Although the highways traversing Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, and Wisconsin are known for row after row of corn stalks, this region’s fertile cropland produces a substantial amount of fresh fruit and vegetables from cabbage, squash, and watermelon to apples, tomatoes, and potatoes. And in addition to the many seasonal field-grown crops, the area is also home to an expanding number of high-tech greenhouses.
What may be more surprising to outsiders is the fierce retail region of the Midwest, where fresh produce is front and center in the battle to win customers in this highly price-sensitive environment.
For suppliers in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Des Moines, there are many advantages and a few challenges to buying and selling produce across the Corn Belt.
No matter the commodity, variety, or label or whether if it’s local, organic, or fresh-cut—consumers in the Midwest are definitely looking for and buying more fruits and vegetables.
“Consumption of fresh produce, fruit in particular, is increasing,” observes Kerry Byrne, president of Cincinati-based Total Quality Logistics, citing U.S. industry projections of a 9 percent increase in fruit consumption and an 8 percent increase in vegetables.
Lori Taylor, also known as The Produce Mom, is based in Indianapolis and echoes the same thought: “I think we’re seeing a resurgence of the attitude that all produce is good for you.”
Price, however, is still as important as ever according to our receivers and marketers. Yet an increase in smaller retail formats and specialty stores in the region indicates there’s also a willingness in consumers to spend more on organics and exotic fruits or vegetables.
The stiff competition is also influencing the type and volume of produce SKUs offered by retailers of all sizes—from supercenters and chain stores to independents—such as more fresh-cut and processed items and various fruit/vegetable blends or mix packs.
“There’s more demand for variety in the grab-and-go, fresh-cut items,” says Taylor, giving precut herb mixes for guacamole as an example. She believes opportunities still abound for fresh produce, in uses and packages, like snacks for sports teams and leagues—a big part of Midwestern family life. “It’s not just on the coasts; sports leagues here in the Midwest are making rules about [healthy] snacks too,” she notes.
Younger consumers are fueling expansion of many value-added selections. “Millennials seem to gravitate toward a lot of grab-and-go items, including some smaller bagged items,” notes Rocky Ray, partner at Ray & Mascari, Inc., an Indianapolis tomato repacker. “We’ve had a little success this year with some bagged Romas and are looking to expand this market a little bit.”