Back to the roots

Onion and garlic growers are inviting consumers to discover where their food is coming from, and retailers are reaping the results.

Healthy. Local. Safe.

There are many buzzwords guiding shoppers around the produce department in their quest to feed their families. With these key ideas at the forefront of their minds, consumers are taking a closer look at the quality of produce they purchase and where it comes from.

Onions and garlic do not receive the same public attention as some of the exotic fruits and vegetables on-trend, but their mainstay position in the department and shoppers’ kitchens has them guiding the produce section into this new era. Innovative campaigns and local partnerships offer a glimpse into the farms supplying these staples and the growers’ dedication to not just meeting, but exceeding, consumers’ expectations.

“Consumers like being able to make a more personal connection with the farmers who actually grow the product,” says Teri Gibson, director of marketing and consumer relations for Peri and Sons Farms, based in Yerington, Nev. “Highlighting the family-farm, the farmer and the local or domestic aspects of the product are ways to get consumers more engaged. Consumers seem to be more industrious when looking into where their food is coming from and how it was grown.”

Peri and Sons puts its farmers front and center on its website with in-depth information about how and where its onions are grown. This season the company is more excited about the capability of labeling packages for traceability with newly added thermal printers on its bagging machine.

Transparency and traceability through the food chain is ultimately what consumers are asking for, say industry observers. Whether they are looking for healthy, local or safe, they want to know where it is coming from.

“Transparency is a valuable asset for Eagle Eye Produce,” says Lance Poole, vice president of sales for the Idaho Falls, Idaho-based company, which is in the process of implementing field-to-store traceability throughout its onion business. “We have noticed that consumers appreciate this transparency in knowing where the food they are eating is coming from and have given us great feedback.”

More produce growers are teaming up with third-party traceability organizations. Shuman Produce recently teamed up with HarvestMark to trace its RealSweet onions from field to table, sharing this information with retailers and consumers. “We maintain a variety of food safety certifications including programs from Primus Labs where we hold a four-star rating and are members of their Platinum Program to assure retailers and consumers that RealSweet onions are safe,” says John Shuman, president and director of sales for the Reidsville, Ga.-based company.

Growers are witnessing the effects of adhering to Produce Traceability Initiatives (PTI). Maintaining PTI compliance is helping sales, says Barry Rogers, president of the Sweet Onion Trading Co., based in Melbourne, Fla. “If we were not PTI compliant consumers would buy from someone else. They need to be assured that if any issues do arise that we have the traceability in place to stop the problem before it gets worse.”

There is a growing desire amoung consumers to support local farmers and companies.
Growers are using this to their advantage as well. “When people think local, they think of a farmer’s market, but not all consumers can do that so they will shop ‘as local as they can’ in a conventional grocery store,” says John Duffus, vice president of The Garlic Co., based in Bakersfield, Calif. “The country of origin labeling requirement has had a big influence in this way. We put little California license plates on our garlic packaging to advertise that we are U.S.-grown.”

They are not the only grower showing state pride. As part of the New York statewide ‘buy local’ program—Pride of New York—Bland Farms promotes “Pride of NY,” along with a map of New York State signifying where the farm is located, on its bags of Empire Sweets onions grown in upstate New York. The Glennville, Ga.-based grower has built its business around Vidalias and founder and owner Delbert Bland says, “Vidalia has definitely been very good about letting people know where it comes from.”

All-American has been an on-going theme at the Parma, Idaho-based Idaho-East Oregon Onion Committee (IEOOC) for a few seasons now. “The committee worked to make a connection with consumers that when they purchased onions from the U.S., specifically from the IEOOC, they were receiving top-quality produce grown by third and fourth generation farmers with state-of-the-art technology behind them,” says Sherise Jones, marketing director.

This year it continues with a promotion featuring two of America’s favorite pastimes—grilling and football. The alliance with Weber grills features in-store sweepstakes, POS materials and contests for retailers to participate in, as well as a home-gating and tailgating element.

Grilling is carrying over to other Idaho growers as well. By focusing on grilling, Potandon Produce, based in Idaho Falls, Idaho, will also be focusing on the less-targeted male demographic. “We are targeting grillers, who are historically men who like to barbecue, especially for tailgate and sporting events parties. We have put together recipe cards, cookbooks and some great grill giveaways,” says Chris Woo, onion sales manager.

Keeping it neat

One concern that consistently arises is the neatness of a category. Due to the long shelf life of onions and garlic, retailers need to replenish product less often, paying them less attention.

Garlic, in particular, is such a small category that retailers sometimes ignore it, says John Duffus, vice president of sales for The Garlic Co., based in Bakersfield, Calif., yet it is important. “It’s critical that retailers manage the category—rotate product, keep it looking fresh and clean,” he says.

Onion packers are addressing the issue as well, offering more pre-packaged options than ever before. Wada Farms, specifically, is working with its onion co-packers to finalize a new retail onion package for a premium line of onions. Completely new to the domestic retail market, the package design incorporates a linear mesh sleeve that can be sized for any count or product variety. It lays neatly, stacks easily and limits the shedding of loose onion skins, says Chris Wada, marketing director for the Idaho Falls, Idaho-based grower/packer.

In addition to keeping onions neat, Brian Kastick, president of Oso Sweet, based in Charleston, W.V., says to keep them in the same place. “People are creatures of habit and going back to category management, if you always have sweet onions and always have the bulk display, you can sell sweet onions at a higher price-point than conventional onions.”

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