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Grocery buyers going local (Monroe County, Michigan) on how the "buy local" trend is scaling up, with particular mention of the National Good Food Network.

By Charles Slat

Evidence of the "Buy Local" concept increasingly is showing up on the grocery shelf.

A number of grocers are finding that customers are developing a growing appetite for home-grown or produced goods and sometimes are willing to pay a premium for them.

And bigger food marketers are hoping to tap the appeal by forming alliances with small farms.

This isn't anything new for some Monroe County supermarkets.
Danny's Market in Monroe typically will get tomatoes from Albring Farms, potatoes and corn from Smith Brothers, and broccoli, zucchni and other produce from Ruhlig Farm & Greenhouse, all Monroe County growers.

"You're really actually buying it cheaper" than big distributors would charge, especially if the grocer picks up the produce himself, says Danny Vuich, who has the grocery business in his blood.

"My grandpa did it, my dad did, it's tradition," he says. "It's like buying from 4-H at the fair. And you try to keep the money local."

Dairy products at his stores include those from Bareman's Dairy of Holland, Mich., and Calder Dairy in Monroe County. "Everything we sell is hormone-free, including our beef," Mr. Vuich says. "Customers love the stuff. They do," he adds.

Hi-Lite Supermarket has a similar tradition and uses some of the same suppliers. It also recently dedicated shelf space to solely Michigan-produced goods.

"Usually the prices are pretty competitive with the national suppliers," says David Petkovich, Hi-Lite's owner. "We look for more and more stuff from local people, people in Michigan."

He said even processed foods such as spaghetti and pizza sauces have stronger appeal for some than national name brands. "They, in many cases, are much better and they're usually fresher," Mr. Petkovich said.
"The underlying philosophy is that food is usually better and fresher if it's grown within 25 miles of where it's consumed. That even holds true for prepared items. That's why we make a lot of stuff in the deli in the store."

One of Hi-Lite's suppliers is Broglin Distributing of Allen Park, which represents nearly 100 different Michigan-made products under about a dozen different brand names.

Aaron Broglin, the owner, says Michigan's blue-collar work ethic and strong ethnic communities both fuel the trend toward home-grown and produced items.

"Buying anything that's made in your home state one way or the other is going to benefit you," he says. "The other thing going around in environmental circles is that buying locally produced foods is good for the environment."

While big companies traditionally have favored big loads from big farms, they're now trying to tap the "romance, memory, and trust" that more customers want and which more local, family-scale farms have, says Rick Schniders, chief executive officer for Sysco Corp., the big food supplier.

"There is a groundswell in the market of people wanting to buy local and keep money in their marketplace," adds Denis Jennisch, Sysco's regional produce manager in Grand Rapids.

The trend seems to be gaining ground around the nation and led to the recent formation of the National Good Food Network, which melds small farmers with big distributors. Managed by the Wallace Center at Winrock International, it's an indicator that the growth of farmers markets, farm-to-cafeteria programs, and other "local food" venues has reached a new stage.

Brian Snyder, director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, says local consumers and farmers have the potential to strengthen local economies with their local food purchases.

A number of small farms in Pennsylvania gross more than $500,000 each "before they even plant a seed," Mr. Snyder said.

Their trick is a business model called "Community-Supported Agriculture," in which customers pay in the early spring for generous weekly portions of their CSA's homegrown food throughout the growing season. With more than 1,000 such members each, and with a price of at least $500 per member share, the farms start their growing season with more than half a million dollars in working capital. Many such CSAs earn more good money by also selling their fresh, naturally raised food to farmers markets, restaurants, grocery stores, and wholesale markets.

The Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary have used the model for their two-acre organic farm on the grounds of their Monroe campus, selling "shares" entitling holders to a portion of the harvest. "Last year was our biggest year because more and more people, of course, are thinking about food and food safety and their health and things," said Sharon McNeil, ecology director for the project.

In addition to supplying produce to about 100 shareholders, part of the harvest has been sold to retailers, such as organic tomatoes to Danny's, various produce to the Food Town in Rockwood, and salad greens to Cafe Classics in Monroe. The project might be broadened to a community garden concept this year. "With this economy, we're looking at how more people can get involved and grow locally," she said.

Meanwhile, rural Loudoun County, Va., just outside Washington, used the principal of sustainable consumer-oriented agriculture to boost its local economy.

In 1997, it set out to double its agricultural output in 10 years in order to strengthen its rural economy and character. It grew agricultural output from $27 million in sales in 1997 to an estimated $70 million in 2007.
Instead of relying solely on exporting cattle and grain to bring cash into the county to buy imported foods from distant providers, Loudoun helps its farms to supply more local food to more local markets, partly to keep money in the local economy.

That differs from what most other communities across the country do — exporting hundreds of millions of food dollars every year, and importing most of their food from global food companies.

Great Lakes Bulletin News Service contributed to this report.
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