Minnesota: Buy-local effort rests on relationships

By Angie Hanson

The Packer

The average shoppers at The Wedge natural foods retail co-op resemble the produce they buy—they don't come from very far, and they're not as common during the winter, says Dean Schladweiler, produce manager.

"Everyone wants to support the local farmer," Schladweiler says.

It's definitely apparent in sales, which noticeably escalate when spring hits, and Minnesota's growing season gets under way. During peak months, revenue jumps to $123,000 a week, compared to the average $100,000, he says.

Many growers, many items

The Wedge works directly with 21 area growers—including Riverbend Farms, Red Oaks Farm, Gardens of Eagan and Featherstone Farms—that supply a plethora of products, including lettuce, greens, zucchini, melons, tomatoes, apples, onions, beets, carrots, garlic, peaches, cherries and berries, Schladweiler says.

The growers themselves even make occasional store appearances, he says.

"We want to be on the forefront of what's new, and one thing that keeps us there is the local grower," Schladweiler says.

To be successful in the local market, it is essential to have a strong, direct relationship with the growers, says Schladweiler, whose group was invited to the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference on Feb. 22-24 in La Crosse, Wis., to speak on grower relations.

Kowalski's, an upscale, independent retailer based in Woodbury, also has two area farmers that keep the Woodbury store stocked throughout the summer, says Dean Balzum, produce merchandiser.

The other seven Kowalski's locations are free to work independently with local growers and are encouraged to do so, Balzum says.

The middlemen are upping their local involvement, as well.

St. Paul-based J&J Distributing tested the waters with a local immigrant grower, supported by the St. Croix-based Minnesota Food Association's New Immigrant Agriculture Project, in 2006, and this year, J&J plans to bolster its purchasing from growers involved in the project, says Victor Rojas, account executive and ethnic specialist.

J&J plans to source several items from Francisco Benitez—including cucumbers, cilantro, jalapenos, roma tomatoes and tomatillos—and welcomes business from any additional farmers for its Home Grown line, anticipated to be available in Cub Foods stores by July 1, starting with jalapenos, Rojas says.

"They (farmers) want to be a part of this community," Rojas says.

Increased supply

H. Brooks & Co. of New Brighton, has increased its local supply, including organic corn, beans, squash, potatoes, lettuce and strawberries, says Phillip Brooks, chief executive officer.

"We're expanding greatly," Brooks says.

Elgin-based Wescott Agri Products is a grower-packer-shipper of apples that specializes in Minnesota grown, representing more than 20 regional farmers—including themselves (Wescott Orchards)—and distributing about half of the local apple crop, under the Mississippi Valley Fruit Co. brand, says Don Roper, vice president of sales and marketing for Honey Bear Tree Fruit Co., a division of Wescott Agri Products.

To provide year-round product to its customers, Wescott sources honeycrisps from Washington and imports from various countries, including Chile and New Zealand—under the Wenatchee, Wash.-based Honey Bear Tree Fruit Co. label.

However, when the regional crop comes into play from mid-September to mid-November, local becomes the priority, and up to 80 percent of the Washington crop gets displaced, said Roper, whose firm also ships a little citrus.

"Everybody wants Minnesota apples," says Roper, who distributes to Cub Foods and other area retailers. "Retailers switch out to local program and effectively turn Washington off. The big emphasis is getting local, and that's been emerging over a few years."

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