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In The Trenches: High-tech hydroponics could revolutionize retail produce merchandising

Imagine entering a supermarket produce department and seeing a colossal glass enclosed structure with tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and lettuce growing in a liquid solution.

The produce manager opens the side doors on the unit, picks some tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and lettuce and places them on display. A customer approaches the display, selects a few of the items and places them in the shopping cart. Now that would be really fresh locally grown produce.Hydroponic-Greenhouse-at-Ohio-Agricultural-Research-Center---Wooster-OH-1A hydroponic greenhouse at the Ohio Agriculture Research Center.

Growing, harvesting and selling right on the sales floor — is this scenario just a fantasy or is it a glimpse into the future of a supermarket agri-department?

In 1987, my wife and I visited the Disney World Epcot Center with our five children and took the Listen to the Land greenhouse tour (now called Living with the Land). We were amazed at all the new agricultural technology in growing plants hydroponically in a futuristic setting. It was impressive.

In a 1997 test, NASA grew Asian bean seedlings aeroponically on the Russian space station, Mir, while the identical seedlings were grown simultaneously on Earth. The seedlings grown at zero gravity on Mir exceeded those grown in normal conditions on Earth. It showed that crops could be grown successfully at zero gravity in outer space.

I recently had the opportunity to speak about produce retailing at the AGROWN AgTech Investing Conference at the Ohio Agricultural Research Center in Wooster, OH. It was designed to bring the world’s leading experts in controlled environmental agriculture vegetable production together with investors seeking to expand their portfolios in commercial scale greenhouse production.Hydroponic-store-displayA hydroponic lettuce display at retail.

Besides presenting an education to attendees about the supermarket retail side of the business, I was likewise educated by all the professionals about the future of sustainable agricultural.

Sue Raftery, chief executive officer of AGROWN in Norwalk, OH, said, “We are focused on three areas. Shorter paths from planning and financing to marketing and production for commercial scale CEA projects — a full turnkey solution. Growing efficiencies, including the integration of renewable fuel sources, responsible use of fresh water to minimize risk and maximize profitability of commercial scale controlled environment agriculture operations. Providing proven work force training for entry-level positions as well as reliable career paths to reduce employee churn and support financial projections.”

Some of the benefits of hydroponic greenhouse production are:

  • The crops grow faster with larger yields, and the product is clean, bright and of very high quality.
  • Pesticides are not necessary.
  • Less land is required with the use of vertical stacking levels.
  • Greenhouses protect crops from harsh weather damage.
  • Less water is required.
  • Reduced farm chore labor.
  • Operating functions are automated by technology.

So, where is hydroponic farming headed in the future?

“We believe the largest untapped market for commercial scale growing is in the U.S. and North America,” Raftery said. “Given that food security is a national security, helping grow the controlled environment growing sector in the U.S. (predicted to be a $1.75 trillion opportunity) creates jobs, economic multipliers and provides the consumers with what they want — local/regional fresh, safe food grown close to home and breaking down the long food system supply chains. This is important to the retailer in reducing shrink and meeting their customer demand for food grown locally.”

Access to local hydroponic greenhouses will be advantageous for retailers. It will mean locally grown fresh produce can be delivered faster with added shelf life to the product. Also, it will give retailers a 52-week program, especially in cold climate areas. The close proximity will also reduce shrink.

Jeff Tomassetti, director of produce and floral for Buehler’s Supermarkets in Wooster, OH, said, “We have picked up two new local hydroponic lettuces. One is from Buckeye Fresh in Medina, Ohio, which supplies us with spring mix, spinach, arugula and basil, and is doing extremely well for us. The product has extended shelf life. Currently, we are selling more than they are able to supply as a result of the customer response to the product. We are expecting this to become a very strong new partnership. I love supporting the local farmers and seeing them succeed.”

