Produce: Area farmers put their best fruits and vegetables forward in the aisles of Giant Food and other major grocery stores.

LOCAL FLAVOR

August 14, 1996|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

Paul Pedone was misidentified in an article in yesterday's A La Carte section. He is director of produce procurement for Super Fresh supermarkets.

The Sun regrets the errors.

The cell phone rings again, and the driver of the 3-week-old Ford 150 XLT picks it up.

"Produce, Bob," he says, and the master of produce logistics for Giant Food Inc. is on the job.

Somebody needs corn, somebody is shipping tomatoes, somebody else has too many cantaloupes. Sorting it all out is a day's work for Bob Hartman, who runs the grocer's local produce buying program -- and who, as "Bobby," stars in its TV commercials.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The new truck, a handsome metallic tan with Giant signs on the sides, already has 4,000 miles on it, and it's no wonder. Starting in February, when the very earliest planting begins, Hartman logs thousands of miles a month on his vehicles as he roams the state from the Eastern Shore to Southern Maryland to the Washington suburbs. He even ventures into Virginia, West Virginia, and New Jersey, and he will soon be adding Pennsylvania to his territory.

Whose idea was it to put local produce in Giant stores?

"Consumers," Hartman says. "It's the most common question asked by our customers: 'Why can't we have local produce in our Giant?' " So Hartman, who's been at Giant for 34 years and was formerly a product supervisor overseeing produce in a 25-store division in Montgomery County, was tapped three years ago to recruit the farmers, decide what will be grown and bought, and figure out how to get it to the stores.

Some years ago the Maryland Department of Agriculture encouraged grocers to carry local produce by introducing the buyers to the farmers, and a number now do, including Safeway and and SuperFresh. But Giant's program has been the most high-profile, partly because of the ads starring the jovial Hartman. Hartman, 52, seems bemused by the attention his TV exposure has given him, and he takes ribbing from the growers and from other Giant personnel in stride. "I always try to make sure I remind everybody when they're patting [me] on the back, that there's a lot of people involved."

The growers take their corn or tomatoes or zucchini directly from the field to the store. Corn picked in the morning can be at the store by afternoon. For the consumer, it means produce that's extremely fresh, in varieties best suited to growing in Maryland's climate, and in the varieties customers in this region prefer. For the farmer, it means a big, pretty much guaranteed market not too far away.

"Ten years ago, we couldn't have done it," Hartman says. Coordinating between the farmers, the stores and the company requires all the tools of today's communication networks: cellular phones, pagers -- Hartman even has a police radio. "I don't have e-mail yet," he said.

Giant tries to make its 3-year-old program a true partnership, Hartman says. Giant's buying decisions, including what will be promoted in advertising, are based on what the farmer can supply. And the farmer bases what he grows on what Giant wants.

"We get together once or twice during the winter months and talk about what we want," Hartman says. "This year we're going to talk about early season corn -- the thing is, the customer wants it by the Fourth of July."

With Maryland's chancy weather, getting harvestable corn that early is something of a trick. "But they can do some things to speed up the harvest," he says, like growing the crops under a plastic ground cover. The cover holds moisture, but it also warms the roots and speeds growth. However, there is a trade-off -- the plastic-cover method is more expensive, and usually requires drip irrigation. Everything that increases the farmer's costs can increase prices for consumers.

Unless something drastic happens, Hartman says, small price fluctuations tend to even out. But, he says, "we're not out here to beat these guys down, to get the best prices. 'Local' doesn't mean 'cheap.' You do save money on freight and so on. I think customers understand that. Say I'm selling tomatoes at 69 cents [a pound]. If I went out and took the man's money, I could sell 'em for 59 cents. But where would he be next year?" He answers his own question: "Selling the farm."

Indeed, farmers were skeptical about the program at first. Giant instituted a separate accounting system for local farmers, so they get paid in seven to nine days, instead of the usual 30. And Hartman stays in nearly constant touch to make sure things are going well. "You have to prove yourself," he says, "even a big company like Giant."

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