The “buy local” trend sweeping many industries is part of the bigger trend demanding that operations and processes be run sustainably, and many in the produce industry are adjusting business and marketing messages.

Gills Onions LLC, Oxnard, Calif., is planning a July ribbon-cutting ceremony to announce the completion of its energy-sufficient plant.

Sustainability is the mindset of the future

“It’s to be the first zero-waste produce plant in North America, and people want to hear that,” said Andrew Siegel, president of Chicago-based Fresh Connect, which handles the sales and marketing for Gills Onions.

Gills is using 25% of its onion-skin waste to feed cattle, and the remaining 75% as liquid goes into a biodigester to create methane, which is cleaned and used to power an effecient energy cell.

“It has no flames. It’s a totally clean energy, and Gills then uses that to power the plant,” Siegel said.

All power cells will be up and running by July 17.

“They are taking the equivalent of 600 homes of electricity off the grid,” said Siegel, who is training Gills sales representatives how to tell the story in terms that resonate with consumers.

The trend previously was organic, then local.

“But these have faded in foodservice,” Siegel said. “That’s last year’s news. Now the trend is flavor first, which organic or local would give, but now sustainable is the word.”

Exhibiting at the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant, Hotel and Motel Show in May in Chicago, Prima Bella Produce Inc., Tracy, Calif., gave a sustainable spin to its new iceless corncobs. Randy Metheny, regional manager for Fresh Connect, which handles sales and marketing for Prima Bella, discussed how corn on ice had to be shipped in waxed boxes, which were not recyclable. The new iceless packaging now allows for use of recyclable boxes, he said.

Sid Wainer & Son, New Bedford, Mass., has had rejuvenated fame in the Northeast as a local produce supplier in that area. As a produce and specialty food shipper, it operates its own 50-acre test farm, growing more than 200 items in a small way to show larger local growers what the company wants them to grow and how to do it, said vice president Victor Simas.

Because of these efforts, “in the past two years, we’ve saved over 2,000 acres of farmland that we put back into production because of the demand for local,” he said.

School days

The greatest demand for local produce in the Northeast comes from schools and higher education, Simas said.

Foodbuy LLC, the purchasing division of food management company Compass Group North America, Charlotte, N.C., has been working with Sid Wainer & Son on an Eat Local promotion it is running the week of Sept. 21. Company representatives have visited the fields and taken photos for the supporting materials it is developing. Foodbuy already has ordered 20,000 cases of produce for that week, Simas said.

Compass Group had more than $9 billion in revenues in 2008 and runs foodservice operations in such sectors as K-12, higher education, corporate dining, conference facilities, sports and entertainment, healthcare and senior dining.

“We have some ownership in supporting economic viability. One of the best ways is by looking where our purchases are coming from,” said Marc Zammit, Compass Group’s vice president of corporate sustainability initiatives.

The Eat Local week is geared to train the operators about local growers and products as much as it is to have the eating option for guests, he said.

“The reality of local versus California-grown is dependent on the market,” Zammit said. “The smaller or midsize farmers are sensitive to that as well. Our role is to support midsize farmers, and we have to respect that partnership no matter the issue — bad weather or price — and work to make it successful for everyone.”

Zammit’s advice to the produce industry is to “realize the future holds something different. We think all this is new, innovative and exciting, but to the upcoming generation, the Millenniums, it’s something expected. To the Millenniums, sustainable agriculture is something they expect, and they will vocalize when they don’t have it. The produce industry needs to look at it and meet the need of the growing generation of the future.”