The advanced growth of the hydroponic program could open the door to another merchandising venture in supermarket produce departments. It could become another exceptional signature section similar to packaged salads, berries, fresh-cut fruit, mushrooms and other dynamic categories.

I could visualize a large colorful sign above the subsection that reads, Locally Grown Hydroponic Produce, which would captivate shoppers who seek the freshness of produce from nearby farms on a year-round basis.

This is a changing produce business and we must keep pace with it. If we can be successful in growing hydroponic produce in space, we certainly can be successful in merchandising it on Earth. 

Weis Markets receives Grocery Stewardship Certification

Weis Markets, based in Sunbury, PA, announced Dec. 1 that it has been recognized for incorporating sustainability practices into its day-to-day operations, which have helped it conserve resources and reduce the overall environmental impact of its 163 stores, distribution center and manufacturing facilities. It is the second food retailer in the country to receive this recognition.weis

The Manomet Grocery Stewardship Certification sustainability award is based on waste, water use, energy use and greenhouse gas emission reductions in a company’s retail locations and supply chain. The GSC program was launched in 2012 and remains the nation’s only food retailing sustainability certification program.

“A practical sustainability program has been an important focus area for our company since 2008. During this time, we’ve reduced our overall environmental footprint by 12.3 percent,” R. Kevin Small, vice president of store development, said in a press release. “The Grocery Stewardship Certification recognizes our progress and provides us with valuable insight about our overall performance in the sustainability arena. The GSC program also helps us engage with our associates in new ways and show our customers that we are continually adopting sustainable practices.”

In recent years, Weis Markets has partnered with the EPA’s GreenChill program; rolled out its first store with all LED lighting and added a Green Leader role in each store to provide enhanced associate and customer awareness of the company’s sustainability commitment. It is also installing other energy efficient equipment and systems in stores and is a long-time proponent of recycling.

As a result of its sustainable operating practices, Weis Markets is annually saving more than:

  • 64 million pounds of waste from going to landfills.
  • 11.14 million gallons of water from being used.
  • 295,894 tons of greenhouse gases from being released.

“Weis Markets has gone above and beyond its mission to become more sustainable,” Peter Cooke, program manager of the Grocery Stewardship Certification program, added in the press release. “It is impressive to see a company that conducts business with the next 100 years in mind. We are pleased to recognize Weis Markets for their environmental leadership and look forward to working with them as they continue their journey.”

Supervalu names Eric Claus new CEO of Save-A-Lot

Supervalu Inc. announced that retail veteran Eric Claus has been named the new chief executive officer of Save-A-Lot, the company’s hard-discount grocery segment. Claus, 59, joins the company after spending the past two-plus years as the chairman, president and CEO of Red Apple Stores Inc. He is expected to start in his role with Save-A-Lot on or before Jan. 4, 2016.savealot

Supervalu also announced that, effective with the start of Claus’ employment with the company, Ritchie Casteel will serve as president of Save-A-Lot, reporting to Claus, and will continue to oversee day-to-day store operations while working closely with Claus on Save-A-Lot’s market development, store growth plans and preparation for the possible spin-off of Save-A-Lot.

Claus has spent more than 30 years in the retail industry with career stops in both the United States and Canada, where he has gained deep experience in both hard discount and grocery retail. He has served as CEO for Co-Op Atlantic, President and CEO at the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., first in the Canadian division and then overseeing the U.S. operations from 2005-09, and as an advisor to private equity firms on the retail and consumable goods industry. Since July 2013, he has served as chairman, president and CEO of Red Apple Stores Inc., where he restructured and transformed the now 155-store value-oriented clothing, general merchandise and food chain.

“I’m very pleased that Eric is joining our Supervalu team to serve as CEO of Save-A-Lot,” Sam Duncan, Supervalu president and CEO, said in a press release. “He has a great background in food retailing, and is a smart and charismatic leader. His strengths in and experience with the hard discount format as well as his history leading retail companies will be important as we look to finish our fiscal year strong and as we continue to position Save-A-Lot for the future.”

