ONE of the biggest brand names in food this summer doesn’t carry a trademark. It’s the word “local,” which has entered the language as a powerful symbol of high quality and goodness.
Supermarkets are beginning to catch on that stocking corn and tomatoes grown nearby is not enough for customers. Now they are competing with farm stands and farmers’ markets for a wider variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.
It’s been a boon for local farmers. Ten years ago local produce was devalued at the wholesale Hunts Point market, said Lyle Wells, whose family has been farming on Long Island since 1660. “Now you can’t get enough of the stuff.”
Last month Wal-Mart announced that it plans to spend $400 million this year on locally grown produce, making it the largest player in that market.
“When Wal-Mart makes a major effort to reach out to local food systems, it’s a major signal,” said Gus Schumacher Jr., a consultant to the nonprofit Kellogg Foundation and a former Massachusetts commissioner of food and agriculture, who has worked to introduce farmers to restaurateurs and retailers since the 1980s.
Some independently owned, small-to-medium-size chains have been selling extensive lines of local seasonal fruits and vegetables for years, lines they are now expanding.
For the largest supermarket chains, though, where for decades produce has meant truckloads transported primarily from the West Coast, it’s not always easy to switch to the farmer down the road.
But soaring transportation costs, not to mention the cachet customers attach to local food, have made it more attractive not just to supermarkets but to the agribusiness companies that supply them.
Growers like Dole and Nunes have contracted with farmers in the East to grow products like broccoli and leafy greens that they used to ship from the West Coast. Because of fuel costs, in some instances the cost of freight is more than the cost of the products.