The Ohio market is an often overlooked source (and destination) for fresh produce.
Originally printed in the June 2023 issue of Produce Business.
You can be walking down a sidewalk in Rome or Rio de Janeiro, and if you’re wearing any clothing that bears the word “Ohio,” a fellow Buckeye passerby may give you the knowing greeting, “O-H…”
The correct response is, of course, “I-O.” And, thus, strangers become friends based on just four letters.
That Midwestern friendliness is part of the culture of Ohio, along with a mindset of hard work, caring for the community and the land, close family ties and doing what’s right. Ohio is part of America’s Heartland, a region rich in natural resources that spawned generations of farms, as well as major cities with growing populations that clamor to be fed. Ohio’s population totals 11.8 million, including more than 2 million in each of the major metropolitan areas surrounding Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland.
And Ohio has a diversity of fresh produce production that is primed to jump on an interstate — Ohio has the nation’s fifth largest interstate system — to get to you faster and fresher. That’s because Ohio is within a day’s drive of more than 60% of the U.S. and Canadian populations, according to the Ohio Department of Transportation.
“Most people are surprised to learn we have the ability to have this product on your store shelves in 24 hours,” asserts Chadd Buurma, president of Buurma Farms Inc., Willard, OH, which grows and ships 30 different types of produce at its Ohio and Michigan locations. “You get me an order by 11 a.m. today, and I’ll have it at your doorstep by 8 a.m. tomorrow morning. And I don’t care if you’re in Atlanta or New York City or Boston, if you’re within 500 to 600 miles of my place, I can get that done.”
It should be no surprise that Kroger, which is headquartered in Cincinnati, is one of the Buckeye State’s largest grocery retailers, with more than 200 locations. Also near the top, in terms of number of Ohio stores, in addition to dollar discount stores offering groceries and Walmart, is Save A Lot, various IGAs, Meijer, Aldi and Giant Eagle. Regional grocery chains also have strongholds, such as the Cleveland-based Heinen’s and Dave’s Markets, Akron’s Acme Fresh Markets, various banners owned by the Findlay, Ohio-based Fresh Encounter, and others.
Just last month, in May, Meijer, which operates more than 50 stores in Ohio, opened new 159,000-square-foot supercenters in Warren (northeastern Ohio) and Wooster (northcentral Ohio). Meijer is a Grand Rapids, MI-based retailer with more than 500 supercenters, markets, Meijer Grocery and Express locations in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Wisconsin. It opened its first Ohio store in the Columbus area in 1981 and has invested heavily in the state ever since, broadening its northeastern Ohio presence substantially since 2019.
And both Kroger and Meijer have recently completed fulfillment facilities in the Buckeye State.
PLENTY OF OHIO PRODUCE
With its rich agricultural heritage, Ohio has major fresh fruit and vegetable production, particularly in various microclimates along Lake Erie, the Ohio River and in the state’s unique muck soil regions. Major crops include apples; cucumbers; peppers; tomatoes; cabbage; pumpkins and fall squash; sweet corn; strawberries; radishes; onions; and greenhouse lettuces, herbs and greens.
Ohio’s field-grown produce season gets underway typically in mid-May, and various crops are available and promotable for five to six months. The Ohio apple season starts in August and continues through fall (and year-round via cold storage), and the hard squash/pumpkin crop is a huge one.
“Nationally, Ohio is vastly overlooked as a fresh produce supplier,” says Tony Peake, produce manager with TPC Food Service, a Tiffin, OH-based broadline distributor. “It’s hard for people outside of Ohio to imagine our state is a behemoth of seasonal production, variety and quality. But here in Ohio — rural or urban, farm or city hall — we all know our homegrown produce is beyond compare.”
Tom Sirna, president, Sirna & Sons Produce, Ravenna, OH, doesn’t feel Ohio gets overlooked necessarily, but because of the limited seasonality of the local products, “sometimes customers are not aware of what can be purchased locally when it is available.”
“When it is available, the product is extremely fresh, and we save money on freight costs since we are able to purchase so close to home,” Sirna adds, “and we encourage other produce buyers to support local economies and encourage sustainability if they have the option in their own businesses.”
According to Travis Riepenhoff, vice president of fresh merchandising for Giant Eagle, its Ohio customers continue to express strong interest in locally sourced and Ohio-grown produce options.
“Throughout the summer months, our supermarket locations partner with nearby farms to offer customers the freshest possible in-season produce,” Riepenhoff says. “When local in-season produce is available, the in-store displays feature signage that introduces customers to the farm where the items were grown.”
The Pittsburgh-based, supermarket chain operates more than 400 independent and corporately owned retail locations throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland and Indiana.
