Southern Vegetables Diversify

Greens Display

Kale and collard greens grow peacefully side by side

Southern growers still produce bumper crops of sweet potatoes, sweet corn, collard and turnip greens, and, in that special corner of Georgia, farmers are still rightfully proud of the sweet onions that only make you cry when they’re gone. But the South’s farmers are also growing more broccoli than ever before, as well as Romaine lettuce, Napa cabbage, kale, and even a trendy new cross between kale and Brussels sprouts.

Cooking shows and food blogs made tastes more national, and institutional produce buyers with a keen eye for logistics — making Southern agriculture look a lot more like Northern California. “We’re expanding the variety of our offerings,” says Lee Anne Oxford, marketing director at L&M Farms in Raleigh, NC. “We tried a lot of new things three years ago, and we’re bringing more of them to the market. Some of them are usually grown in California. Broccoli is one of the items we had good success with. We also expanded the varieties of our chili and sweet peppers.”

L&M ships a full line of vegetables (including bell and chili peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, tomatoes, squash, broccoli and cabbage) from farms that stretch from Florida to New York, and as far west as Southern California and Mexico. “We’ve been moving in the direction of increasing our variety for three or four years,” says Oxford. “We keep expanding broccoli acreage, and we’re also growing Asian varieties of cabbage, like Napa.”

New Southern Agriculture

The refrain is the same throughout the South. The region is expanding its vegetable portfolio to include increasing volumes of the vegetable mainstays of the Salinas Valley.

Along the East Coast and as far west as the Rockies, these crops can be merchandised as fresher, and presumably more economical, mainstream vegetables. “You are starting to see more traditional Western grown items, such as broccoli, cauliflower, Romaine, lettuce and strawberries,” says Andrew Scott, vice president of marketing and business development at Nickey Gregory Company in Atlanta.

Nickey Gregory sources more than 400 varieties of fruits and vegetables from throughout the South, as well as other areas of the United States, Canada, Mexico, Spain and Holland, and ships from its hubs in Forest Park, GA, and Miami. “We’ve seen increased demand for what we call specialty crops,” says Matthew Kulinski, deputy director of marketing at the Georgia Department of Agriculture (GDA) in Atlanta. “One example would be asparagus. People are also growing more lettuce and other greens.”

By 2013, Georgia vegetable production approached a billion dollars in farm gate value, according to the University of Georgia Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development, with bell peppers, sweet corn, onions, cabbage, cucumbers, greens and tomatoes all topping $50 million.

That represented a 20 percent increase over seven years earlier, when the state’s vegetable harvest was worth a little more than $800 million, with onions, sweet corn, tomatoes, bell peppers, greens and snap beans reaching the $50 million benchmark. “Broccoli is relatively new for us, but we have been shipping it for three or four years,” says Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association (GFVGA) in LaGrange, GA.

Other states have also noticed increased demand for a wider variety of green vegetables. “Recently, there are more greens,” says Nick Augostini, assistant director of marketing at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture in Raleigh, NC. “We ship tomatoes, green and yellow squash, cukes, peppers, cabbage, greens, beans and sweet potatoes.”

The healthiest and arguably the trendiest of the crucifers has also taken root in southern soils. “I personally noticed an increase in kale in this area as it became more popular nationwide,” says Katie Murray, sales manager at Southern Valley in Norman Park, GA. “For us, we market throughout the United States and Canada, with an emphasis on the Eastern Seaboard.”

Bell Peppers from Southern farmsSouthern Valley, a sixth generation family farming operation in Southern Georgia, grows spaghetti, butternut, acorn, zucchini and yellow squash, eggplant, peppers, cucumbers, green beans, cabbage and, as of recently, kale. “Kale production increased the past four years,” agrees Sonny Dickinson, assistant director of marketing and retail merchandising at the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, Columbia, SC. “A lot of people are doing kale smoothies. It’s a healthy product, and it’s trendier than collard, mustard, or turnip greens.”

