Help is on the way for specialty crop-growers in Ohio who want to sell more of their products to grocery stores and restaurants.

Help is on the way for specialty crop-growers in Ohio who want to sell more of their products to grocery stores and restaurants.

The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association in Columbus is joining with Countryside Conservancy in northeastern Ohio to develop ways to help small fruit-and-vegetable growers increase sales to retailers.

“A way to make a positive impact on farmers’ bottom lines is to get their food into more outlets that are accessible to consumers,” said Beth Knorr, market manager and local foods program manager for Countryside Conservancy in Peninsula.

Farmers markets and community-sponsored agriculture have been the primary ways used to encourage people to connect with local food, Knorr said.

However, consumers do 90?percent of their food shopping at retail outlets, such as grocery stores and restaurants, not at farmers markets, according to a 2011 study by Ohio State University’s Center for Farmland Policy Innovation, she said.

Ohio farmers may be better positioned than their peers to plug into retail channels, said Renee Hunt, program director for the food and farm association. “Ohio is well-poised to connect with the local food system because it has multiple medium- and large-sized urban areas that farmers can tap from surrounding areas,” Hunt said.

The two nonprofits will use a Specialty Crop Block Grant from the U.S. Agriculture Department to help farmers clear hurdles, such as lack of business skills or inadequate production techniques, that stand in the way of capitalizing on retail and distribution opportunities identified in the Ohio State report, she said.

Kroger already has cleared some of those hurdles as it works with farmers to supply local fruits and vegetables to shoppers, said Jackie Siekmann, media and government relations manager for the Cincinnati grocer’s Columbus Division.

Kroger’s biggest concern is food safety, Siekmann said. So the grocer works with farmers on issues such as water supply and packaging to ensure safe products, she said.

Another issue is adequate supply. “We service more than 200 stores out of our distribution center in Delaware,” Siekmann said.

Some farmers have joined forces as a cooperative to sell products to Kroger, she said. A cooperative gives the grocer one point of contact, as well as adequate supply.

The food and farm association has used the cooperative approach in central Ohio, “branding a group of growers and marketing them in that manner,” Knorr said. “In northeast Ohio, we’re going to try to work with individual growers.”