Farm to supermarket, fast Cornucopia: A 10-year-old state program is resulting in more and more produce from Maryland's farms finding its way into Maryland supermarkets.

August 10, 1996|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Everybody knows that the best way to enjoy Silver Queen corn -- a summertime treat of most Marylanders -- is to pick it in the field and get it into the boiling pot as fast as possible.

Only this method ensures that the kernels keep their ephemeral sweet taste and juiciness.

Traditionally this has meant that people had to buy the corn at roadside stands or grow their own. Supermarkets -- with their bulk-buying practices and long distribution lines -- were left out of the loop.

But this is changing. It is easier than ever to enjoy tasty, vine-ripened, locally grown produce thanks to a 10-year-old state program that is just beginning to sprout fruit for farmers, retailers and consumers.

Major supermarkets, lead by Giant Food Inc., the largest food retailer in the state, are changing the way they do business to supply their customers with corn, squash, potatoes, cabbage, blueberries, watermelons, strawberries, cucumbers, green beans, cantaloupes and other garden goodies fresh from the farm.

"We will have sweet corn on the shelf that was picked earlier that same morning," said Barry F. Scher, a spokesman for Giant, the Landover-based retailer which operates 99 grocery stores in Maryland.

Judy French seemed mighty appreciative. "This is terrific," said the Hampden resident as she stuffed 10 ears of Silver Queen, costing $1.99, into a plastic bag while shopping at the Giant store in the Rotunda. "You could never get it here before. It reminds me when I was growing up in Harford County and we would stop at a farmer's roadside stand."

Bradley Powers, an assistant secretary at the Maryland Department of Agriculture responsible for marketing, said several chains in Maryland are selling produce delivered by local farmers. They include: Safeway, Acme, Super Fresh, Super Thrift, Farm Fresh, Shop Rite and Food Depot. Food Lion, he said, has announced its intentions to do the same.

Getting produce from local farms into the supermarkets is one of the major changes in the agriculture marketing of the past decade, according to August Schumacher Jr., a marketing official with the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Using figures reflecting only the changing picture on Eastern Shore farms, where the marketing trend got its start in the late 1980s, Powers said, "Farmers' direct sales to stores was $302,000 in 1989. Last year it was $937,000. It will be well over $1 million this year."

Powers said he was not surprised by the popularity of the marketing concept. "The consumer gets a much better product. It is usually vine-ripened which gives it a better flavor," he said.

The marketing program is also good for the farmer, said James D. Schillinger who runs a family farm near Glen Burnie that does business under the name of Papa John's. "When we started selling directly to the supermarkets four years ago, we were farming between 90 and 100 acres. Now we farm 340 acres of tomatoes, corn, cantaloupes, watermelons, squash, peppers and eggplants," he said.

For many years the Schillinger farm grew tobacco. "We switched to vegetables about 10 years ago when the future for tobacco looked pretty bleak," he said.

Now, Schillinger and his crew are out in the fields at 5: 30 a.m. picking crops. By 10 o'clock, they're ready to ship the crops to stores in Baltimore, Washington and as far north as Bel Air.

The bulk of what the farm produces -- about 45 percent -- goes to Giant stores. Schillinger said the farm also supplies Graul's Markets and some independent stores.

Although he gets a lower price for the produce sold wholesale than at the farm store, Schillinger said "it evens out in the long run. There's more labor in selling at the farm, a lot more handling and you have got to pay people to run the store. It all adds up."

Powers, the Agriculture Department official, said farmers receive lower price for the crops sold wholesale to supermarkets than if they sold them directly to the consumers. "But, he added, "it gives them another market for their produce. It helps spread their risk."

The state Agriculture Department began working with farmers and retailers 10 years ago to get local produce into supermarkets. The plan was initiated by then-Agriculture Secretary Wayne A. Cawley Jr., to help make family farms more viable.

Originally, Powers said, a cooperative that would have included the farmers and the supermarkets was considered. But the chains were advised against their participation because of possible violation of antitrust laws.

When that effort failed, Powers said, the department set up "what we called a shore to store" program on the Delmarva region where individual farmers would take their crops to individual stores. It was coordinated with farmers in the Delmarva region and included the support and some advertising financing from the Agriculture departments of Maryland, Virginia and Delaware.

"But interest in local produce really blossomed two years ago," Powers said. "That's when Giant began getting more involved."

Scher said Giant originally tested the concept in a few stores, but "it went over so big that we now have it in all of our stores."

zTC Maryland Agriculture Department officials say they don't known how many farmers are selling their goods to supermarkets.

"I would estimate that it's at least several hundred," said James Duffy, a marketing representative.

Pub Date: 8/10/96

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