At customers' requests, Sysco includes smaller farms in mix of suppliers

By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

WILSONVILLE, Ore. -- From the vantage point of the average commuter, Sysco's 27-acre campus along Interstate 5 conveys the image of a national food distribution monolith.

That impression becomes more nuanced as you walk through the 400,000 square feet of warehouse space within the Wilsonville, Ore., campus.

Boxes filled with potatoes, onions, mushrooms and other foods grown by Northwest farmers are stacked ceiling-high, indicating the company is more locally rooted than would seem at first blush. In fact, up to 60 percent of the $450 million worth of food that moves through the facility annually is produced in the region, often by farmers who rely directly on the distributor to make planting decisions.

"We're putting our end user in touch with that farmer," said Randy Gehrig, produce business development manager for Sysco's Portland-area division.

Restaurants, hospitals, motels, schools and other institutions that buy food from the distributor are increasingly asking for locally grown products, said Mark Palmer, Sysco's vice president of corporate communications.

"This has to be the customer's choice, and that's the best way to drive this forward," Palmer said.

Sysco's Portland-area operation has been at the forefront of the trend, said Craig Watson, Sysco's vice president of agricultural sustainability.

The overall company is now seeking to expand on that model, connecting clients with existing local food sources and recruiting additional farmers who can fulfill the expanding demand for local food, Watson said.

The idea isn't to reconfigure Sysco's distribution system, but rather to open the system to additional channels of food, he said.

The company works with "aggregators" that consolidate supplies from smaller farmers and ensure the food meets Sysco's packaging and safety standards.

Local food sources won't replace the distributor's traditional suppliers, such as vertically integrated farmer-packers in California, Watson said. The company intends to increase sales of "local food" by penetrating new markets and boosting the purchase volumes of existing customers.

"We're trying to build the category," Watson said.

Sysco is developing its local food system to accommodate customer requests, but the program isn't marketed as an environmentally preferable alternative.

"We're not touting it as being more sustainable," Watson said.

Supporting small- and mid-sized farmers does have a sustainable element for Sysco, however.

Such growers are more likely to produce vegetables and other specialty crops, unlike larger operations focused on commodities, Palmer said.

"We don't sell restaurants corn, wheat and soybeans," he said.

With major food companies like Sysco getting more heavily involved in the market for local food, it's a safe bet the trend has some staying power, said Tom Gillpatrick, executive director of the Food Industry Leadership Center at Portland State University.

"You can take it as a signal the market has taken one step further," Gillpatrick said.

While direct-marketing has allowed many farmers to cope with the rise of the global food system, such strategies only account for a small proportion of total farm output, he said.

"It's like a 1 percent solution," Gillpatrick said.

Plugging into a larger distribution chain is a more efficient way to sell crops than trying to create a new system from scratch, he said. It's impractical for individual growers to meet the supply needs of large food buyers.

"The little farmer isn't going to be making a dozen trips to one store," Gillpatrick said. "He needs to work through the system."

Many people assume Sysco is a huge industrial distributor that's detached from local communities, said John Nolan, president and CEO of Sysco's Portland branch.

"We fight that," he said. For that reason, the company generally reaches out to farmers, not the other way around, Nolan said.

Among farmers, profits tend to overcome skepticism of major food companies, said David Lively, marketing director for the Organically Grown Co., a wholesale firm that supplies Sysco with salads, berries, apples, cherries and other locally grown produce.

"Most local people's goal is to grow as much and sell as much as they can," Lively said. "I haven't seen growers leery of dealing with anybody if they think they're going to have an honest relationship and profit from it."

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