LOCAL FLAVOR Produce: Area farmers put their best fruits and vegetables forward in the aisles of Giant Food and other major grocery stores.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Paul Pedone was misidentified in an article in yesterday's A La Carte section. He is director of produce procurement for Super Fresh supermarkets.

The Sun regrets the errors.

The cell phone rings again, and the driver of the 3-week-old Ford 150 XLT picks it up.

"Produce, Bob," he says, and the master of produce logistics for Giant Food Inc. is on the job.

Somebody needs corn, somebody is shipping tomatoes, somebody else has too many cantaloupes. Sorting it all out is a day's work for Bob Hartman, who runs the grocer's local produce buying program -- and who, as "Bobby," stars in its TV commercials.

The new truck, a handsome metallic tan with Giant signs on the sides, already has 4,000 miles on it, and it's no wonder. Starting in February, when the very earliest planting begins, Hartman logs thousands of miles a month on his vehicles as he roams the state from the Eastern Shore to Southern Maryland to the Washington suburbs. He even ventures into Virginia, West Virginia, and New Jersey, and he will soon be adding Pennsylvania to his territory.

Whose idea was it to put local produce in Giant stores?

"Consumers," Hartman says. "It's the most common question asked by our customers: 'Why can't we have local produce in our Giant?' " So Hartman, who's been at Giant for 34 years and was formerly a product supervisor overseeing produce in a 25-store division in Montgomery County, was tapped three years ago to recruit the farmers, decide what will be grown and bought, and figure out how to get it to the stores.

Some years ago the Maryland Department of Agriculture encouraged grocers to carry local produce by introducing the buyers to the farmers, and a number now do, including Safeway and and SuperFresh. But Giant's program has been the most high-profile, partly because of the ads starring the jovial Hartman. Hartman, 52, seems bemused by the attention his TV exposure has given him, and he takes ribbing from the growers and from other Giant personnel in stride. "I always try to make sure I remind everybody when they're patting [me] on the back, that there's a lot of people involved."

The growers take their corn or tomatoes or zucchini directly from the field to the store. Corn picked in the morning can be at the store by afternoon. For the consumer, it means produce that's extremely fresh, in varieties best suited to growing in Maryland's climate, and in the varieties customers in this region prefer. For the farmer, it means a big, pretty much guaranteed market not too far away.

"Ten years ago, we couldn't have done it," Hartman says. Coordinating between the farmers, the stores and the company requires all the tools of today's communication networks: cellular phones, pagers -- Hartman even has a police radio. "I don't have e-mail yet," he said.

Giant tries to make its 3-year-old program a true partnership, Hartman says. Giant's buying decisions, including what will be promoted in advertising, are based on what the farmer can supply. And the farmer bases what he grows on what Giant wants.

"We get together once or twice during the winter months and talk about what we want," Hartman says. "This year we're going to talk about early season corn -- the thing is, the customer wants it by the Fourth of July."

With Maryland's chancy weather, getting harvestable corn that early is something of a trick. "But they can do some things to speed up the harvest," he says, like growing the crops under a plastic ground cover. The cover holds moisture, but it also warms the roots and speeds growth. However, there is a trade-off -- the plastic-cover method is more expensive, and usually requires drip irrigation. Everything that increases the farmer's costs can increase prices for consumers.

Unless something drastic happens, Hartman says, small price fluctuations tend to even out. But, he says, "we're not out here to beat these guys down, to get the best prices. 'Local' doesn't mean 'cheap.' You do save money on freight and so on. I think customers understand that. Say I'm selling tomatoes at 69 cents [a pound]. If I went out and took the man's money, I could sell 'em for 59 cents. But where would he be next year?" He answers his own question: "Selling the farm."

Indeed, farmers were skeptical about the program at first. Giant instituted a separate accounting system for local farmers, so they get paid in seven to nine days, instead of the usual 30. And Hartman stays in nearly constant touch to make sure things are going well. "You have to prove yourself," he says, "even a big company like Giant."

This time of year, Hartman's focus is on the harvest -- and the logistics of getting about 135 growers to deliver the rapidly ripening goods to about 80 percent of Giant's 167 stores. (Some stores don't get direct delivery, because they're too far from sources -- such as stores in downtown Washington. They may still get "local" produce, which comes through Giant's distribution center in Landover. "Local" means grown within a 200-mile radius of the Landover facility.)

Gathering the bounty

The first stop on Hartman's rounds on this day is Papa John's, a farm and produce stand on Crain Highway just off Interstate 97 -- the site for one of the TV commercials, the one in which Hartman, riding a truck, catches an onion. The farm is owned by the Shillinger family and pretty much the whole family works at the stand and on the farm. "Miss Ruth" Shillinger, wife of late stand founder John Shillinger, stills cooks a big noon meal for everyone.

Shillinger, now presided over by John's son Jim, is one of Giant's largest growers, and one of its most diverse. Over the season it will supply Giant stores with, among other things, corn, tomatoes, watermelon, cantaloupe, squash, beans, hard squash and eggplant. Three years ago, they farmed about 140 acres. Since then, with Giant buying produce by the truckload, they've increased their acreage to 340.

Jim Shillinger credits his father with teaching him how to run the business -- but some things have changed. When he started selling to Giant, Shillinger began using plastic and drip irrigation on some crops (including the cutting flowers his sister Carol Ann grows). The systems cost about $200,000, Shillinger says, and paid for themselves in two years. In dry weather, this man "can count on my product," he says, indicating Hartman.

