sandy soil and warm, humid environment that eastern North Carolina possesses,” she says. “Over time, consumer demand for both crops has resulted in the growth of acreage in farming operations that supply Nash Produce with a fresh product.”
Scott says the farmers Nash sources from are in surrounding counties, thus reducing the amount of time both cucumbers and sweet potatoes spend traveling from the fields to its facilities. “Consumers are beginning to focus on labels, and what they are looking for the most in products is the word ‘local’,” she says. “Retailers choose to select our products over competitors’ for many reasons, with location being one of those of reasons.”
Nash says sweet potatoes make great sides for any meat during the warmer months, while they are also cost friendly and require very few, if any, extra ingredients. “Sweet potatoes, in particular, have taken the heathy eating movement by storm, as they supply many essential nutrients to the body,” explains Scott.
To support sales, the company has worked diligently for nearly two years developing two videos that highlight the stages of farm-to-fork for both sweet potatoes and cucumbers. “We hope these videos will shed a light on the full process our produce travels through to get to their final destination with consumers,” she says. “We plan to have both videos finalized by July and are very excited for everyone to see them.”
Cross merchandising opportunities for sweet potatoes are endless, with so many ways to eat them, such as cubed, spiraled, mashed, whole or fried. “Retailers can pair our potatoes with sweeter items found in the baking aisle, such as brown sugar and marshmallows. For a hint of savory taste, Scott recommends merchandising with herbs and spices that would complement a tasty side dish of sweet potatoes.
LOCAL, PLUS ORGANIC
Scott adds the majority of Nash Produce’s domestic customers are in the eastern part of the U.S. to embrace the locally-grown fundamentals the company strives to support. In addition, she notes a gradual increase in organic sweet potato purchases. “The younger generations are now entering in the workforce and have a preference for purchasing organic options to feed themselves and their families,” she says. “Our facilities are equipped to handle any increase in volume for cucumbers and sweet potatoes, both organically and conventionally grown, and we are eager to see where the trends will take us in years to come.”
Consumer interest in organic is a trend that led legacy grower Watsonia Farms — founded in 1918 and based in Monetta, SC — to start converting its farms to organic in 2005, with the brand Watsonia Organics. “I know that western product has been in the game for a very long time,” says Kori Davis, food safety and sales at Watsonia Farms. “But now that we’re in the game and there are other growers in the area that are supplying organics, the retailers are reaching out to try and support the local organic programs, despite the price points.”
“What we consider when we determine our pricing is that they’re going to pay just as much, if not more, on getting it from California to the East Coast or to the Midwest in transportation, and the product is not going to be as fresh,” Davis says, adding that the biggest mainstays for Watsonia Organics would be yellow squash and zucchini (both May to mid-November) and grape tomatoes (June to November), while kale would be a “close contender”, as well. “We grow kale very well in our region, and we actually grow kale year-round,” she says. “Weather is not a factor for that hearty leafy green.” Other organic produce items Watsonia has available during summer include peaches, plums, eggplant, bell peppers, cucumbers, sweet corn and strawberries.
Will McGehee, partner at Genuine Georgia Group in Fort Valley, GA, says his state is looking at one of its best peach crops in years, and volume was set to be up 10% in 2019. “Georgia peach growers have been planting aggressively over the past five years, and all that new acreage with new varieties is bearing in 2020,” says McGehee.
The group, representing a collection of fifth generation peach farmers, has conducted research that found consumers appreciate fruit that is harvested in the Peach State. “In our changing landscape where consumer confidence is at a premium, calling out the growing region of Georgia will create comfort and boost sales,” says McGehee. “The best way to do this simply is to display our fruit on merchandisers. We have an array of display bins that clearly and simply call our Georgia Peaches.”
McGhee says a great way to market peaches is in grilling features, particularly around holidays coming up, such as Memorial Day, Father’s Day, July 4th and Labor Day. “First, it encourages the usage of peaches in a non-traditional way. Second, it encourages a bulk purchase,” he says. “When you grill peaches, you use an entire peach cut in half so you need six to eight peaches in order to have enough for your grilling event.”
Each grower family within the group maintains its own branding and heritage box with the family name, while Genuine Georgia also markets several different labels, such as Georgia Juicys, Georgia Fuzzies and Sweet Georgia Peaches. When it comes to competition, McGhee says it is more about other commodity groups than other peach-growing states, such as California and South Carolina.
“We are a big family of peach farmers and are united in our efforts to gain more space for our peaches,” he says. “In a crowded department, you have to look at what your advantages are over your competition, and ours is simple: flavor.” McGher says Georgia peaches are sold as far west as Arizona, as far north as Canada and up and down the East Coast. “When we start harvesting, we really see retailer and customer engagement skyrocket,” he says. “Georgia peach season signals the start of summer, and consumers get fired up.”