Even kale’s fellow crucifer, Brussels sprouts, has taken root in the fields of the South. “There’s been more consumption of Brussels sprouts; there’s probably been 10 to 20 percent growth,” says Dickinson.

As a sign of the times, a major South Carolina farming operation is growing a cross between kale and Brussels sprouts, a British invention contending to become the next trendy vegetable. Called Kalettes, this hybrid was developed in the United Kingdom. “Six companies in the U.S. have the rights to it, and one of them is Walter P. Rawl here in South Carolina,” says Dickinson. “Kalettes is an excellent product; it’s a healthy product.”

Southerners, like everyone else in the country, are eating more vegetables and more varied vegetables. “People embraced vegetables in the Southeast,” says L&M’s Oxford. But she adds, “There’s an interest in locally grown, and there are freight savings.”

Certain public policies, regarding the food we serve school children, are also doing their part to boost vegetable consumption. “We’re also definitely getting increased demand from schools,” says GDA’s Kulinski. “Anecdotally people in Georgia are eating more fresh produce.”

“There are less food miles from grower-shippers to Southeast retail and foodservice distribution centers, so produce is fresh.”

— Andrew Scott, Nickey Gregory

A Regional Hub

While Southern retailers have opportunities to merchandise a wider array of locally grown vegetables, it is largely the national and regional buyers that are behind this drive to diversify the region’s vegetable production. “Large institutional buyers are trying to pivot away from California in their supply,” says Kulinski. “Most of Georgia’s fresh produce goes up Interstate-95 to most of the East Coast. The vast majority of our fresh produce, around 80 percent, is sold outside of Georgia.”

Transportation time and mileage from the South to the East Coast, traveling up the 2,000-mile Interstate-95 highway that runs from Miami to the Holton-Woodstock border crossing in Maine, or even to much of the Midwest, is far less than from the fields of California.

“There are less food miles from grower-shippers to Southeast retail and foodservice distribution centers, so produce is fresh,” says Scott. “Buyers can plan their purchases a day or two in advance and keep inventory close as they purchase locally grown products. I would say more than half of the country purchases fresh produce out of the Southeast, and that is expanding.” The closer proximity should translate into vegetables that can be merchandised as fresher and, because of reduced transport costs, a little less expensive.

“We have great growing conditions, and the vegetables can be on a Midwest table within 24 to 36 hours of harvest,” says Hall of GFVGA. “We market primarily east of the Mississippi, up in the Midwest and Northeast. About 10 percent of our product goes to Canada. We offer all mixed vegetables — cukes, squash, beans, carrots, eggplant, tomato, bell and specialty peppers, greens, cantaloupes, watermelon, broccoli, and others.” Some Southern states are able to ship a significant number of different vegetables, each from areas that have their own unique climate.

“Virginia is lucky to have several climatic zones within the state as well as a wide variety of soils and types of topography,” says Elaine Lidholm, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in Richmond, VA. “This enables us to grow a wide variety of products, from peanuts in Tidewater to winter vegetables in the Southwest. We also have an excellent port system and several interstate highways and rail lines that enable us to get our products quickly to other states, Canada, Mexico, Cuba and other countries. This rapid distribution system allows our products to maintain freshness and quality to our wholesale and retail outlets.”

There are shippers, grower associations and state agencies that help retailers merchandise Southern vegetables. “As a supporter of southern products, Market Fresh offers point-of-sale material to help market items, recipes to use those products in, logos and product photos for advertising, and a market update each week to retailers,” says Kaylyn Bender, manager of marketing at Market Fresh Produce in Nixa, MO. “This gives the retailer the necessary tools to assist in the marketing and advertising needs. The Southern agriculture commissions are also extremely active and supportive of buyers and users of their commodities. These commissions have programs to assist in the promotion and advertising of products from the Southern regions.”

