Green grocers

By Laura Johnson

Kroger and Meijer increase organic and local produce

As farmers markets continue to boom and local and organic agriculture remain in high demand, the produce sections of many grocery stores are trying to get in on the trend. In Lansing-area Kroger and Meijer stores, both organic and local offerings are increasingly common.

“Consumers have told us for several years that they want to know what’s growing in Michigan,” said Dale Hollandsworth, spokesperson for Michigan Kroger stores. “I think it’s a tradition in Michigan that we have more local activity, when you visit Eastern Market or see farmers markets up and down the roadside.”

In partnership with the “Pure Michigan” campaign, the Cincinnati-based Kroger offers some Michigan products. Walk into their produce section lately and you’ll be greeted with smiling faces from Michigan farm families, such as Ruhlig Farms in Carleton and Mike Pirrone Produce in Capac. Featured Michigan produce last week included blueberries, cucumbers, lettuce, cabbage and celery, in addition to products like milk, ice cream and cottage cheese.

“I think what we’ve done with putting Michigan crops in front of the consumer has been outstanding,” Hollandsworth said. “We’re proud of what we’ve been able to do in working with Michigan agriculture, in fresh produce and dairy as well as the processed stuff.”

Similarly, produce sections in Meijer stores, called the “Markets of Meijer,” prominently feature locally grown sections. But while Kroger stores are concentrating on Michigan, “local” to Meijer can mean the product is from any of the five states with Meijer stores: Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky.

“We try to buy Michigan,” said Mark Abraham, produce manager at Meijer’s Okemos store. “But it’s so variant with the weather. Last year the whole crop of blueberries and apples were out, but this year we’ve got homegrown strawberries, sweet corn and cherries, among others.”

Both Abraham and Hollandsworth point to the advantages of buying closer to home.

“One is you get it closer to the stage of ripening so it’s better quality,” Hollandsworth explained. “And you reduce your carbon footprint because there’s less transportation in bringing it in from other places.” What’s more, they both said, buying from nearby sources supports the local economy and family farms.

But these aren’t your grandmas family farms. Ruhlig Farms, for example, grows conventionally on 1,200 acres, while Mike Pirrone Produce is an 11,000-acre operation that also supplies to Walmart. Because of the high volume of produce sold by supermarkets, they usually partner with large-scale farms. Partnering with smaller farms forces them to ramp up their output, which in turn means more mechanization, more land and more inputs. Additionally, farms risk becoming dependent on the corporate relationship for survival, while their growth can incorporate them into the very system to which local and organic movements are opposed.

“Labels can be misleading without being inaccurate,” cautioned Gary Schnakenberg, a geographer at Michigan State University who researches discourse in agriculture. “Many of the massive industrial agricultural operations in the U.S. are actually ‘family farms,’ in that they are owned by a family instead of corporate shareholders. But the reality of their operations doesn’t match the imaginary of what that term means. Part of this is the power of labels to tap into the desire for reconnection. And marketing departments know this.”

Furthermore, customers seeking to buy both local and organic produce will likely need to choose. In Kroger and Meijer alike, “local” produce is distinguished from organic produce, and it’s hard to find both. “The way Meijer has it broken down, the organic section has a brown sign up top,” Abraham said. “Locally grown has special green signs. I don’t think Michigan has any organic product.”

Whether or not Michigan farms are growing according to government organic standards is ultimately up to the farms, said Hollandsworth. “The farmers have to get into it, and right now they may not be ready to move some of their acreage into organic.” Large-scale farms, though, have a harder time growing organically, even if sales have been good.

“Organic is the biggest growing section of the produce area for Meijer,” Abraham said. “Much more product is becoming available as farmers start to grow more. Eight years ago we used to have one little section of all organic, but now we have organic (choices) in every section: berries with berries, grapes with grapes.”

“(Kroger’s organic sales have) probably grown at a rate of 30 percent annually, and (they) continue to grow,” Hollandsworth said. “To respond, we’ve increased the size of our offerings, probably more than 10 or 12 percent this year.”

For those trying to choose between more local, conventionally grown produce and organic produce from farther away, there’s a lot to consider, and, as is the case with most food-related issues, there’s no clear answer. “When navigating through the produce section, I would suggest that people keep the question in their minds, ‘What is it that I want to support?’” Schnakenberg advised.

The bottom line: If you want to support small-scale sustainable agriculture, your farmers market is still your best bet. But some earnest efforts are being made to answer consumer demands for more sustainable products in grocery stores, too, and customers should keep the pressure on to improve.

“As long as the consumer is responding to it and saying get me more of it, then it’ll continue to grow,” Hollandsworth said.