During the first day of sessions at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention in Hershey, Pennsylvania, a produce buyers panel featuring David Hahn of Four Seasons Produce, Mark Minns of Giant Foods and Rick Stauffer of Seminole Produce collectively answered the simple question of “How to Get Us to Buy Your Produce?”

Wishlist

The panel, moderated by Lela Reichart of Sterman Masser, Inc. started with a wish list of what they would welcome as suppliers from Mid-Atlantic-area farmers. Minns expressed the desire for specialty items.

“I would love someone to grow organic-packaged corn. That’s a big item for us,” he said. “How about local, organic green onions?  Boy, wouldn’t that be great if I could find someone to do that. We’d move — just in one division alone — 150 cases a day. So, think about the volume that’s capable.”

The organic theme was shared by Hahn as he stated that organic growth has gone “through the roof” at Four Seasons Produce. “Organics is now 45 percent of our total business,” he said continuing with his ‘wish list’ of items. “Organic Romanesco is getting a lot of traction. Mini sweet peppers, clam shells, Kirby pickles and asparagus: that is something of interest.”

Food safety requirements: What’s on the horizon?

“GAP certification is now mandatory of us,” Hahn said. “We didn’t put much pressure in the past, but this year, we definitely have to. A lot of that is customer driven. So, our customers are demanding it, so we have to.”

Hahn also said that liability insurance is a must-have. “There are a few exception for non-high-risk items. But if a grower has cantaloupes and they don’t have liability insurance, we won’t even look at that item,” he continued. “Leaf lettuce and spinach: Same deal.”

Stauffer added that Seminole Produce is using Harmonized GAP-USDA as a minimum, while 30 percent of his customers are using GFSI.

“The difference is that we offer a platform for our smaller growers to be able to afford it,” he said. Stauffer noted that Seminole has an umbrella program that satisfies the liability — up to $3 million — to help growers, however, he recommended that growers carry their own insurance.

“We cannot help you, and our umbrella won’t protect you,” he said to the attendees. “You’re going to get sued if there’s a problem.”

Organics: Is there really a demand?

When questioned whether organics is a consumer-driven trend, Stauffer noted that it’s really based on demographics like higher, more disposable income in urban areas like New York City. Some consumers also have notions — real or perceived — of what organics entails, he explained.

“There is no proof that it’s better” Stauffer said which was followed by shout of “Amen!” from some session attendees. “Also it is not true that organics are not sprayed by pesticides. Customers call me say that our produce is sprayed with pesticides. I say, ‘Well.., so are our organics.’”

Stauffer went to explain that certain areas are going faster than others, but the South, for instance, has not caught on to the organic bandwagon.

“I’m from Florida,” he said. “The south is not the fastest organic growing area: Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia. If you’re in a Piggly Wiggly in Alabama, you are not going to find organics. Publix, in Florida which is our largest market share, has a very small section.”

What persuades you to buy from a local grower?

When asked about the qualities they seek in growers, Hahn said he preferred passionate growers who want direct contact with buyers and who wants to teach about their produce.

“I like to deal with someone who is easy to work with especially during tough market conditions,” he continued. “The markets don’t always go our way. Our company is very market driven. There is a time when the markets are flooded in the middle of summer, and we are trying to move the product while it’s good. Sometimes, the prices aren’t right, but we have to work together to get things done.”

Minns said he feels that a local grower should be proud of their product. “Do you want to sell it? Do you want to continue growing? Do you want to grow (your business) when I grow (my business)? Do you communicate well? Do you work with the buyer?” he said. “I have a job to do. If you are difficult to work with, I will find someone who I can work with.”

Stauffer noted that ultimately his produce company works for the grower: The more money they get for the grower, the more money they make.

“Number one is communication,” he said. “No matter how good you grow… if I can’t communicate on a regular basis with projections of what you’re going to have every week… For instance, I’ll have a customer say he’ll have a load of pepper every week. Then I HAVE to have that load of pepper every week. I need to know how much other growers have too. Communication is key.”

Stauffer said that commitment and discipline also play a role in a dependable local grower-buying relationship.

“If you’re milking cows, they come first… and if you didn’t pick the peppers because you had to milk the cows, that is a big problem for us, and a big problem for safety too,” he said. “We have a requirement for packaging. One of the things that customers tell us is that they want a local look, but they want a professional package. They want it properly pulled. They want the shelf life. We maintain those disciplines; we expect growers to maintain those disciplines. Otherwise, we get rejections that are costly. Then, customers begin to questions the credibility.”