As the reliance on Southern farms to supply the East and Midwest becomes a more important part of modern, efficient logistics, individual shippers try to offer a more varied line of vegetable crops. “We offer a full line of Southern fruits and veggies, especially Georgia Grown,” says Nickey Gregory’s Scott. “The most popular products we sell are peaches, blueberries, Vidalia onions, bell peppers, squash, zucchini, green beans, cucumbers, cabbage, eggplant, watermelons and tomatoes. We offer advanced pricing, product forecasting and just-in-time delivery if they run short on ad items. You can call us by noon, and we will deliver the next day to their distribution centers. Buyers can order what they need direct, and then ‘lean on the street’ for a percentage of their direct buys and eliminate shrink and excess inventory.” Some shippers spent decades developing their regional and national vegetable markets.

“We market our product all over the United States and Canada, from Atlanta to Toronto and Miami to Los Angeles,” says Billy Krause, sales manager at V.L. Walker Co. in Florida City, FL. “We have relationships with customers that go back to the early 1950s and ’60s. It is vital to us and our growers that we promote vegetables not only locally but nationally. We can never have too many outlets, because the time will come when we must move product — the more outlets we have the better we can market and keep our product moving.”

V.L. Walker grows or ships a variety of vegetables (such as green beans, eggplants, green and yellow squash, cabbage, corn, tomato, bell peppers, cucumbers, pickles, peas, and butter beans) within Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and even upstate New York.

“The mainstays for Southern vegetables are green beans, squash, peppers, cucumbers, corn, cabbage, and eggplant,” says Krause. “These are the items our company has been shipping for more than 75 years. We offer the ability to forecast markets and availability with three generations of knowledge.”

The Convenience Factor

Another sign that Southern vegetables have merged with national trends is the growth of value-added, or packaged vegetable products. “Retailers seem to be moving toward the bagged items,” says Krause. V.L. Walker has been selling its peppers and green beans in bags. “ We have seen growth every year and now see many others following suit. We believe these items will only continue to grow as retailers see an increase in sales and a decline in product shrinkage on their side.”

Other shippers are also finding increased interest in their convenience packaged vegetable products. “We started experimenting in value-added from 2008 to 2010,” says Ed Sullivan, chief marketing officer at Pero Farms in Delray Beach, FL. “It took us a couple years to position ourselves in the marketplace. We have about 10 really active SKUs, and another 10 that are newer products.”

Pero Farms grows or ships a wide variety of conventional and organic vegetables, and ships them in bulk or convenience packaged out of Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan.

Packaged value-added vegetable products fit with many of the vegetable mega trends — more convenience, greater shelf life, and less danger of contamination. “Value-added gives convenience; the produce is already cut and washed,” says Sullivan. “It also gives you extended shelf life. For the consumer there is less waste, and for the store less shrink. Food safety is also a big issue. If the produce has been decontaminated and put in a bag, that’s a tremendous plus.”

From his vantage point between West Palm Beach and Boca Raton, Sullivan sees packaged vegetables playing a major role in a greatly expanded produce department of the future. “The packaged goods trend is so much more manageable and stable, I don’t think the produce industry has much choice but to move in that direction,” says Sullivan. “The produce department in 10 or 20 years is going to be much larger, and it’s going to be full of consumer packaged goods.”

Some Traditions Live On

Tastes and vegetable availability may have grown more uniform, but there are still important regional favorites and traditions. “Everything is available

Sweet Potatoes grown in The South

“Sweet potato sales are increasing,” says Autumn Campbell, sales representative at Matthews Ridgeview Farms in Wayne, AR. “The nutritional value is what sells them. It’s growing. People are using them in more ways, like in french fries or dog treats, because they are so healthy.”

everywhere these days,” says Brian Rayfield, vice president of business development at Loxahatchee, FL-based J&J Produce, which markets produce grown from Florida and four other southern states as well as Arizona, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. “People in the South like vegetables that are traditional, nostalgic, the ones grandmother used to eat. They like crookneck yellow squash, instead of the straight ones. They like pole beans that grow up a trellis even though they are a lot of work. I think okra would be another and peas, black-eyed peas, purple hull peas, and white acre peas.” Even in the modern world of value-added, packaged vegetables and national supply chains, some of the Southern vegetable traditions are still healthy as ever. Southern Valley Fruit and Vegetable, Inc, in Norman Park, GA, grows cucumbers, cabbage, squash, zucchini, eggplant, bell, jalapeño and Cubanelle peppers, corn, green beans and hard squash.

