Cultivating Better Produce With Hydroponics
Hydroponic-grown produce isn’t new to Publix Super Markets. The Lakeland, Fla.-based grocer has had one variety of hydroponic butter lettuce on its shelves for years, but after seeing it become a best-seller, Publix has decided to invest more heavily in hydroponic offerings.
“We’re trying to really align ourselves with the many suppliers, growers, around our market that do this same type of growing,” says Albert Gottuso, category manager, produce, at Publix. “The idea is that every state, and each store within that state, can have an expanded hydroponic selection.”
Publix is currently working with approximately eight hydroponic growers located near its stores.
Earlier this year, Publix’s GreenWise Market banner, which focuses on natural, eco-friendly, local and organic products, took hydroponics one step further than simply on-shelf offerings. After conversations with St. Petersburg, Florida-based hydroponic grower Brick Street Farms, GreenWise’s Lakeland location added an on-site trailer farm that holds the equivalent of 2.5 to 3 acres of traditional farmland.
“We’re very excited about that first venture into on-site growing,” Gottuso says. Brick Street Farms does all of the feeding, harvesting and packaging on-site, and then the produce is all sold inside the store or used in the grocer’s deli. GreenWise is turning over the entire container and is now working with Brick Street Farms to put its product in the Lakeland distribution center as well, since customer support has been so strong.
One of the main reasons Publix was interested in the Brick Street Farms partnership was because of the hyperlocal component and the company’s strategic initiative to work with local growers, according to Gottuso.
“As you’re buying fresh produce, time is of the essence, and it’s important for us. So the closer it is, the smarter we are as buyers,” he says. “We’re able to respond quicker and react to our customers’ needs. We’re able to source that product and get it in a matter of hours versus a matter of days.”
Although some plans have had to shift during the COVID-19 pandemic, education is still a key component of Publix’s hydroponics initiative. The Brick Street Farms container has a window for customers to see what’s going on inside.
“It’s an awesome opportunity to show and tell and bring schoolkids by, or bring our customers by,” affirms Curt Epperson, business development director, produce and floral at Publix. “Even our own retail management and support team go by and see how this product is grown and how it’s being harvested and then directly packaged.”
Publix also works with hydroponic grower Vertical Roots in South Carolina. In February, a program launched in which Charleston-based Vertical Roots would bring a truck with hydroponic produce grown in it (called “the locomotive”) on-site to one of its stores.
Customers could walk through the trailer, see how the produce is grown and learn about the process.