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Tops Markets, Local Farmers Differ Over Issue of Homegrown Produce

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By Joyce Kryszak

Buffalo, NY – Harvest time for many local crops is upon us. The fields are ripe with the promise of your favorite homegrown Western New York produce. How about some of those beautiful, plump eggplants? Tops Markets has them for sale -- homegrown they say. The only problem is that New York's eggplant isn't ready yet.

This time of year lures true veggie-zealots to the roadside stands and farmers markets. Here you can fill your bags with vegetables and fruits still sun-warmed from the field.

But many people racing between work and home don't have time to make an extra shopping trip. And they don't have to. They can pick up the same succulent, home grown produce right at the local supermarket. At least that's what the stores advertise. But Shelley Stieger of Kenmore is one disillusioned Tops shopper.

"My impression from the ad is that they'd be from around here -- but I don't think they are," said Stieger. "I bought some tomatoes the other day and it said homegrown. I thought they were. But I got them home and they're not homegrown tomatoes. They still taste like plastic, so they're not."

That all kind of depends on your definition of homegrown. The tomatoes Stieger bought were homegrown in New Jersey. Western New York's are still pretty green on the vine. And the homegrown eggplant that Tops advertised in this week's flyer? That local crop should be ready by next week. The plump, purple stuff in the Tops produce section now is actually from out of state. Tops spokesperson Stephanie Zakowicz explains the store's policy.

"For Tops, our definition of homegrown is anthging grown within a 250 mile radius of the store," said Zakowicz. "And this year with the weather not cooperating as much with our farmers as usual, unfortunately, when our ads produced so far in advance, sometimes the product doesn't get delivered and we have to procure it elsewhere."

But that explanation isn't sitting well with some local shoppers. Zakowicz says Tops puts signs in the stores saying where their produce comes from. That's news to the people who have been calling Erie County Legislator Jeanne Chase. She says her constituents feel they've been fooled.

"They were very concerned. Because they read when it says homegrown produce and they get a very warm and fuzzy feeling, because they assume they know the people who are growing the produce and that it's really being grown in their county, in their own backyard, so to speak," said Chase. "They were a little outraged to find out it was being grown in Pennsylvania or New Jersey's backyard."

But Zakowicz from Tops says it's really a question of supply and demand. People now expect year-round access to their favorite produce. When local farmers fall short, Tops buys their "homegrown" from someone else's neighborhood. And this year's particularly wet season hasn't helped local farmers bring crops in on time -- or in peak condition. Bill Zittel's family has been farming in Eden for about a hundred years. But Zittel says the produce market is changing. There's no longer a time for every season.

"There aren't a lot of crops anymore that only have a very short season, and we don't get them again. And that's the way it used to be, that you had that little season, you really enjoyed it and ate it almost every night. I know my grandfather, he had strawberries, I think, every night of the week until they were gone and then he never had another one until the season next year," said Zittel. "It's different, and we've got to adjust to it."

He says that will likely mean smarter marketing and trying new crops. But Zittel says, bottomline, it's difficult to compete with growers from warmer climates that get multiple growing seasons. Western New York gets one -- a very short one. Zakowicz from Tops says the chain is committed to local farmers.

"It's a high priority for us to supply our customers with homegrown products. They're wonderful. Our customers look for them. And we try to work with our farmers to get as much as we can, as long as they meet our quality standards," said Zakowicz.

So, what happens when local farmers can't get the produce to market -- when consumers want it? Eden farmer Bill Zittel says, some years, that could mean a tough decision to leave the fields stand empty.

"There's a fine line between production, quality, what you have to sell the product for, and who's going to buy it," said Zittel. "The end result is you can produce all the food you want, but if there's nobody's to by it, then you might as well not do it, because it's going to go to waste."

So, if it's important to you that your produce is truly locally "homegrown," it's a good idea to check the fine print. Tops says they will make sure individual stores are complying with store's labeling policy. Their "homegrown" produce should have a sign saying whose backyard it was grown in.