The regional favorites continue to rank high, even as vegetable production is geared toward a national market. “The most important vegetables coming out of Georgia are Vidalia onions, of course, bell peppers, cucumbers, sweet corn, and then your greens, cabbage, collard and turnip greens,” says GDA’s Kulinski.

Even as the South becomes more closely connected with national vegetable trends and markets, some traditional regional favorites grow even more popular. “Sweet potato sales are increasing,” says Autumn Campbell, sales representative at Matthews Ridgeview Farms in Wynne, AR. “The nutritional value is what sells them. It’s growing. People are using them in more ways, like in French fries or dog treats, because they are so healthy.”

Matthews Ridgeview grows and ships sweet potatoes in 40-pound cases, 3- and 4-pound bags, and individually wrapped microwaveable.

Increased interest in good nutrition is helping this time-honored Southern vegetable. “People try them and decide they love the taste,” says Campbell. “Our sales are increasing every year. Continue to educate people on the nutritional value, and on ways to prepare them. They have beta carotene, anti-oxidants, vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber. They’re good for your cardiovascular health.”

Fresh corn is another traditional Southern vegetable that continues to enjoy strong demand. “The biggest crop that comes out of the South is corn but there are several other vegetables that are in high demand as well,” says Bender of Market Fresh Produce. “Additional items include sweet potatoes, green beans, yellow and zucchini squash, bell peppers, Vidalia onions, eggplant and cucumbers. These vegetables are marketed to the majority of the United States. The South provides a lot of commodities to the U.S. as well as exporting these commodities to various countries.”

Even mainstream favorite, corn, is undergoing change as evidenced by subtle variations in the types of corn in greater demand. “There has been a shift in corn coming out of the South,” says Bender. “Yellow corn was always a higher demanded item, but now bi-color corn is being sought and demanded more than yellow corn. Another change in vegetables in the South is seed variety. The commodities have remained the same but the varieties have changed over the years.”

Changing and improving plant genetics is helping Southern growers supply a better breed of vegetables. “With new seed varieties they can enhance the quality, flavor and shelf-life of the products,” says Bender. “Over the years, the biggest change in growing regions is the seed varieties being used each year. The produce industry is ever changing and always trying to improve. To keep up with demand and changes, the quality, flavor profile, and product durability has to evolve.”

Some vegetables are more in demand because they just taste better when they are sourced closer to the retail outlets. “Any and all local vegetables are looked forward to,” says J&J Produce’s Rayfield. “Vegetables that might be the most in demand locally are the sweeter ones like tomatoes, sweet corn, watermelons and cantaloupes. By being on the vine longer, they are sweeter. Peppers and cucumbers, however, are not getting sweeter on the plant.” Consumers have grown fickle about tomatoes, probably more than any other vegetable, and this led to strong demand in the South as elsewhere for sources of fresh, tasty, ripe tomatoes. “We have about 700 acres in Alabama, and 350 acres in Arkansas, which lets us supply vine ripe tomatoes from around mid-May to the end of October,” says Michael Prather, director of sales and marketing at Flavor Pic in Birmingham, AL. “The retailers want a vine ripe tomato program, and Flavor Pic has always had a strong vine ripe program. We have seen increases in vine ripe tomatoes from our existing customers of three to 5 percent every year.”

Even this vine ripe tomato specialist, however, is looking to diversify into other vegetables. “We’re diversifying more,” says Prather. “We had some peppers last year, and will do more this year. Our farmers are also growing squash, and more traditional Southern vegetables.”

The increasing popularity of Southern cooking forms a bridge, carrying some of these traditional vegetables to regional and national markets. “Southern cuisine is a hot trend,” says Augostini from North Carolina’s Department of Agriculture. “We market east of the Mississippi, and up and down the East Coast.”