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Sysco Breathes New Life into Local Agriculture

ALBUQUERQUE - Sysco Corporation ? the nation's two-ton gorilla of food service distribution ? is about to make a colossal impact on local agriculture with its new "Born in New Mexico" campaign.

Rey Torres, Taos County agriculutral agent with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service, speaks to local growers, from left, Paul Cross, Bob Fees, Serena Scott, Tori Brown and Soveida Garcia during a meeting about Sysco's new Born in New Mexico campaign. Under the program, Extension is helping Sysco line up a network of producers around the state to provide fresh produce for restaurants and food services in New Mexico and neighboring states. (04/26/2005) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

The Fortune 500 company, which reported $29 billion in sales last year, is setting up a statewide marketing network to buy fresh produce from local producers for distribution to food service operations in New Mexico and surrounding states.

"This is a tremendous opportunity for local growers, particularly for small- and medium-scale producers," said Jerry Schickedanz, dean of New Mexico State University's College of Agriculture and Home Economics. "Sysco is basically offering to buy almost anything local producers can grow. It's the first time a major distributor is doing something like this."

The marketing campaign will target high-end restaurants and specialty food businesses willing to pay a little more for quality, fresh produce grown by local farmers, said Mike Schumacher, senior vice president of Sysco Food Services of New Mexico.

"Locally produced products are growing in importance nationwide, and New Mexico is no exception," Schumacher said. "Many consumers are ready to spend a little more to buy New Mexican. There's a lot of growth potential here."

For growers, that means a stable market for their products, said Maurice Zeck, a Sysco services specialist who is directing the Born in New Mexico program.

"We're going to build demand for local goods and then pass that demand on to producers," Zeck said. "We're opening our arms to New Mexico growers in a business partnership that will help sustain local agriculture in the long term."

Sysco is the world's largest food services distributor. Its local subsidiary currently sells fresh and processed foods to some 3,000 New Mexico restaurants, Zeck said. Fresh produce accounts for about $67 million in local sales. Under Born in New Mexico, Sysco wants local growers to supply 20 to 30 percent of the fresh produce.

"If we can get local producers to supply about 5 percent this first year and then grow to 20 or 30 percent, that's huge bucks for local producers," Zeck said.

To build demand, Sysco will launch television, newspaper and billboard advertisements in June, including 2.5-minute infomercials on KRQE Channel 13.

NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service is working with Sysco to build a network of Born in New Mexico growers.

"This is huge," said Edmund Gomez, director of NMSU's Rural Agricultural Improvement and Public Affairs Project. "The problem is always that producers are good at producing, but not at marketing. The Sysco program resolves all that."

Small-scale growers in isolated rural communities rely on roadside stands and growers markets to survive. By selling through Sysco, they can break into the lucrative restaurant industry and other food services, Gomez said.

Apart from gaining a stable market, growers who sell to Sysco will avoid transportation costs and hassles because Sysco trucks will pick up produce at participating farms throughout the state.

"Growers will need to clean, sort and package their produce, keep it refrigerated until Sysco trucks arrive and provide a loading dock for pick-up," Gomez said. "Sysco takes care of everything else."

The company will buy a broad range of fruits, vegetables and meats that producers have difficulty selling independently, said Craig Mapel, a marketing specialist with the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, which is partnering with Extension to sign up producers.

"This could substantially broaden the market for fresh produce," Mapel said. "It looks like a really sweet deal."

Beginning in April, NMSU will organize a series of workshops about the project for producers in northern New Mexico, Gomez said. Extension will help growers develop business plans to work with Sysco.

The program could encourage growers to bring fallow acreage into production, said Rey Torres, Taos County Extension program director, who is organizing a workshop about the project. "I'm very excited. I expect many Taos growers to seize this opportunity."

However, grower participation may depend on prices Sysco pays for produce.

"I need to hear what they'll pay before committing," said Walter Lea, who grows peaches and apples in Lyden. "It's a huge plus if Sysco comes right to my farm to haul and sell the fruit, but I need a good price."

Sysco will negotiate payments based on average prices it received for produce in the past year, Zeck said. With specialty produce, that could mean substantially more than growers get independently.

Hatch-based Skyline Produce, for example, will sell 240,000 pounds of specialty red and sweet onions to Sysco this season for 30 cents a pound, compared with 11.5 cents a pound for onions on the national market.

"Born in New Mexico will open a lucrative specialty market for us," said Skyline co-owner Harvey Morrow. "It's a good program that can really help New Mexico producers."

For more information, call Zeck at (505) 761-1284 or Gomez at (505) 852-2668.