Jerry Storch, the company’s non-executive chairman of the board, said, “Eric brings tremendous experience to Save-A-Lot. The Supervalu board of directors is looking forward to Eric adding his strategic and long-term planning capabilities to the company and working together on our continued exploration of a potential separation of Save-A-Lot.”

Duncan continued, “I’m also very grateful and appreciative for all the work and positive results that Ritchie has delivered in his leadership role at Save-A-Lot. When I came to Supervalu, Ritchie was one of my first appointments and he has done a phenomenal job these past two and one-half years. He is a tremendous leader and operator and it reflects in the performance we’ve experienced in our corporate stores and in the confidence he’s helped restore with our licensees. I look forward to Ritchie working closely with Eric to drive sales and growth at Save-A-Lot.”

Save-A-Lot is headquartered in St. Louis, MO, and has approximately 9,300 employees nationwide supporting its 1,342 stores, of which 901 are operated by licensee owners. The business also operates 17 distribution centers across the country to support its existing stores and future store growth.

Supervalu announced in July 2015 that it was exploring a separation of its Save-A-Lot business, and that as part of that process it had begun preparations to allow for a possible spin-off of Save-A-Lot into a stand-alone public company. Supervalu is continuing preparations to separate Save-A-Lot, although at this time there can be no assurances that a separation or spin-off of Save-A-Lot will occur, or that any other changes in the company’s overall operations will happen.

Topco buyer killed in mountain climbing accident

A tragic climbing accident claimed the life of 32-year-old Tommy Fountain, who fell to his death Nov. 30 on Mount Jefferson in Oregon. Mr. Fountain and his 29-year-old wife, Alison, were climbing Oregon's second-highest peak at the time of the accident.

Mr. Fountain, who lived in McMinville, OR, was a buyer for Topco Associates LLC, a retail food purchasing company.Fountain1Tommy Fountain inspecting potatoes at a Potandon Produce field in Blackfoot, ID, in September 2014. Photo courtesy of Collette Herrick.

According to Sgt. Chris Baldridge of the Marion County Sherriff's Office, the couple had reached an elevation of 8,800 feet when the accident occurred. Mr. Fountain fell into a crevasse in difficult terrain. Rescue efforts, hampered by the terrain and extreme weather, resumed on Dec. 1. Alison Fountain, who spent the night on the mountain, was able to text her family and rescuers during the ordeal. Her husband's body was recovered that day.

Collette Herrick, packaging coordinator at Eagle Eye Produce Inc., said she met Mr. Fountain while she worked at Potandon Produce LLC. “Tommy was one of a kind,” she told The Produce News. “When I met him, you could feel the energy coming from him. Everyone loved Tommy.”

Mr. Fountain had just come into his position as a buyer when the two met in Idaho. “Tommy was just like talking to a regular person,” Herrick recalled. “He was very excited to know the business and genuinely interested in knowing the vendors. He was very personal and very professional.”Fountain2Tommy Fountain in his climbing gear. Photo courtesy of Alison Fountain/Facebook.

The friendship continued to grow over the years, and Herrick said she always enjoyed seeing him at trade shows. “He had a fantastic sense of humor. He had a lust for life,” Herrick said, adding, “My heart just broke [hearing about his accident].”

Chris Sobczak, sales account manager at RPE, was also deeply affected by Mr. Fountain's death. The two met in 2011. “Tommy was more than just a buyer to me. He was, is, and always will be a very close and personal friend of mine,” Sobczak told The Produce News. “Tommy’s passion was invigorating and powerful and yet, sometimes just downright exhausting. His true heart, though, laid in the hands of two ladies and one mountain. Tommy spoke so many times of how he just wanted to give his daughter Penelope, aka Peanut, her life lessons and every experience a daddy could give to his daughter. His other lady is his one true love, his soul mate, his wife Alison. She has this way of turning Tommy upside and keeping my friend grounded and headed towards their goal. Lastly, we were just talking this past Friday how someday he will get to Everest and tackle that beast. You touched so many lives for the positive. We all thank you. Take care, my friend.”

