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Ohio Food Distributors, Retail Outlets Keen to Do More Business with Local Farmers

September 8, 2011 |

The advent and growth of farmers markets has been a tremendous boon to farmers and consumers interested in supporting community and sustainable agriculture. But sustainable ag and food producers as well as suppliers stand to benefit to an even greater degree by tapping into the food industry’s well-established network of distributors, grocery stores and food chains, according to researchers at Ohio State University.

Ninety percent of the food consumed in Ohio homes is purchased at grocery stores and similar retail outlets, they note in “Scaling-up Connections between Regional Ohio Specialty Crop Producers and Local Markets: Distribution as the Missing Link,” a study based on one-on-one interviews of retailers and a survey of Ohio fruit and vegetable distributors.

Encouragingly, the researchers found that Ohio’s existing small and mid-sized distributors are eager to work more directly with farmers to get local foods into the marketplace.

“A lot of people think we need to rebuild the local foods infrastructure. But if you’re talking about going beyond farmers markets and getting into grocery stores or institutions, like schools or hospitals, we found that there are groups of distributors already in place who are interested in filling those gaps,” said co-author Jill Clark, director for OSU’s Center for Farmland Policy Innovation.”If you want to be most effective with limited resources, the best way to invest is to make use of what’s already available. Don’t reinvent the wheel.”

Those interested in providing and consuming local foods need to know that there are different distribution channels available to them and which ones are keen to expand local markets, added Jeff Sharp of OSU’s Social Responsibility Initiative. “We knew a lot about farmers and consumers, but we haven’t really focused on the details about how food gets from farmers to the retail outlet,” Sharp noted. “That’s what this report tells us.”

The new research is more comprehensive than previous studies of food distribution channels and participants in Ohio. It includes data from 39 Ohio produce distributors representing 219 facilities in Ohio who employ 753 full-time and 37,620 part-time workers. “Now we know that we have small and medium-size distributors who are willing to work to build relationships with small and medium-sized growers to increase the availability of local foods, not based on arms-length relationships, but a desire to build a mutually beneficial relationship between the producer and the buyer,” Clark commented.

Other findings in the report include:

  • As a percentage of overall produce purchases, purchasing of Ohio produce decreases as the size of the distributor increases. However, larger distributors purchase a higher volume of Ohio produce overall.
  • Smaller distributors work more with single, independently owned stores and rely mostly on farmers for sourcing products. Large and mid-sized distributors primarily rely on grower-shippers.
  • Distributors tend not to use farmer directories to source new products, although one-third have used Ohio MarketMaker (LINK:, an online service co-managed by OSU Extension. Rather, links between growers and distributors are often made by word-of-mouth and referrals. Distributors tend to rely on farmers approaching them rather than seeking farmers out.
  • Agencies and organizations interested in promoting local foods can assist by helping develop relationships between farmers, distributors and retailers. In addition, expanding the availability of aggregation centers with cooling facilities can help foster the availability of locally grown produce in Ohio.

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