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Growing Produce Departments in Time for Spring

Growing Produce Departments in Time for Spring

It’s time for winter to move on, taking its cold temperatures and mud puddles with it. Spring is on the horizon, bringing new vegetables and fruits to market, with new flavors of the season.

Spring is sometimes overlooked as a season offering new produce tastes for consumers. After winter’s hearty vegetables, customers are eager for something different. Since growers are the ones at the forefront of produce trends, here are their trend predictions for spring 2020.

Key Takeaways

  • Consumers welcome spring after making it through the cold and snow of winter, and yearn for “new” spring vegetables and fruits, which can boost the bottom line.
  • Herbs, especially fresh ones, are currently very popular with consumers, so don’t hesitate to display them with recipes in which the herbs are featured.
  • Since consumers are ready for novel products and ideas, create a welcoming, colorful department for spring that makes it easy for them to find something unusual.

Items of the Season

Spring 2020 already has its emerging stars, according to Talia Shandler, VP at Los Angeles-based SGS Produce. “We see that consumers are excited about variety and new experiences,” she says. “Products that are influenced by Asian and Middle Eastern taste profiles are gaining popularity. Rambutan and mangosteens are going to be the items of the season.” 

Mangosteens were illegal in the United States for many years, due to the belief that they carried the Asian fruit fly, but now those days are over. The fruit grows on small evergreen trees on the Malay Archipelago in Southeast Asia. Its nickname is “the queen of tropical fruit” because of its taste (Hint: The nickname would be great for signage). The round fruit, red to dark purple, has four to eight triangular sections of white juicy flesh “that melt in your mouth while releasing a perfect balance of sweet and sour citrus, peach, and exotic flavors,” according to the website of Vernon, Calif.-based Melissa’s/World Variety Produce.

This superfruit is full of nutrients and antioxidant benefits that may lower the risk of certain diseases. The fruit should be eaten as soon as possible after purchase. If the shell of the mangosteen is still pliable, the unopened fruit can be refrigerated in a partly closed plastic bag for up to two days. To open the fruit, make a shallow cut around the circumference of it, avoiding the interior. Twist the shell open along the cut to access the segments of fruit inside, which are delicate.

On the vegetable side, the more color, the better, according to Shandler: “Rainbow chard [also trademarked as Bright Lights] is being requested more and more.”  This member of the beet family is grown for its mild-flavored leaves and stalks that are similar to celery. They range in color from red to orange, yellow to green. The leaves are often used like spinach. To prepare them, place them in a large bowl of cold water, lift out and drain, and repeat, according to Melissa’s. Trim the stems and cut off the leaves. If you’re using the stems, slice them crosswise.

Green Healthy Produce Year-Round

Growing seasons may change and springtime may reign year-round with hydroponics. 

The process involves growing plants without soil, using a mineral nutrient solution in a water solvent. Plants are grown indoors, where they aren’t subject to bad weather, drought or insects. The process isn’t new, but there does seem to be more interest in hydroponics than ever, with consumers even growing some vegetables at home. There are now several hydroponic companies, mostly growing greens such as lettuce, across the United States.

One example of hydroponic farming is based in Brooklyn, N.Y., where, since 2009, Gotham Greens has worked to transform how and where fresh produce is grown, according to Viraj Puri, the company’s co-founder and CEO. By the end of this year, Gotham Greens will operate 500,000 square feet of high-tech farms across five U.S. states, with more than 300 employees. Seven greenhouses are operated in New York City, Chicago, and Providence, R.I., bringing fresh leafy greens and herbs to the Northeast in winter for the first time, Puri says, with new locations slated to open in Baltimore and Denver.

The company, which offers a line of leafy greens, herbs, salad dressings and pesto dips, recently introduced a transparent packaging design and brand logo to refresh its visual identity.

The grower uses hydroponic systems in 100% renewable electricity-powered greenhouses that use 95 percent less water and 97 percent less land than conventional farming. The company will soon deliver to 30-plus states and produce 35 times more lettuce than conventional farming. The greenhouses will be controlled by the “latest technological advances, including proprietary data-driven control tools to develop the highest-yielding, most efficient production systems on the market today,” Puri notes.

In addition to this, retailers are striking out on their own, with hydroponics at their stores. For instance, the Kroger Co., based in Cincinnati, is partnering with European urban farming network Infarm. Modular living-produce farms installed in Kroger’s stores will provide customers with hydroponic produce right at the point of purchase.

That being the case, farming in the future may not involve the soil it has depended on for millennia. 

Herbs are also becoming a growing category of their own. “As people ditch the meal prep boxes and start cooking on their own, they realize how much flavor fresh herbs infuse in their food, and they are looking to replicate that and purchasing fresh herbs at their market,” Shandler observes.   

Shandler sees fresh herbs as a larger commodity for the produce section. “Gone are the days when people were content with dry herbs,” she notes. SGS is a distributor for Commerce, Calif.-based Dosner Herbs

Concentrated tube herbs, along with fresh herbs, are demanding more space in the produce section. For example, Batavia, Ill.-based Aldi — No. 9 on Progressive Grocer’s 2019 Super 50 list of the top grocers in the United States — offers herbs in tubes under its organic brand, Simply Nature, including garlic, basil and ginger stir-in pastes. These tubes are competing against packaged fresh herbs. The only conclusion for this expansion is that customers are looking for fresh herbs to spice up their meals in 2020.

Old Favorites

Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Melissa’s, notes that spring produce generally refers to items like cauliflower, artichoke, kale, assorted carrots, assorted beets, strawberries and blueberries, even though these items are available year-round. 

Anthony Totta, business consultant and CEO of Kansas City, Mo.-based Grow My Profits LLC, and a former produce retailer himself, agrees. “Typical spring items include artichokes, asparagus, spring onions and strawberries,” Totta observes. “Trending items include new packaging and sizes such as baby artichokes, asparagus tips and dipping strawberries.”

“True spring specialty produce is items like fava beans, english peas, morel mushrooms, fiddlehead fern, baby artichokes, spring onions, spring garlic and pixie tangerines, as they are typically available March through May-ish, or a little longer,” Schueller notes.

“Seasonally, it’s the ending of the variety citrus season and close to the arrival of variety melon, tree fruits like peaches/plums and the grape season. ... It’s actually an awkward time before the summer domestic season.”

Spring is for Snacking

Another grower sees a different trend in 2020 spring produce. “Snacking is a big trend that produce can tie into right now, especially portable items like apples,” says Brianna Shales, senior marketing manager at Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers. Consumers are eating on the go more than ever now and looking toward convenience to help them eat healthfully despite their busy lives, according to Shales, who adds, “Retailers should focus on snacking throughout produce promotions and, of course, in the value-added section.”

Stemilt will be focused on growing organic apple sales, especially during the month of April, since Earth Day 2020 falls on April 22. “We have merchandising materials and tactics coming soon," Shales notes, "to help retailers promote organic apples in a bigger way than ever before.” 

Eating By Season

Many consumers like to eat by season to ensure that they’re getting the freshest produce, and to vary their diets. Here are 15 spring-grown produce items:

About the Author

D. Gail Fleenor

D. Gail Fleenor is a contributing editor at Progressive Grocer.

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