With the exception of buying at a nearby farmer’s market, the chances of being able to get locally grown salad greens in the United States is still somewhat of a rarity. BrightFarms, which grows baby greens and herbs, saw an opportunity to bring local salad programs to supermarkets where nothing of this kind was previously available. “In the US most markets are selling no local salads and if they are it’s only for a few weeks,” says CEO Paul Lightfoot. “It’s a big opportunity because every customer wants local produce.” They have entered areas such as Rochelle, Illinois, Culpepper County, Virginia, Bucks County, Pennsylvania (the first location) and coming soon will be a location in Wilmington, Ohio. They build a greenhouse that only sells salads in that particular market. Product is available year round.
Defining local & not nearly enough of it
There’s no hard and fast rule about what constitutes ‘local’ for a community, although Lightfoot says their boundary is what they believe the consumer would feel was authentically local. “It turns out that different markets have different feelings about that,” he comments. In the Midwest where the population is more spread out, the region could be wider whereas in the more densely populated areas that could be a different number. “In general we try to keep most of our stores within 100 miles,” he says.
Lightfoot says the salad industry is almost like an oligarchy, with a handful of companies that control the salads shipped to supermarkets across the country, selling salad greens grown in Salinas or Yuma. “It’s hard to say why the industry evolved that way but it probably had more to do with very low cost water and land and particularly, low cost labor,” Lightfoot says. “Those things are no longer true like they once were: there is a brutal labor shortage, transportation costs are higher, water costs will likely rise. Climate and weather volatility have hampered the surety of supply.”
BrightFarms’ benefit is more consistent supply. Lightfoot points out when in the spring of 2017 Yuma ended early and Salinas started late, leaving weeks and weeks of poor quality or no supply of leafy greens. “That was a real challenge for supermarkets. That was a turning point moment where stores like Kroger’s in Chicago we service still got their shipments from us every day where (nothing was) on the shelf from the west coast.” It’s an important message he says supply is available whereas it wasn’t a few years ago.
Packaging can be tailored to the retailer with branding and even creation of new products. Lightfoot says one of their Kroger stores expressed an interested in basil and more varieties of the herb. “In the past it was hard to talk to a farmer because of the length of the supply chain and too many intermediaries but for us Nick, who’s a grower in Illinois, listened to the market and within weeks he was trialing out varieties and then a few weeks after that we were bringing it in for the customer to evaluate and they chose what they wanted.” Two varieties of the basil were added. Everything grown in the greenhouses is pesticide-free – no conventional pesticides are used, or organic.
There are around 10 – 15 plants growing for 12 different products (such as blends, or greens that are standalone). Turnaround is very fast. In the summer kale was coming off every two weeks but Lightfoot says nothing takes longer than three to four weeks to grow and harvest. Uniquely, BrightFarms is also able to attract a stable and reliable workforce and pays a living wage. They’re not reliant on staff with farming backgrounds but employees are trained to work within their systems.
Consumption and demand has “been fabulous.” Something he says he couldn’t have predicted was that when they enter a salad category, sales have lifted even though it’s taking up the same amount of shelf space. “There are consumers in stores that want local but may not have been salad purchasers before. So we’re bringing new consumers into the salad category and overall salad sales in our stores are rising. It’s been great to have that experience.”
It could be that more consumers want local now than organic, Lightfoot believes (60 percent vs 32 percent who prefer organic, when comparing equal quality and no price differential, according to the Food Marketing Institute’s The Power of Produce 2017 report). With the scarcity of local salad availability Lightfoot hopes to continue to create more partnerships to get people the local salads that customers want. “We’re undersupplying the demand for now and trying as hard as we can to get more supply.”
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