Washington State University

Small Farms Team

Growing Close to Home

Dr. Charles O'Dell, Extension Horticulturist, Department of Horticulture, Virginia Tech, Blacksberg, VA 24061, 540/ 231-9836, e-mail: olecro@vt.edu Taken with permission from Western Fruit Grower, May 2001

Within Virginia's past two growing seasons, produce buyers for certain large chain store supermarkets have come to recognize what consumers have always known: Locally grown produce tastes better! Whether it's eastern cantaloupes, sweet corn, tomatoes, snap beans, cabbage, or strawberries, fresh product from nearby farmers' fields and orchards always beats long-hauled items for flavor and value in consumers' eyes and taste buds.

It takes one gallon of fuel to move 1 carton of produce across country.!

Buying locally grown produce during our growing season also makes environmental sense. For example, hauling produce from far western states, up to 3000 miles, with a load of 900 boxes of produce per tractor-trailer, consumes up to 1000 gallons of fuel per trip one way—or roughly 1 gallon of fuel for each box or carton of produce. Multiply a thousand gallons of fuel by the hundreds of loads of produce per day shipped from far production areas. Up to a million gallons or more of fuel might be saved each day by buying locally grown produce.

A Discouraging Record

However, up until two years ago, chain store buyers who would even consider buying from local sources usually paid only the lowest price for any item available on that day from any production area. Large, distant producers always set the lowest purchase price, often below the cost of production of our smaller-scale, one-season-per-year growers.

Growers were discouraged by frequent low prices in our season such as $6 per 24-pound carton for broccoli, $2 for 50-pound boxes of cabbage (or 40 per pound), 400 for their cantaloupes, and $4 and $5 per carton for tomatoes and bell peppers. Most recently, $4 per 8-quart carton of fresh-picked Virginia strawberries was the wholesale price set by shipped-in California strawberries produced there year-round. Harvesting and packaging costs alone in Virginia amount to over $5 per carton! It seems as soon as growers in our region are finished harvesting, distant year-round growers always get much higher prices, and are able to recover and realize a profit.

Buyers Helping the Cause

Now, in order to get the steady in-season source of locally grown, flavor-packed produce being requested by more and more eastern U.S. consumers (bless them!), wholesale buyers are beginning to offer grower contracts for fresh vegetables and berries!

In the fresh market produce industry this is radically new. Buyers involved in this program sit down with individual growers or groups of growers to work out a pre-set, season-long price for the seller's entire vegetable or berry crop. The produce must meet grading and cooling quality standards and must be packaged by the growers to identify its local origin for consumers. The season-long price allows the growers a fair, modest profit (above production, harvesting, packaging, cooling, and delivery costs).

This is a win-win situation for consumers, growers, markets, and the environment. It's also a policy that may help prevent the entire eastern U.S. from being paved over and built upon. Here's a perfect example of a type of regional energy policy that is being achieved because of savvy consumers, alert produce buyers, and experienced growers in need of stable, profitable markets.

Interested growers can learn more about this marketing program by contacting their regional Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) Domestic Marketing Manager. Elsewhere, state departments of agriculture generally have agricultural marketing specialists who may have, or be developing, similar programs. We all can help right now by going out to our local supermarkets and asking for locally grown produce during the harvest seasons.

U-Pick Also Showing Gains

This direct store buyer-grower wholesale marketing contract trend mirrors an increase in the U-Pick form of direct marketing with consumers, especially popular with strawberries in Virginia, There have been cycles where U-Pick has lost favor with consumers, but the spread of raised-beds, plastic-mulched hill system strawberry culture draws both former and new customers to the berry fields. I predict that U-Pick will be on an up-trend for many years ahead wherever growers learn to produce with this new system nationwide, and as newer, better-adapted berry varieties are developed and released specifically for plastic mulch culture.

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