First South Carolina food hub hits $1 million mark in payments to growers

CHARLESTON, SC — South Carolina’s first food hub here, GrowFood Carolina, passed the $1 million mark in payment to growers in 2014, according to Sara D. Clow, general manager.

The food hub began operations in 2011 and had set a $660,000 cumulative payment-to-farmers goal  for 2014, Clow told The Produce News.

GrowFood Carolina operates from a renovated warehouse in Charleston, connecting growers within a 120-mile radius to supermarkets, restaurants and foodservice institutions, serving as a wholesale logistics center for local produce.

Clow, brought in to run the start-up by the Coastal Conservation League, a nonprofit acting as incubator for GrowFood, told The Produce News that the operation has grown to 55 farmers from five.

Produce is being shipped year-round to about 140 supermarkets, restaurants, caterers and other customers, Clow said. Whole Foods, Earth Fare and Harris Teeter are among its supermarket customers.

Martin Eubanks, assistant commissioner of agriculture at the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, said he views GrowFood Carolina as a harbinger of things to come. Eubanks hopes his department can help set up four to six hubs and many more key “food nodes” to supply the hubs for efficient logistics around the state.

Clow was bullish for this year, looking forward to “a great 2015. This past year was a wonderful one for locally grown and produced food in the low country as the interest and demand continued to grow,” she said in a statement. “The support from our local consumers and restaurant chefs made it possible for us to surpass our sales goals for 2014 and for us to reach the $1 million mark paid back to farmers since first opening our doors. We look forward to giving even more back to farmers in 2015 and the years to come.”  

New in 2015 is a partnership with Silo, a local, direct-to-consumer company that offers produce, meat, dairy, breads, baked goods and more from South Carolina and Georgia. Customers can order weekly from Silo online, then pick up their orders at the GrowFood warehouse.

A recent New York Times article  reported on research that found that many food hubs had become self-sustaining and even profitable — but in the last year, several also have gone out of business. Grasshoppers Distribution, a food hub in Louisville, KY, failed late last year, and MOO Milk & Coastal Farms and Foods in Maine also have closed.

“I think the honeymoon period for food hubs is coming to an end,” a director of a food hub in Massachusetts was quoted by the Times. Yet, he noted the number of start-ups involving stalwarts of the tech industry that are springing up to improve the connection between farmers and local markets.

“There’s some pretty serious venture capital money flowing into this business,” he told the Times.

Inaugural Viva Fresh expo a smash hit

AUSTIN, TX — Viva Fresh, a new conference and expo organized by the Texas International Produce Association that made its debut March 26-28, here, saw strong attendance and a sold-out expo floor.

Viva Fresh, dubbed the “Gateway to the Americas” show, was considered a great success by both organizers and attendees.  Even Texas’ spring weather was perfectly cooperative.

Brett Erickson, president of the TIPA, told The Produce News March 28 that 800 attendees had pre-registered for the show, including 180 produce buyers. Many more walk-ins, uncounted at the time, had arrived for the show.

Held in the Hilton Hotel in downtown Austin, the show started with a March 26 golf tournament and then included a day-and-a-half of well-organized and enlightening presentations and educational seminars.

The show exposition only ran from 12:30 p.m. until 5 p.m. on the closing afternoon. The short hours were given a nod of approval by both exhibitors and attendees, who felt that was an adequate amount of time.

There were 141 booths, all of which were the same size. While most exhibitors were from Mexico and Texas, there were assorted produce shippers and service and input suppliers from around the United States and Canada.  

The next Viva Fresh expo will be held in San Antonio March 31-April 2, 2016, with expectations running high following the very successful inaugural event.

Beachside announces start of Lyon artichoke season

Beachside Produce LLC, a Guadalupe, CA-based grower-shipper of broccoli, artichokes, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, celery, mix and head lettuce, kale, cilantro and strawberries, is ushering in its Lyon artichoke season and was expecting to have promotable volumes as of the first week of April.

Production is expected to last through July with normal volumes in both Lompoc and the Santa Maria Valley region.

The Lyon variety is a large, meaty artichoke that is consistent in size and flavor. Due to the popularity of this gourmet artichoke, it is recommended that orders be placed early before the available volume is sold out.

The artichokes are packed conventionally in 12-, 15-, 18-, 24- and 30-size packs. Four-count bags and long stem 18s are also available.

Grupo Vegver looking to develop direct sales to North America

AUSTIN, TX — The Viva Fresh Produce Expo, held here March 26-28, was ideal for companies like Grupo Vegver, located in Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz.

Vegver is a grower of Veracruz limes and chayote. The firm is also a sizable supplier of carrots and has a history of access to other fresh produce items.

Managing Director Felix López has been shipping a wide line of produce to Veracruz foodservice clients for several years.  

As the managing director of Vegver, he is prepared to expand his reach to ship to reliable new customers in North America.  

“We want reputable, serious brokers, people that want fresh, clean, ethically produced goods and professional service,” he said. “We want to work with serious customers who share our vision. Not with people who want to fool you and sell your product.

“My name is my brand,” López added.

In addition to brokers, Vegver is open to direct customers in North America, he added.

Grupo Vegver has a year of experience in shipping to distributors on Mexico’s northern border. Marilu Stewart runs an Edinburg, TX, office for the firm.

Walmart pushing suppliers to lower prices

As the gap between Walmart and other discount retailers continues to close, the company is reportedly urging suppliers to lower their prices, according to The Wall Street Journal. In addition to generally slow sales, the company recently announced a wage increase for employees, further slimming its margins in the competitive discount category.

According to the article, Walmart is urging suppliers to cut down on joint marketing with it in order to lower their own costs; however, this could be a concern for companies that are competing against Walmart’s house brands.  

Without the cost reduction, Walmart sees challenges ahead as other companies continue to gain ground on it. Walmart was also recently ranked worst for customer satisfaction in a report released by the American Customer Satisfaction Index. Walmart’s grocery division dipped to an industry low, trailing in the battle for satisfied customers alongside its discount store general merchandise business.

Although the company sees a need for change, not all news is bad. "We had a good fourth quarter to close out our fiscal year.... Walmart U.S. delivered better than expected comp sales,” Doug McMillon, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. president and chief executive officer, said earlier this year. "Like many other global companies, we faced significant headwinds from currency exchange rate fluctuations, so I'm pleased that we delivered fiscal year revenue of $486 billion. But, we're not satisfied.”

While the company’s U.S. sales were up last year, the division’s profits fell. The WSJ article said, "Wal-Mart’s U.S. division is in the early stages of a turnaround, having just posted two straight quarters of positive same-store sales after a long slump. Executives at the retailer have attributed part of the increase to falling gasoline prices, which have led some shoppers to spend more and to make the longer drive to the stores.”