The following story was written by Heinen’s partner Elaine T. Cicora.
Take it from Vinnie Latessa: There is no better place to find quality and value than on small, local family farms.
His opinion grows out of experience. As Heinen’s longtime Produce and Floral Director, Vinnie has been guiding Heinen’s produce buyers for the past eight years in identifying and supporting the best local growers around.
In season, locally grown produce makes up as much as 70 percent of the selection in Heinen’s produce department. The lineup of lettuces, radishes, green onions, zucchini, tomatoes, peaches, and more, represents the output of hundreds of family farms, exclusively located within the state of Ohio.
While their practices may vary between organic, conventional and hydroponic, Heinen’s growers all have this in common: At minimum, they operate within strict USDA guidelines, and they keep great records. In that way, Vinnie and his team can ensure that every item in their produce department is fresh, wholesome and safe, and that products boasting an organic label have truly been grown according to organic standards.
Many of Heinen’s producers are part of Green Field Farms, a farmer-owned cooperative in Wooster committed to natural and organic growing practices. Raymond Yoder Jr. has been a co-op member since 2010. Over the years, his 16-acre farm has grown a variety of certified organic vegetables for Heinen’s, including cabbage, kale, red beets, tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, peppers and squash.
“Green Field Farms formed in 2003, in response to the diminishing numbers of small family farms in the Amish community,” Yoder explains. “Due to their sustainable methods, these farmers were no longer able to compete with the factory farms. But it was clear that there were people who were willing to pay a premium for their food if they knew it was safe from chemicals and bacteria, and they could know the people who grew it. We saw that we had what it takes to produce that food, so that’s what we set out to do.”
“Our mission is to sustain small family farms. And we are so thankful to have Heinen’s as our partner in our efforts.”
County Line Auction, in West Salem, is also an important resource for Heinen’s produce team. As one of the largest auctions in the area, County Line growers supply a vast array of produce including squash, onions, peppers, beans, eggplant and tomatoes. Three days a week, those goods come straight from the farmers’ fields – sometimes in horse-drawn wagons! – into the auction barn, where they are sold within hours and are in Heinen’s stores the next day.
In addition to providing an important retail outlet for small family farmers, Heinen’s nurtures the relationship in every way possible. “We try to do anything for them that we can,” says Vinnie, “from making it convenient for them to get products into our warehouse to helping them decide on new products to grow. We actually sit down with them and open up the seed books; I don’t know of any other retailer that does that.”
Ultimately, Vinnie says, it boils down to this: “Farmers want to sell product, we want to buy product, and we will do anything to help make that happen – all while supporting the highest quality standards.”
After all, Vinnie points out, his team can lay claim to hundreds of years of produce expertise among them, all put into the service of Heinen’s customers. “We are the ones who make the decision that a product belongs on our shelves. I think our customers trust us to buy from reputable growers and do our due diligence. They expect us to be on our game. And as a family-owned grocer with a commitment to buying local, that’s what we do best!”