A report says local farmers need to get more of their produce into grocery stores and neighborhood markets in order to grow.
Customers with the willpower to walk past a display of chocolate-covered Twinkies at the Peach Street Market & Deli will find a refrigerated section filled with salads, turkey sandwiches, yogurt, apple slices, milk and fruit juice.
Near the door, the Medford convenience store at 424 S. Peach St. has stacks of bananas, oranges, apples, onions and potatoes. A banner outside with an apple logo lets customers know healthful options can be found inside. Other banners advertise Budweiser and Coors.
The sections of healthful food are oases inside a market brimming with convenience-store staples such as beer, chips, candy bars and energy drinks loaded with caffeine and sugar.
"People come in with the mindset that they want something bad when they come in a small store," said Peach Street Market owner Nancy Murrish, who is working to offer more healthful options.
The fruit and vegetables near the door aren't locally grown, but Murrish hopes eventually to team with local farmers to offer fresh produce to neighbors frequenting the store.
A new report released by Southern Oregon University provides sales data for local farmers and reveals they could boost their revenue by getting more locally grown food into grocery stores and convenience stores like Peach Street Market.
Agriculture directly contributes $86 million in activity to the economy in Jackson and Josephine counties, according to estimates from the Rogue Valley Grower Economic Assessment Report.
A related study, the Jackson County Community Food Assessment, found direct farm-to-consumer sales methods like growers market and farm stands are reaching their saturation point.
The vast majority of people — 96 percent — said they would buy more locally grown food if it were more available in places where they already shop, such as grocery stores, according to a survey done as part of the food assessment.
Local farmers are selling an estimated 43 percent of their products wholesale rather than directly to consumers, leaving room for wholesale growth, according to the economic assessment.
At Peach Street Market, Murrish said she hopes to create a designated storage area where customers could pick up orders of produce from local farms.
She said retailers shouldn't expect instant success when they switch to more healthful options.
The fruits and vegetables in her small produce area now sell out every week, but in the beginning, sales were slow. Customers have yet to warm to a new display of vitamins in the window.
"It's not going to go well at first. It takes a while for people to make good decisions," Murrish said. "But this is a first step to making Minute Markets more healthy."
Local farmers and grocery stores have had their own growing pains as they form partnerships to get more local fruits and vegetables into grocery produce sections.
A grant-funded project called Rogue Valley Grown is funneling more local produce this year into grocery stores that include Food 4 Less in Medford, Shop'n Kart in Ashland and Ray's Markets in Central Point, Phoenix, Talent and Jacksonville.
Twisty ties labeled "Rogue Valley Grown" help customers find local food at the grocery stores, said Elise Higley, market development specialist for the organization Thrive, which is managing the program and promotes local food production and consumption.
Many grocery stores already stocked some locally grown food. The new effort gets even more produce into stores and emphasizes pointing out the local products to customers.
Participating farmers are currently planning their crops for next year based on how their wholesale efforts went so far — and what's in demand for the future.
"We're in the midst of talking to buyers to find out what they need for next season," Higley said.
Over this year's growing season, there was sometimes a mismatch between what farmers grew and what grocery stores wanted.
"Our farmers tend to grow a lot of gourmet items that traditional grocery stores are not wanting to carry," Higley said. "They want mainstream staples — not dandelion greens."
Grocery stores prefer standard potato varieties such as russet and Yukon gold, rather than specialty varieties like Russian banana fingerlings, she said.
Some farmers grew yellow-striped zucchini rather than regular green ones, she said.
"That really threw them off," Higley said of grocers who were surprised by the unusual coloration.
But with more experience in collaborating now under their belts, farmers and grocery stores will be better able to match up what's grown with what's wanted, she said.
While many farmers markets close for the winter or move indoors with limited offerings, 76 percent of farmers surveyed for the community food assessment said they have products available in the winter. Grocery and convenience stores could provide more winter outlets for those products.
Higley said customers are key in supporting the effort to bring more locally grown food to venues beyond farmers markets and farm stands.
"If all the Rogue Valley-grown produce is flying off the shelves, that will promote more sales. We need customers in there supporting the movement," she said.
To learn more about the Rogue Valley Grower Economic Assessment Report and the future of food and farming in the Rogue Valley, attend a panel discussion from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Medford library, 205 S. Central Ave.
The panel will discuss key findings of the report, projects to expand consumption of locally grown food, efforts to increase market access for emerging farmers and the need to ensure a reliable supply of farmland.
Community members are asked to RSVP to the free event by visiting http://bit.ly/RogueFoodFuture.
Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.