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One of the newest trend in the food industry is doing things the old way. Americans buy more fresh fruits and vegetables from local farms. The number of farmers markets has grown more than 50 percent in the past decade. And supermarket chains are promoting local foods too.
NPR's Adam Hochberg has a sampler.
ADAM HOCHBERG: Even before shoppers reach the front door of this Richmond, Virginia supermarket, they have a chance to buy something fresh and local. Richmond's largest grocer, the chain called Ukrop's, has begun setting up displays outside its stores that looked something like roadside produce stands. Not only can customers select produce out of bushel baskets, they also can meet the farmers who grow it.
Mr. ROBERT DODD(ph) (Farmer): How are you all doing today?
Unidentified Woman: Okay.
Mr. DODD: These are all local tomatoes.
Unidentified Woman: They look beautiful.
Mr. DODD: And they're all picked yesterday, and we got - you like butter beans?
Unidentified Woman: Oh, yes.
HOCHBERG: Robert Dodd is one of several farmers who've been greeting shoppers this summer outside Ukrop's stores. It's part of a campaign the company calls Local Route, which spotlights produce grown within a few hours of Richmond. Wearing blue overalls and a baseball cap, Dodd passes out samples of tomatoes from his Virginia farm.
And for shoppers accustomed to typical supermarket tomatoes, the kind that are trucked in from places like Florida, he says it's easy to taste the difference.
Mr. DODD: When we pick it, that's ready for somebody to buy, to eat it. And so if you've take a Florida tomato and put an (unintelligible) with it, you can be blindfolded and you can tell (unintelligible) hard as a rock.
HOCHBERG: Local produce promotions like this one are becoming common in the supermarket business. Chains like the Wegmans in the northeast and Lunds in Minnesota are among many that are carrying more local produce and trying to market it better. Even Wal-Mart has launched a campaign that spotlights local suppliers.
At Ukrop's, which rolled out its Local Route program late last month, produce buyer Jeff Salmon says sales are up by about 35 percent.
Mr. JEFF SALMON (Produce Buyer): It's a win-win-win-win situation. You're benefiting the local economy. You've got local growers where people can actually visit where the products are coming from. They connect with it. Customers have really taken to it and appreciate it, that we're supporting the farmers.
HOCHBERG: So this stuff flies off the shelves?
Mr. SIMMONDS: Oh yes, definitely.
HOCHBERG: Salmon concedes it's a challenge to deal with local farms, which often are small operations whose production varies with the growing seasons. But industry analysts say demand for homegrown products has become so strong that retailers can hardly afford to ignore it.
Susan Porjes is with the research firm Packaged Facts.
Ms. SUSAN PORJES (Research Analyst, Packaged Facts): Consumers have begun to distrust products after the whole E.coli scare with spinach. And they're looking to locally grown products as fresher and safer and more traceable.
HOCHBERG: Porjes points out, though, that different grocers have different definitions of local. At Hen House Market, a chain in Kansas City, the designation is reserved for food grown within 200 miles, while some other retailers put local labels on products harvested several states away.
That's part of the reason some consumers still prefer to buy their local produce at traditional farmers markets, where the people who grow it often sell it themselves.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: It's my pleasure to officially open the market.
HOCHBERG: When leaders in Tacoma Park, Maryland opened their farmers market this summer, they helped contribute to what the agriculture department says is unprecedented growth in the number of markets nationwide. More than 600 have opened since 2004.
Customer Karen Leggat(ph), a freelance writer, says she still does most of her shopping at the grocery store. But she's coming to farmers markets more.
Ms. KAREN LEGGAT (Customer): It's nice to buy something right from the person who grew it. We get very far removed from the people who grow our food. And I think sometimes we forget that it comes from the ground, and I think it's good to be reminded of that.
HOCHBERG: Analysts predict the demand for local farm products will continue to rise as consumers remain concerned about food safety and so-called food miles - the environmental effect of transporting products. Packaged Facts expects local produce to become a $7 billion business within the next four years as supermarkets, restaurants and even schools and corporate cafeterias begin buying their fruits and vegetables closer to home.
Adam Hochberg, NPR News.
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