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Optimistic Futurist: Supermarkets have an appetite for local produce

Every major supermarket chain I was able to speak to told me they were having trouble obtaining reliable, large shipments of locally grown items. A great job creation opportunity exists.
This is a competitive challenge for the supermarkets, because research has shown that almost 30 percent of shoppers say they would consider switching to another chain if their favorite store does not carry an adequate amount of locally produced food. Seventy percent of these shoppers say they would pay a premium of up to 10 percent for locally grown food, increasing local farmers’ income.
To satisfy this demand, a few industry leaders have shown the way.
Virginia’s Food City grocery chain worked with the Virginia Farm Bureau and successfully grew its sales of “locally grown” products to about 20 percent of all vegetable sales, increasing area farmers’ income from half a million dollars a year in 2000 to 10 times that much in 2011.

Already a leader in this area, Wal-Mart has set a goal of selling 9 percent locally grown produce by 2015.
An organization that has taken positive steps to help farmers seize this opportunity is Pilot Mountain Pride, located in the Winston-Salem area. It has worked with area small farmers and Lowes Foods to develop a relationship to market produce from many small farms in a way that grocers are accustomed to receiving it — in large amounts. Pilot Mountain enrolls farmers via the Internet, word of mouth and training opportunities and advises them of opportunities to sell, as well as combining small harvests from individual farms for sale to customers who require large amounts. They also train the farmers in food safety “traceability to source.” Lowes has put a “local face” on the food by posting local farmers’ pictures near the vegetable department.
Four issues caused a profound change in traditional local agriculture — and created a business opportunity.
First, little of the food you eat is grown near where you live, and a very large amount is either grown in other countries or 2,500 miles away on the other side of our country. Food is one tenth of our economy. Unfortunately, we send a lot of that money abroad. On the list of crops we import are some real surprises. Brussels sprouts, garlic, cucumbers, peppers, eggplants, squash and tomatoes were all locally grown in the 1960s, but today almost half of all we eat are imported!

Second, our appetites and standards have shifted. The salad you recently ate on this cold day contained lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and so forth that were almost surely imported because those crops do not grow near you during the winter. Prior to 1960, your salad would have been cole slaw or kale and apples or some other winter crop that stored well. Since traditional field-grown crops are not produced all year around, supermarkets must import them many months of the year.
Third, our desire for tropical fruits and vegetables like avocados, pineapples and kiwi has grown.
Fourth, imported food gets a surprising subsidy. When food is shipped between countries by air or ship, there is no tax on the fuel used. It is cheaper to ship a crop like oranges from Central and South America to our East Coast than it is to ship them from California. (The European Union has a proposal on the table to change this during 2014 so as to encourage energy conservation and slow climate change.)
One of the ways local farmers can guarantee the supermarkets locally grown food 12 months a year is by growing hydroponically in labor- and technology-intensive greenhouses. While more costly and labor intensive per acre, the yields are much better than traditional open-field farming — 20 times more harvest for cucumbers and colored bell peppers, and five times more for tomatoes — and they produce year around, solving the supermarkets’ supply variability problem, while providing the farmer steady income.
The rule of thumb is that a dollar spent locally increases the local economy between $3 and $7 due to a multiplier effect. Think about the local and regional economic impact if we apply that notion to the 10 percent of our country’s economy we spend on food.
Environmentalists and “job creators” could join forces to create a stronger, healthier America. What an opportunity!
Francis P. Koster lives in Kannapolis. To see the sources of facts in this article, and learn of other successful money and life saving programs that can be implemented locally to create a better future for our country, visit www.TheOptimisticFuturist.org. His column appears on alternate Sundays in Insight.

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