Locally Grown Produce Finds Market Through Local Grocery Chains
By Mac McLean
Reporter / Bristol Herald Courier
Article from TriCities.com
By Earl Neikirk/Bristol Herald Courier
Food City has partnered with local farmers to offer locally grown produce to their customers.
ABINGDON, Va. – It starts just before Mother’s Day with strawberries – juicy, red, fresh-from-the-field strawberries.
No more than just a day after being harvested in Scott County, Va., or Unicoi County, Tenn., locally raised strawberries pop up in each of the Food City grocery chain’s 94 stores.
The berries are usually snatched up by customers and quickly replaced with even fresher produce.
Last year, Food City sold about $6 million worth of locally raised produce at its stores in Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. These items make up about 20 percent of the chain’s total produce sales at the height of the local growing season in July and August.
Produce Director Mike Tipton said Food City sold $500,000 worth of strawberries this season, although it was cut short by a late spring frost and heavy rainfall, which affected the overall quality of the harvest.
“Our job is to sell,” said Food City President Steve Smith. “How can we as a local company partner with local farmers and give them as much business as we can?”
Food City sells about 40 locally grown items that come from more than 40 farmers who live and work in areas served by the chain’s stores. Its top selling items are corn, half-runner beans, tomatoes and squash, Tipton said.
With each of these crops, the chain’s trucks are loaded at its supplier farms and taken to the distribution center in Abingdon, Va. From there, the produce goes directly to the stores and onto the shelves, a schedule that Smith said some of his die-hard customers have figured out so they can catch their favorite produce the second it arrives.
“It’s no more than a day from the farm when it hits a Food City store,” Smith said.
This freshness is important to a lot of Food City customers, who can taste the difference between a local strawberry and one that’s been shipped from California or some other faraway destination, he said.
People also search out local produce because they have a chance to build a relationship with the people who grow it, supporters of the local foods movement say.
These relationships give people the ability to trust that the food was made according to certain standards and by people who treated everyone and everything involved in the process fairly and with respect.
Food City has taken this idea of creating a producer-consumer relationship seriously, and over the years it has evolved into a marketing campaign for locally raised fruits and vegetables.
“We let the customers see the farmers,” Tipton said, explaining how it works. Food City places pictures of Scott County’s David Mann or Unicoi County’s Wayne Scott over the tables and shelves where their strawberries are displayed.
It does the same thing with its most recent local item, hot house tomatoes, which Randall Pierce grows on his R.C. Farms in Rutledge, Tenn.
Tipton said the chain takes the process a step further by inviting farmers to stand next to their produce as it’s sold in the stores so they can talk to their customers and tell them how it’s grown.
And once a year, it sends store produce managers out to the farms so they can get to know the farmers, their processes and operations.
These steps have paid off as Food City’s sales of local produce have steadily increased since the chain started keeping track in 2000.
Sales took their biggest jump between 2005 and 2006, when Tipton said the company decided to stop “walking softly” with its producers and committed to buying as much locally grown produce as the farmers could grow.
While they may not boast a sales volume as high as Food City’s, other area grocery stores offer locally raised produce to their customers. Food Country spokesman Todd Creasy said his company sells half-runner beans and tomatoes and whatever else local farmers offer.
The Abingdon-based chain highlights these items in its weekly sales paper, Creasy said.
Food Lion also offers fresh local fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes grown in Grainger County, Tenn., at some stores, company spokeswoman Christy Phillips-Brown said.
And local grocery stores aren’t the only outlet for produce raised in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee, thanks to a partnership provided by Appalachian Sustainable Development, an Abingdon-based non-profit devoted to promoting healthy, diverse and environmentally sound development options.
Appalachian Harvest buys organic produce and eggs from 60 to 65 farmers in the region and sells it to stores managed by Food City, Ukrop’s, Ingles, Whole Foods, Earth Fare and Lancaster Foods, said Robin Robbins, who manages the service for ASD.
In 2008, the service sold $481,000 worth of local produce to these chains, many of which don’t have a store within an hour’s drive of the Mountain Empire. Robbins said these sales represent what she calls “implant money” or money that comes from outside the community and goes straight to local farmers.
“Nobody wins if we can’t sell it,” she said, adding that because the program handles the distribution and marketing of local produce, farmers can “do exactly what they are good at and that is farming.”