SAVANNAH, Ga. — Whole Foods would prefer to buy more local and regional organic and conventional produce from Southeastern growers.

The manager in charge of buying fresh fruits and vegetables for the south region for Whole Foods and the president of a distributor on the Atlanta produce wholesale market gave attendees insights on what retailers and wholesalers want in organics during a Jan. 8 session at the 2010 Southeast Regional Fruit and Vegetable Conference.

Organic demand in Southeast strong

Doug Ohlemeier

Brent Demarest,produce purchasing team leader for Whole Foods Market Inc., Austin, Texas,  discusses what the company wants from organic produce growers during the 2010 Southeast Regional Fruit and Vegetable Conference in Savannah, Ga., on Jan. 8.

Brent Demarest, the Braselton, Ga.-based produce purchasing team leader for the Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market Inc., said Whole Foods would prefer to source products such as asparagus closer to home than from New Jersey or California.

He said he used to be able to get asparagus from South Carolina.

“We want to connect our customers to the local farmers, to the taste of the season, and get them back to the way things were where you had seasonality of products,” Demarest said. “Things available year-round don’t really connect consumers with what’s great and great-tasting.”

Demarest said more opportunities are opening in organics with all types of companies such as Gerber, Heinz and Kellogg’s.

“Everyone is getting bigger and bigger in the organics game,” he said. “Demand really outweighs supply at this point.”

Demarest works with growers and sources products for stores in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama.

During the organic production conference section of the convention, Dee Dee Digby, president of Destiny Organics, Forest Park, described how her operation sources organics for regional growers.

She said working closely with buyers on harvest schedules can help guarantee sales. Destiny distributes product to large and small chains in six Southeastern states.

Digby said Destiny has customers that want products sourced locally, but there are many different definitions of local.

The company prefers products produced in the Southeast rather than bringing them in on a truck from California or anywhere else.

Brussels sprouts and broccoli are huge, she said.

“We received broccoli the other day from a Georgia grower,” Digby said. “It just causes excitement. Not just the people at Destiny, but with our customers. Once we let our customers know we have broccoli from a Georgia farmer, it’s just huge.

“What we like to know from you is what you will have. I will buy whatever you grow. We pretty much know what we will sell into retail,” she said. “With foodservice and universities, our buyers let the chefs know what we have now, four weeks out, so with your harvest schedules, the chefs and retailers know what’s coming.”