Buyers savor local produce

Growers tout safety and quality of products

For the past several weeks, local growers of fresh produce have had a chance to spotlight their message: Local is better.

Though local growers regret the outbreak of E. coli in August and September from spinach grown in California, they still tout what they consider the advantages of safety, access and taste in the growing industry of the local produce market.

Karen Pendleton, who grows and sells thousands of pounds of spring spinach east of Lawrence to the ring of about $6,000 this year, said the E. coli outbreak has stoked the sales of spinach.

“I had chefs calling for black-market spinach,” she said.

The rush on spinach was due to the removal and destruction of spinach in stores nationwide following recalls.

The outbreak prompted Hutchinson-based Dillons and West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee to destroy all bagged, bulk and salad-bar spinach. Both stores restocked non-processed spinach late last week following Food and Drug Administration conclusions about the origin of the E. coli in the Salinas Valley in California.

“Spinach is a big category for us,” said Chris Friesleben, assistant director of communications of Hy-Vee, which has two stores in Lawrence. Neither Dillons nor Hy-Vee had figures for revenue lost in the removal.

Mary Jo Mensie, of Tree Corners Farm northeast of Lawrence, got up early to pick her spinach for the Lawrence Farmers Market last week. Mensie said she would take about seven pounds to the market and that her spinach would last until the middle of November.

But the financial impact to the nationwide industry is “tremendously big in the short term,” according to Sean Fox, professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University, who estimated the short term loss at around $100 million out of a $1.5 billion to $2 billion industry.

According to the USDA, fresh market spinach now accounts for about three-fourths of U.S. spinach consumption.

And this stands in contrast to the growing presence and profits of local markets.

“It creates a great case for buying local,” said Nancy O’Connor, director of education and outreach at the Community Mercantile, 901 Iowa.

The number of Kansas farmers’ markets has grown in number from 14 in 1980 to 68 this year. Estimates for annual sales grew from $3.8 million in 1997 to $9 million in 2002, according to Rhonda Janke, associate professor at K-State.

But regional or national grocery chains such as Hy-Vee can gain price advantage thanks to the sheer volume of their purchases, said Friesleben, whose Hy-Vee chain buys produce both locally and nationally.

Mercedes Taylor-Puckett, manager of Lawrence’s Farmers Market, estimated that vendors had seen about a 25 percent increase in sales largely because of publicity and the move this year to the New Hampshire Street location, which has more parking.

Not everyone agrees local production translates into greater food safety.

“People may choose to think that foods that are produced locally and consumed locally are safer,” K-State’s Fox said. “But I don’t think there are any good reasons that make that necessarily true.”

Richard Gwin/Journal World-Photo Mary Jo Mensie, of Tree Corners Farm got up early to pick her spinach for the Farmers market on Thursday afternoon. Mensie says she's take about 7 lbs. to the market, and thins the spinach will last till the middle of November.

But local growers see themselves with a leg-up on safety thanks to their one-on-one relationship with the buyer.

“If you buy from local producers,” said Bill Wood, Douglas County extension agent for agriculture, “you have a little bit more confidence that it has been taken care of.”

And local buyers point to another advantage.

“You can still taste a real fresh green flavor,” said Chuck Magerl, owner of Free State Brewing Co. in Lawrence, who has been buying fresh produce locally since the brewery opened in 1989. “Something from 2,000 miles away has lost its vibrancy.”