IMMOKALEE, Fla. — Florida’s late fall, winter and early spring windows have them being the dominant domestic supplier of vegetables to many North American customers.

Because an overwhelming preponderance of their products are shipped outside of the Sunshine State, Florida growers aren’t as focused on locally or regionally grown movements.

Still, they say the concept has merit.

“These chains down here support local, but a larger portion of the produce we pack and sell leaves the state,” said Jim Monteith, sales manager for Pacific Collier Fresh Co., which grows and ships bell peppers, cucumbers and squash.

Regionally grown produce represents a movement similar to organics, said Dan Sleep, senior analyst with the division of marketing for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Tallahassee.

Because of the economy and other factors that curtailed organic sales growth, the organics category peaked earlier this year, Sleep said.

“There is certainly room for expansion of locally grown, especially down here where you can buy locally nine months out of the year,” he said. “We have that much production.”

Locally grown challenges

Locally grown product won’t be a large part of Florida growers’ distribution to consumers, Sleep said.

“A lot of times you can go to a place and you may only have four locally grown items,” he said.

“Everyone doesn’t grow every single commodity out there, so you limit yourself there to some degree.”

Part of the beauty of a regionally grown program is that people who are really committed to buying locally will put a lot of pressure on that market and draw product in, Sleep said.  

Sleep, however, said he wasn’t sure what that type of pressure would do with local supermarkets’ offerings.

Sustainability issues also have come to the forefront.

Bryan Biederman, assistant sales manager for Pioneer Growers Co-op, Belle Glade, said the operation that grows corn, beans and other vegetables doesn’t harvest beans in Georgia then truck them to run on a bean line some 300 miles away from the growing region.

“We are fortunate to have facilities in different regions, and our processing equipment is mobile,” he said.  “We are packing and processing in different regions with sustainability in mind.”

Because Belle Glade and Homestead remain the capitals of U.S. winter corn production, “locally grown” from the corn grower’s standpoint is shipping all across the country and into Canada and overseas when other regions can’t grow corn, Biederman said.

High interest

Pero Vegetable Co. LLC, Delray Beach, sees a lot of interest in locally and regionally grown issues, said Scott Seddon, brand manager.

A regional U.S. grower, Pero has many opportunities to promote its regionally grown produce.

“We grow up and down the East Coast as the summer goes along,” Seddon said.
“We are locally grown 365 days a year in certain areas. With people really becoming more aware of the carbon footprint, that can be possibly helped out with the locally grown movement. A multifaceted effort, it helps the local economy and the carbon footprint. And in the long run, it will mean fresher produce.”

During the summer, Pero sponsored an event at its Benton Harbor, Mich., packing operation to promote locally grown produce.

The event, which featured a broadcast from a local radio station, was a way for consumers to meet and greet their area farmers who explained the concept of locally grown.

Seddon said the growers received a lot of positive response.

“It’s really connecting with the consumers and teaming with the retailers to educate the consumers and get our face and name out there and let people understand what locally grown is,” he said. “It’s not just pulling up with a pickup truck and selling oranges out of the back of it.”

L&M Cos., Raleigh, N.C., also has a strong regionally grown push.

Greg Cardamone, general manager of eastern vegetables, said retailers and consumers are looking for regionally-grown product.

“Both appreciate the fact that it’s grown closer to them and they feel a connection with the farm and the farmer,” he said.
“Most people like to know they’re helping to support their local economies.”

Other L&M people have participated in industry panel discussions on regional and locally grown issues.