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New model: Grow local, sell global

Imagine entering your neighborhood grocery store and heading over to the apples. Of the half-dozen varieties on display, imagine that four are grown in orchards you’re familiar with or by people whose names you recognize. And as you push your cart through the aisles, you find products manufactured in Maryland on every shelf.

Maria Kardamaki Robertson of Demeter’s Pantry with her Greek Table brand outside the Costco in Elkridge. Like other big chains, Costco is dabbling in locally produced food items.

Such a grocery store is hardly the norm, but more and more Maryland shoppers would like to see it, said Kathy Zimmerman, agricultural development manager for the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

And as the local food movement progresses, large grocery and wholesale corporations, several with stores in Maryland, are boosting their efforts to stock locally grown items or produce.

“As much as farmers’ markets are great, people still need to go to grocery stores,” Zimmerman said. “Highlighting these local farms and bringing in local produce gives the consumers the best of both worlds.”

Rethinking the current buyer-seller-distributor model is no small aspiration, officials said, but some companies, such as Wegmans Food Markets Inc., are trying to make it happen.

In a large, second-floor conference room at Wegmans Columbia, which opened in June, a lively discussion was under way on Tuesday about the challenges of forging relationships between small producers and large corporations. About 150 farmers from across Maryland met with economic development officials, agriculture industry experts and Wegmans corporate types to start bridging the gap between ambition and reality.

“We’re interested in direct store deliveries,” Jason Smith, Wegmans’ produce division merchandiser, told the audience. “We want to be able to say, ‘This was grown by Farmer A at this location that customers are familiar with.’ ”

Some farmers already sell directly to customers at farmers’ markets or through community-supported agriculture programs, where participants pay an annual fee to receive regular packages of fresh produce.

John Dove, for example, who has been farming on five acres at Love Dove Farms in Woodbine since December 2010, said direct sales are his main revenue source. But Dove said he’s eager to find out whether selling to grocery stores should be on his radar.

One critical issue is food safety. By September, Wegmans will require all suppliers to have the most stringent food safety certification offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — the Harmonized GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) audit. As Deanna Baldwin, program manager for food quality assurance at the Maryland Department of Agriculture, discussed the requirements and their costs, many attendees exchanged nervous glances with their peers.

Certification doesn’t come cheap. USDA inspectors charge $92 per hour, and the audit must be renewed annually. One woman stood to ask the average cost for a producer who orders the audit. (“These numbers are a little scary,” she said.)

Estimates ranged from $600 to $1,500. However, the USDA offers a cost-share program to reimburse farmers a portion of the audit’s cost, and Wegmans sponsors food safety training to help producers achieve a cleaner, faster — and therefore cheaper — audit.

The MDA also offers a state-run version of GAP. It covers basic food safety but is less stringent than the USDA program — and it’s free. To encourage small producers to take the leap into wholesale, Wegmans will accept state certification from farmers who demonstrate a plan to work toward the USDA audit within about a year.

State and county officials said Wegmans is particularly influential because of its growing footprint in the state — a seventh store will open in Gaithersburg this fall — and its reputation for promoting local growers. But reaching out to local vendors isn’t unique to Wegmans; it’s an industry-wide trend, Zimmerman said.

Landover-based Giant Food LLC pursues similar efforts, according to a spokeswoman, who said the company partners with about 30 local growers in the mid-Atlantic area, where the company operates 170 stores.

And the trend isn’t limited to farmers; small manufacturers are also getting in on the action.

Maria Kardamaki Robertson, who owns Demeter’s Pantry, a natural Greek foods company in Silver Spring, knows first-hand the impact of gaining exposure for her product in a large retailer.

Robertson’s Greek Table product line, which features about 20 packaged meals made with natural ingredients, has been available at Whole Foods and other natural or specialty grocers in the mid-Atlantic since 2008. But this past fall, her products caught the attention of a much larger customer: Costco, the national warehouse retailer.

Costco did not return several calls for comment, and one buyer said company policy prohibited talking to reporters. But Robertson said Costco recently decided to stock more locally made products nationwide. She said regional buyers will offer items in select stores for a trial period of several months.

To satisfy Costco’s size requirement, Robertson created two-pound packages of three varieties of her prepared meals, which can be found throughout the Northeast region, including in Maryland. Robertson said she started selling in Costco just last month and her sales figures look promising so far.

The Costco connection helps, too, she said.

“Costco moves higher volumes, so that helps us negotiate better deals and get better economies of scale in ingredients, which drives our costs down,” she said. “The next step is to retail to some of the distributors, and then you can serve more stores.”

“I think people are more and more interested in knowing where their food comes from,” she said. “I was at the local Costco … and there was a person doing a demo of [her product] who said, ‘Oh, and this is the person that does the recipe.’ And people were like, ‘Really?’

“I guess every time you have a trend that becomes popular — like the organic, natural trend — the larger companies want to step in and get a piece of the pie.”