A pilot program to benefit local economies and consumers by bringing fresh specialty crops into grocery stores will debut in Marysville and Blue Rapids on Friday, July 26 and Saturday, July 27. Besides offering locally-grown carrots, Swiss chard and kohlrabi for sale, demonstrations will provide samples, cooking tips and recipes using seasonal, locally-grown produce. Crome’s Market, Marysville, and Gator’s Hometown Foods, Blue Rapids, are the first of five grocers in a seven-county area to participate in the program.
Growing Healthy Communities and Economies Through Northeast Kansas Specialty Crops, sponsored by Glacial Hills Resource Conservation and Development, Inc., addresses three primary aspects of the specialty crop industry—production, sale and consumption.
“It’s all about making connections,” said Gary Satter, Executive Director for Glacial Hills RC&D.
Specialty crop producers need a stable and steady market for their crops as well as better networking opportunities with other producers, and consumers need a stable and steady outlet to purchase locally-grown crops. Grocers are the most efficient resource for making those connections.
“For rural residents, hometown grocery stores are often the most convenient outlet for food purchases,” Satter said. And with more than 70 percent of all fresh produce sales captured by grocers, they’re essential to the success of the program.
Kansans currently spend an estimated $767 million annually on fruits and vegetables, though farm income from the sale of the same crops is estimated at only $32 million. In the seven-county region of Atchison, Brown, Doniphan, Jackson, Jefferson, Marshall and Nemaha counties, fruit, nut and vegetable farms net $678,000, according to a 2007 USDA census. The disparity illustrates the potential for positive economic impact by increasing crop production in the region, Satter said.
The program couldn’t be more timely, he added. Demand for direct-to-consumer sales through farmers’ markets, farm stands and U-pick it operations increased ten percent annually between 2002 and 2007, twice that of the rest of the food economy. Coupled with rising concerns over obesity (the percentage of obese Kansans more than doubled in the past 15 years), a growing demand for local foods and producers eager for local markets, the program is “an opportunity whose time has come,” he said.
Supplying retail buyers and consumers with high-quality yet affordable fruits and vegetables has been a major challenge faced by Kansas specialty crop producers. Most specialty crop farms are small operations, short on resources and business training. The state currently devotes only .1 percent of all cropland acreage to the production of fruits and vegetables, significantly lower than the national average of 2.5 percent.
“To begin capturing more of our food dollars in Kansas,” Satter said, “we need to increase the number of specialty crop producers and provide all farmers with educational opportunities and support to improve their production, risk management and business strategies.”
Store owners, many interested in selling locally-grown specialty crops, have been stymied in the past by a lack of consumer demand based partly on availability. Connecting producers to retail markets such as grocery stores and through programs to increase nutritional awareness with cooking classes, demonstrations and tastings will foster a more educated consumer base, develop new relationships between growers, food businesses and consumers, and enhance communication between each entity, Satter said.
Program goals include a 10 percent increase in sales of Kansas-grown specialty crops at five pilot grocers, 10 additional relationships formed between grocers and producers, and heightened consumer awareness of specialty crops and producers as well as improved availability of information for consumers to locate locally-raised foods.
“It sounds like a wonderful idea,” said Steve “Gator” Gaydusek, owner of Gator’s Hometown Foods.
Gaydusek, like Crome, has supported local producers in the past and sold their products when available. “I’ve always sold local produce in all my stores,” he said. “I’ll take everything I can get.”
Crome, owner of Crome’s Market, said that locally-grown specialty crops have traditionally been best sellers, though availability has been sketchy. “The hardest thing about marketing specialty crops is knowing when they’ll be available, and how much is available,” he said. A concerted effort to work with local producers under the program’s direction sounded like a win-win situation for everyone, he said.
Tastings and demonstrations will run from 4 to 6 p.m. on Friday, July 26, at Crome’s Market in Marysville, and from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, July 27, at Gator’s Hometown Foods in Blue Rapids. The tastings are free and open to the public.
Two additional in-house demonstrations using corn and tomatoes are planned as the growing season matures.
Glacial Hills RC&D is a non-profit organization whose mission is to coordinate assistance to the northeast Kansas region by facilitating initiatives that foster development of natural, economic and human resource partnerships that enhance the quality of life, to expand opportunities for economic growth, and to sustain community viability.