Big food retailers going local: BJ’s, Big Y begin stocking produce from local farms

The Recorder. July 26, 2014. By Diane Broncaccio.

GREENFIELD — According to the “food odometer” developed by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Iowa, the average fruit or vegetable travels nearly 1,500 miles to get from farm to consumer. And to keep food from spoiling during these long trips, some of it is picked before it has fully ripened and absorbed nutrients from its surroundings.

That’s why BJ’s Wholesale Club is now stocking its shelves with Massachusetts-grown produce, through its “Farm to Club” program. Starting next week, members can start buying squash, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, corn and tomatoes all grown by Long Plain Farm, a three-generation family farm in Whately.

This 150-acre farm will be providing all Massachusetts BJ’s with seasonal veggies, according to BJ’s produce buyer Dominick Viglione.

“We’re one of the few wholesale programs that has locally grown produce,” he said. “It seems to resound with our members. We get a lot of credit for supporting our farmers and our local communities.”

BJ’s started its Farm to Club program in other states about three years ago, but this summer is the first time the Massachusetts stores will be participating.

“To us, ‘local,’ means grown in that state,” said Viglione. “If I have Massachusetts corn, I won’t sell it in Connecticut and call it ‘local.’ That’s a stand that we’ve taken.”

Viglione noted that the cost to truck produce from the West Coast to the East Coast ranges from $9,000 to $11,000 per truck load.

But purchasing local produce “is more of an offering to our members,” he said. “It’s a break-even thing, because we pay a fair price to our farmers,” he said. “But it’s had benefits: It’s increased our members, as (people) become aware of it.”

Although the “locavore movement” has really taken off over the past 10 years, Foster’s Super Market in Greenfield has always carried products from local growers since its inception in 1941.

Co-owner Matthew Deane says his grandfather, Frank “Bud” Foster, started it as a “student store” for Northfield Mount Hermon School, before it grew into a full-service supermarket that has always carried produce from local farmers, when available, as well as locally produced processed foods. He estimates that the supermarket carries produce from at least 15 to 20 growers currently.

Locally grown food is no longer the sole provenance of locally owned stores, farm stands, food co-ops and farmers markets; mainstream chain retailers are getting into the act.

Within the next two weeks, the Greenfield Big Y hopes to start carrying organic summer produce grown on the South Deerfield fields of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Student Farm, says Kevin Barry, produce manager for the Springfield-based supermarket chain.

For the past three years, the Big Y World Class Markets in Amherst and Northampton have been selling the student farm’s autumn produce between Labor Day and Thanksgiving. But this year, summer produce and herbs have been added to the mix: melons, squash, zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant, basil and cilantro, among others. And, as more certified organic farmland is cultivated on the UMass student farm, Big Y will add more stores, like Greenfield’s, to those selling locally grown food.

“Our biggest produce purchaser is Big Y,” says farm manager Amanda Brown. “This morning, they’re in the process of harvesting produce for deliveries to the Amherst and Northampton stores.”

“The stuff that is picked today will be in our stores this afternoon,” added Barry. “Your typical produce from California is a five-day trip. So it doesn’t get any fresher than this.”

The eight-season-old student-run farm has grown from two students producing one crop to 12 to 15 students each growing season, producing 36 different organic vegetables for UMass markets and for Big Y. Last year, Big Y donated $150,000 in five-year funding to the Student Farm, “in recognition of its value to the community,” according to Barry.

With the new summer produce added in, the UMass Student Farm is now growing 47 crops, Brown noted.

“We started deliveries in June,” she said. “Not only do we have produce in the stores earlier, but the students have more experience in growing crops they don’t usually grow.”

Three years ago, the UMass farm contacted Big Y to form this partnership. Since then, the number of crops has grown and more acreage of certified organic farm fields has been added. Besides providing some produce to Big Y, the farm also sells to 10 different food venues on the UMass Amherst campus.

“You can plan, plant and harvest, but you also have to know how to market your produce,” said Barry. “That’s where we come in. We’ve shown them over the last three years how to deal with retailers. We’ve had them tour our distribution center and see how we ship products. A lot of these students have never worked on a farm before. But I think a good number of them go into farming.”

In addition to the UMass Farm, Barry said Big Y works with 40 to 50 Massachusetts and Connecticut-based growers.

“Our collaboration with Big Y has added so much to the curriculum,” said Brown. “Students learn that they’ve got to deliver what they’ve promised. They learn about quality control and pricing.”