Healthy lifestyle trends are driving the growth of the sector and the growth of retail sales.
Originally published in the December 2022 issue Business production.
Health-conscious consumers want more leafy greens, but labor and convenience are factors influencing how the category evolves.
Mark Goldman, director of production at Morton Williams, Bronx, N.Y., says the labor issue with leafy greens is a concern. The 16 stores he runs, almost all from Manhattan, have had to adapt to ensure quality.
In addition, as interest in leafy greens increases, demand for bagged greens increases, so Goldman needs less labor to cut and process raw leafy greens. The trend helped his expenses.
“People have been kind to us,” he says.
Leafy greens are a big part of many people’s diets, and even a retailer like Argus Farm Stop, Ann Arbor, MI, offers them year-round at three locations with a mission to support local farmers.
This year, the farming season was longer than usual, so local greens were available longer, says Dani Cavannaro, Argus produce manager. But when autumn turns to winter, Argus has a solution. “We have someone about 15 miles away that grows hydroponically, and we rely on him as a winter producer.”
Retailers are finding ways to satisfy leafy green customers when interest is high. The product range—from leafy greens and related items to packaged salads—attracts shoppers looking for nutrition and/or convenience.
Babé Farms grows, packs and ships year-round from Santa Maria, California, says Marketing Coordinator Matt Hiltner. “Restaurants, tours, hotels and more. When things got back to normal, the demand exceeded our expectations.”
Church Bros. Farms, Salinas, CA, operates and ships from three locations year-round to keep product moving — from Salinas in the summer and from Yuma, AZ in the winter. It also ships from its factory in Mexico, says Ernst van Egen, vice president of food business development.
He notes that the holidays and beyond are a constant opportunity for leafy greens.
“We expect an increase in holiday traffic, but overall we don’t expect much demand other than seasonally,” says van Egen. “Typically, the beginning of the year brings healthy eating habits for people, so we expect demand for salads and vegetables to increase in January.”
He said the company moved the entire leaf category to northern Mexico, “so we can devote the labor and time we need to those products. This has given us a competitive advantage in this category.”
Leafy green producers have to deal with several issues and this affects the supply to the market. “We expect the market to stabilize in the second half of December,” says van Egen. “The cost of food and fertilizer is becoming more difficult, costs are increasing and restrictions are increasing. We are working on several different projects that will save costs and increase efficiency to remain competitive and secure the business of tomorrow.”
GOOD FOOD (AND GOOD FOR YOU)
B&W Quality Growers, Fellsmere, FL, uses the term “SuperLeaves” to emphasize the nutritional benefits of leafy greens. “Our SuperLeaves, especially watercress, are becoming a staple because of their unique flavor, high quality and nutrient density,” says Marketing Director Ruth Bozeman.
Given the scope of the company’s activities, it has flexibility in delivery options.
“We follow the sun,” says Boseman. “Our farming operations span eight states, allowing us to grow produce that is always in season and at the peak of freshness and flavor. It also allows our farms to recharge naturally during seasonal shifts.”
J. Marchini Farms, Le Grand, CA, supplies three varieties of chicory – Radicchio, Treviso and Castelfranco – along with fennel and Lacinato cabbage year-round. “We also supply seasonal specialties such as radicchio, cardone and puntarelle,” says Francesca Marcini Fordis, sales and marketing.
Eating only encourages leafy greens, says Babé Farms’ Hiltner, but the spread of different preparation methods helps, especially with kale.
“Leafy greens are a logical place to start when it comes to a healthy diet,” she says. “Kale, in particular, has long been one of our top sellers under our Coastal Valley Farms organic label. With its versatility and many health benefits, it’s easy to see why it remains popular all these years later.”
Nutrition promotion also plays an important role in positioning the B&W product line.
“Watercress is one of the most nutritious vegetables in the world,” says Bozeman. “With over 28 essential vitamins, minerals and compounds and naturally low in calories, fat and cholesterol, you’d be hard-pressed to find better nutrition stats.
According to Fordyce, many healthy lifestyle trends are driving the leafy green sector forward.
“Breakfast salads, lettuces, smoothies and juicing have helped generate more buzz in the produce department and created fun, alternative ways to enjoy leafy greens,” she says. “From a cultural point of view, there is a big shift that food is medicine and the more vegetables the better.” Now consumers can see leafy greens and vegetables as a tasty addition or alternative, as well as beneficial to their overall health.”
As Fordice points out, social media predicts that younger consumers will drive a number of trends as shoppers and restaurant customers.
“We’ve seen through social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram that millennials enjoy cooking and eating specialty foods,” he says. “Instagram food bloggers and influencers are increasingly using radicchio to add color and flavor to salads. Trends have shown that bitter is better.”
“There is more demand from customers who are exposed to restaurant food,” he added.
“We’ve seen a surge in popularity in the specialty lettuce category as chefs try to update their standard salad offerings,” agrees van Egen. “Kale is still a hot commodity, but its growth has stalled. People are looking for new alternatives like our Tuscan Baby Romaine and Little Gem salads.”
According to Fordyce, the evolving approach to food bodes well for J Marchini’s future.
“The combination of changing healthy eating habits and social media trends has increased the demand for our specialty salads and specialty vegetables,” he says. “Chefs and consumers love adding color, texture, depth and flavor to salads and side dishes.”
For example, he adds, a classic Caesar salad is usually made with romaine lettuce. “However, chefs are now making it with lacinato cabbage and/or radicchio. Rancho dressing is also paired only with regular green salad, and now there are recipes that include only radicchio salads with ranch dressing.”
While organic produce is under pressure from higher production costs and subsequent retail price increases, van Egen says it remains dynamic in the food service.
“We have a relatively small organic program,” he says, “but there doesn’t seem to be a huge demand for organic products from food service channels.”
Local produce is also an important consideration in making leafy greens more attractive to consumers, Fordyce said. However, it should be taken in context.
“Consumers love to see local produce in grocery stores, on restaurant menus and at farmers markets,” he says. “We go to local farmers markets and sell our produce to local restaurants as a way to give back to the local community. However, as growers and members of the global fresh produce industry, we know that locally grown produce can supply the region for one season, but you need a global industry to help supply the region year-round to keep up with demand.”