Grocers jumping into Texas-grown market

Supermarket chains say they are trying to cater to what they perceive as growing consumer demand for foods produced in Texas.

The "locavore" movement is a hot national trend that's picking up Lone Star adherents, aside from proud Texans already disposed toward in-state products that go beyond such favorites as Parker County peaches and Rio Grande Valley grapefruit.

Kroger recently expanded its Nolan Ryan's Beef program to all its Texas locations and persuaded farmers to plant crops like cauliflower that had been abandoned decades ago.

"We are encouraging our growers to try new things," said Jerry Kachtik, a McAllen-based produce buyer for Kroger. "We meet with the growers and talk to them about trying different things -- cauliflower, eggplant or bell peppers. We basically say, if they grow it, we'll try it."

Having expanded its choice of Texas cheeses, Austin-based Whole Foods plans to add at least 10 Texas craft breweries to its beer selection. (How about Jester King's Sour Saison ale made in Austin with wild yeast?)

"No one is too small," spokeswoman Karen Lukin said. "We have a few local vendors that only sell in one or two stores because they cannot meet the supply demand for all stores."

Central Market, operated by San Antonio-based H.E. Butt Grocery Co., works with large specialty growers like Generation Farms of Rice, between Ennis and Corsicana, to bring to market such items as organic mixed herbs and edible flowers, spokeswoman Aimee Deputy said. "I actually just overheard an excited conversation from our produce buyer about a brand-new Texas baby artichoke [from the Valley] coming in this week," Deputy let slip.

But climate and growing conditions, including urban sprawl, limit any expansion of affordable, Texas-grown or Texas-made consumables.

"Local food is a very big movement," said Marco Palma, a College Station-based agricultural economist with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. "It was the system we had in place 40 to 50 years ago. Everything was local then."

An influx of cheaper fruits and vegetables from Florida, Central America and California meant that many local producers and packers couldn't remain profitable. In the Valley, a massive consolidation ensued, with some of the survivors augmenting operations with farms and packinghouses south of the border.

"The big question now is, Are consumers willing to pay double the price for produce from Texas versus Central America?" Palma said. "I don't think we can economically compete by growing in a greenhouse."

Despite growing interest in buying local, production of Texas fresh vegetables -- which has been dropping since the 1990s -- has seen a sharper decline in the 2000s, said Luis Ribera, an extension economist based in Weslaco.

Can there be a recovery?

"Maybe in niche markets like greenhouse tomatoes, watermelons, potatoes," Ribera said.

There has been shrinking acreage of spinach during the past four years, but there's an initiative to put in a bagging plant that would provide pre-washed spinach, packed and ready for the consumer. "And 100 acres of pomegranates are being tested."

Jimmy Bassetti, president of J&D Produce of Edinburg, said he no longer grows cabbage -- not because of growing conditions but because the cost of rail transport to big East Coast cities is twice as high from Texas as from Florida, a seasonal competitor.

But higher fuel costs from California to Texas has made his produce more attractive here, Bassetti said. And it helps when a major chain like Kroger promises to buy the entire crop.

J&D, which sells under the Little Bear brand, would not have grown cauliflower or Athena cantaloupe without the deal. The cauliflower experiment, he added, "was successful for both of us."

At one time, the Valley had some 60,000 acres of cantaloupe, but it's now down to several hundred acres because of West Coast competition, Bassetti said. Because of the solid order and shorter shipping distance, J&D can grow the sweet Athena melon, with its shorter shelf life, for Kroger. It will be shipped in May.

"There's definitely an advantage from the consumer's prospective to be locally grown," he added.

But James McWilliams, a Texas State University historian who has researched contemporary food trends, questions a widely held belief that locally grown produce has a smaller carbon footprint than fruits and vegetables trucked in from California or Mexico.

"That's a flawed way to look at it," he said, citing a Carnegie Mellon University study.

Greenhouse gas emissions associated with the food chain are dominated by the production phase -- including the manufacture and shipping of fertilizer and other inputs -- contributing 83 percent of a U.S. household's carbon footprint for food consumption, the 2008 study found. Transportation as a whole represents only 11 percent.

Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718

Twitter: @startelegram

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