Chris Reynolds, national sales coordinator for Triple T Transport Inc., said Mr. Fountain was an inspiration to everyone who met him. “He was one of those guys who stood out above the rest," he said. "I talked with him almost daily. He was always positive.”

Whether at work or at play, Reynolds said Mr. Fountain always worked his magic. “When he proposed to Alison, he did it on top of Mount Kilimanjaro,” he told The Produce News. “He took her to the heights of the world.”

Reynolds said Mr. Fountain was a goodhearted, fun person. “He worked with so many different suppliers, shippers, etc. in the produce world, and he will be missed by many,” he said. “I really feel the most for his family and hope that they can know that he has touched so many, and he will be missed.”

Avocados From Mexico goes big for the Big Game

Avocados From Mexico, the No. 1 selling avocado in the United States, is charging into prime football season with Mexican category leader Old El Paso to capitalize on peak guacamole consumption.

Running from Jan. 4 to Feb. 7, the Guac Nation program will offer a full spectrum of support to increase consumer avocado demand and consumption surrounding the traditions of in-home entertaining leading up to and celebrating the Big Game.Guac-Nation-Display

“The Big Game is a broad-reaching and influential at-home entertaining occasion that is relevant to both non-Hispanic and Hispanics. Hosts of Big Game parties want to create an experience for guests with fun, simple foods and beverages,” Alvaro Luque, president of AFM, said in a press release. “The Big Game ranks as one of the top occasions where avocados are served and guacamole is the No. 1 usage for avocados. Maximizing avocado exposure before the Big Game, Guac Nation will reinforce the relationship between guacamole and football to provide a unique shopper solution through our second annual partnership with Old El Paso.”

The campaign will be bolstered with a consumer sweepstakes, consumer savings and a digital media campaign that will leverage Catalina’s Buyer Vision platform allowing for targeting consumers via mobile devices with offers and coupons consequently increasing penetration, loyalty, frequency and basket size. 

Guac Nation also will feature in-store support such as a retail display contest, in-store radio and unique, in-store merchandising focused on its molcajete shaped bins. 

Along with in-store and online savings, consumers will be able to enter for a chance to win a variety of prizes. Two Grand Prize winners will enjoy a home theater system, 55-inch HD TV, wall mount, La-Z-Boy gift card and a one-year subscription to a TV sports or movie package. Additional prizes include outdoor cinema package and a Coolest Cooler. Retailers will also have the chance to win big when they join the Guac Nation and exercise their creativity at the store level.

In addition, Guac Nation will be expanded to Hispanic stores given that the Big Game has a strong relevancy with the Hispanic consumer. In fact, the Big Game ranks among the top three special occasions where avocados are served among Hispanics.

Guac Nation is an example of how Avocados From Mexico is using a total market approach at the shopper level. The program will have strong appeal to the Hispanic consumer base given the relevancy of the Big Game.

In addition, AFM will offer a coupon for shoppers to save $1 when they buy three Avocados From Mexico. This will further encourage consumers to include fresh ingredients in their Big Game dishes and snacks, according to Stephanie Bazan, market development director of AFM.

Culminating its association with football, AFM will be making a repeat appearance during the Big Game with a commercial spot set to run during the early part of the game.

AFM’s decision last year to be the first fresh food commodity to advertise during the Big Game paid off extremely well with the commercial itself earning more than 1.6 billion impressions in one week.

The spot was also ranked No. 2 on Adobe’s Second Screen top 10 list, which is calculated by measuring key factors, such as total mentions, sentiment, big game buzz and spend efficiency of over 4 million social media mentions.

For more information about Avocados From Mexico or to learn more about the Guac Nation campaign, visit