Dryness has not been the problem this year: Too much rain has fallen. Tomatoes and cantaloupes, among other items, will keep absorbing water until they burst, and this year, that's happening before they are ripe. The cool nights in May (there was even some frost) made the tomatoes grow in odd shapes, with extra lobes, gnarls and indentations.

But Shillinger is having rousing success with his early sweet corn, a variety called argent ("silver" in French). Hartman grabs an ear, shucks it, breaks it and offers visitors a taste. Even raw, the corn is simply delicious, sweet, crunchy and juicy. Humans are not the only ones who approve: Buster the big brown Labrador is a notorious corn thief, stealing ears and taking them to the shade of a tree for a snack.

"It's a problem," says one of the family, laughing, "because he takes ears from the bags [of a dozen ears each] and we have to recount them all."

Branching out

Shillinger takes Hartman out to the field to show him a new variety of watermelon he's experimenting with, a seedless sugarbaby. One of the benefits of the program, Hartman says, is that once farmers know they have a stable market for an item, "they're more willing to try things, to put in something they've never grown before."

Later, as he drives through Arnold Farms on the Eastern Shore, he recalls the huge field of leaf lettuce he persuaded the Arnold brothers, Bob and Dave, to grow for him in the spring. It was an impressive sight, he said. "It scared me, though. I thought, I hope we can sell all this." And he gives one of his frequent cheerful guffaws.

The Arnolds are picking tomatoes, and they too have had problems with the wet weather. "It's hard on the help," Bob Arnold said. "Everybody's just mired in mud."

The Arnolds are packing about 1,000 boxes of tomatoes a day, all of them hand-sorted by color (which indicates the stage of ripening, from "breakers," with just a patch of red on the blossom end, to "reds," the nearly ripe ones). Unlike the Shillingers, the Arnolds have no family tradition of farming -- it's just something they wanted to do. Dave has a degree in agricultural economics, and Bob, who quit college to farm, says his education is from "hard experience."

They have a produce stand in New Jersey, run by their sister, and they also sell to other farm stands. But Giant is now their biggest customer. They have about 330 tillable acres, with 250 acres in corn. "We double-crop a lot," Bob Arnold said. "Land we had in lettuce this spring will be going into spinach this fall."

Then Hartman is back on the road, looking for the lushly landscaped home of Vic Priapi, who's growing Asian pears on his back lot. The Eastern Shore's flat land and persistently rural character gave him trouble when he started out, Hartman says. "All roads look alike around here." With the help of detailed maps from the state police, he began to find his way around, using landmarks such as a sawmill or a church to help. "You're never lost till you run out of road," he mutters.

A good match

Priapi has just arrived home in his truck, and his five dogs are barking their heads off in the garage, unhappy at missing the action. Priapi, who has a degree in plant science from Cornell and is a propagator for a family-owned nursery on the shore, began growing Asian pears about four years ago. The pears are a sort of cross between regular pears and apples. Priapi grows four varieties on tiny trees planted in beautiful diagonal lines. The trees are groaning with fruit, which he says is about three weeks away from being ripe.

He tried to get other grocers interested in his pears, Priapi says, but no one seemed to care. While driving back from one of these disappointing interviews, he saw a sign on a Giant delivery truck that said, "We buy local produce." There was a phone number, so he called, and that brought Hartman out for a look. Now the pears will wind up on Giant shelves.

Priapi is a good example of the kind of small specialty grower Hartman delights in finding. He needs the big guys, but it's the little guys who seem to give him the biggest thrill. People like the woman from Westminster who called and said she had "a tremendous amount" of chestnuts, would Giant be interested? How many exactly, Hartman asked. "Oh, about 500 pounds."

Hartman, who doesn't blink at buying corn by the 48-foot-tractor-trailer load, said he'd take the chestnuts. He put them in a few places, and "they blew out of those stores!"

"We treat everybody the same," he says, noting that another grower produces just one crop, blackberries, for just one store.

At the last stop, the weather again is the big topic. "We're throwing away a lot of tomatoes," says Ron Gardener, who's harvesting his 60,000 tomato plants. "This weather pattern is a killer."

"This is a tough business," Hartman says later, with rain, heat, humidity, insects and other hazards of nature to contend with. But it's clear he wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

"Sometimes, in the early spring," he says, "you find yourself sitting on the screen porch drinking a glass of tea, talking about how many acres are going into this or that. It's a nice job to have."

RTC

Little guys mean a lot to supermarkets

Although Giant's local produce program is the most high-profile, other supermarket chains in the area also stock produce grown by farmers in the region. Among them are SuperFresh, Mars, Metro-Basics and Safeway. Like Giant, SuperFresh also uses direct-store delivery. Field supervisors work with farmers. Stores can order every day, and farmers deliver every day. Safeway, second to Giant in terms of size in the region with 124 stores, stocks shelves with 25-30 items from regional growers but most of it comes from the chain's distribution center, coincidentally located right next to Giant's in Landover.

"When the product is local, it's a lot fresher for us," said John Fowler, director of produce for Safeway.

Farmers were skeptical at first that a large chain would buy from them without trying to knock down prices, said Paul Pedone, director of produce procurement for Safeway. He said he goes out of his way to make things easy for them, including quick payment and a route designed to get them back home by midday. "He [the farmer] needs to get back so he can pick and pack for the next day," Pedone said.

Like Giant's Bob Hartman, Pedone enjoys working with the growers. "Farmers are real gentlemen," he said.

Pub Date: 8/14/96

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