In addition to supporting local farms for seasonal produce, Giant Eagle stores also work to provide customers locally sourced packaged produce items year-round, he adds. “For example, all the product used in our private label line of Market District salad blends and microgreens are grown in vertical farms or greenhouses throughout Ohio. For these items, a ‘Grown in Ohio’ callout is featured on the package, and they are merchandised alongside signage that provides additional detail about where the product is grown.”
Bottom line? “We’re where people want to buy product from in the summer,” says Kirk Holthouse, one of four partners and head of sales and purchasing at Holthouse Farms of Ohio Inc., in Willard. “June, July, August, September and early October — it’s where you want to get product.”
Beyond the limited Ohio-grown window, Ohio-based wholesale grower-shippers, like Holthouse Farms, partner with growers in other parts of the country to keep the fresh market supply rolling.
“We want to be in the game 52 weeks a year and have product available for our customers,” says Holthouse. “We try to go to where the freshest and best merchandise is coming from, and, if at all possible, we always try to buy directly from the grower.” The company has grower-partners stretching from New Jersey to Arizona, and Florida to California, and in between, and supplies major retailers in its target area.
Like other grower-shippers, Holthouse Farms keeps track of trends and explores new varieties or products if customers request them. Take hard squash, for example. Back in the 1990s, Holthouse says, hard squash was an item that he might sell 50 a day. “Now, hard squash is an item that is moving anywhere from 500 to 3,000 a day. And during our offseason, we bring in hard squash by the trailer load from Arizona or from Honduras. We stay in it in a big way.”
Ohio can be a link to produce year-round, agrees Adam Silverman, executive vice president at Economy Produce & Vegetable Co. Inc., a wholesale distributor servicing retail and foodservice distributors from its location on the Northern Ohio Food Terminal in Cleveland.
“We are working with buyers and sellers from all over the world,” Silverman says. “Not only do we source from our own local season, but we also pull product from the Midwestern growing season and the New England growing season to support locals with fresh, reliable produce throughout the entire year.”
And Ohio companies are also tackling some of the value-added steps or are providing produce for value-added end products, music to retailers’ ears.
Giant Eagle’s Riepenhoff says the retailer continues to see increased interest in value-added items, like bagged salad mixes and processed vegetables, as well as premium options throughout the produce department.
“For example, customers who previously purchased conventional citrus are beginning to explore our Market District premium citrus line,” he explains. “Recognizing this trend, we have dedicated promotions and signage that draw attention to premium offerings throughout the category.”
Riepenhoff adds that last fall, Giant Eagle was the first retailer in the region to launch the YOOM Cocktail Tomato, a deep purple variety that ranges in flavor from savory to tart with a hint of plum-like sweetness.
Freight costs continue to increase, and inflation targets Ohio businesses and consumers alike, just like the rest of the nation.
“It’s hitting our company the exact same as it’s hitting everyone,” says TPC Food Service’s Peake. “But we have adapted by working with our customers to tag team the economic hurdles of the times, like working out more efficient delivery days, item diversity, and bulk quantity savings.”
It’s all about flexibility. In the last five years, Silverman says, Economy Produce “has grown to be able to adapt to the needs of our customers when they need us most.”
“Our customers are currently asking for our full-time, value services,” he explains. “We offer a full banana ripening program where we carry Dole, Del Monte and Chiquita in our 16 ripening rooms. We also offer rail services, cross-docking, direct store delivery (DSD), repacking, restacking and more as it becomes available.”
Silverman adds the company’s daily footprint into neighboring states “allows us to keep our prices in line with the strategic Midwest freight prices when marketing to places like the East Coast.”
There’s been an increase in purchases of processed and fresh-cut items in the last few years, says Sirna & Sons Produce’s Sirna, mainly driven by COVID and the labor shortage that is still impacting this industry. “Operators are looking for solutions to cut down prep time and the amount of hands needed in the kitchen.”
He also sees growth in the grab-and-go, delivery and takeout spaces. “While there will always be a percentage of people who enjoy going out and dining in, the pandemic, in some capacity, changed the way people view eating out,” and the produce industry will need to shift with them.
“What keeps me up at night is the cost,” says Buurma Farms’ Buurma, “and it’s not just the labor cost, it’s every input cost.”
But, he adds, “we strive to put out the best quality products we can put out, at the most affordable price. Our reputation is such that people know if they go with the Buurma or our Holland Brand label, they know what they’re going to get. I think our reputation, our quality, and our overnight delivery sells itself.”
The key to longevity is simple, agrees Holthouse, and that’s quality produce. “The great equalizer in all of it, I’ve found, is to sell quality,” he explains. “And if you have quality, and you have it consistently; that gets you through the highs and lows, the peaks and the valleys.”