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Ukrop's Organic Roots

Southwest Virginia farmers would be "devastated" if Ukrop's changes hands.

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While Ukrop's Super Markets keeps Richmond mired in late-summer delirium — has the chain actually sold to Harris-Teeter? Is that Jim Ukrop wearing an Ahold polo? — Ukrop's missed a golden opportunity to reestablish its dominance.

The grocery industry has been reshaped by a revolution in organic foods, local food miles and all things fresh produce. During the past five years, Tom Leonard's Farmers Market, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and a half-dozen traditional farmers' markets have opened in the Richmond area — bonding shoppers with the unprocessed.

But Ukrop's was there before it was cool to keep track of how far vegetables had traveled before winding up at the local produce bin, and what size chicken coop actually qualifies as “free range.”

In January 2003, after customers began pestering the produce managers for organics, Ukrop's found itself struggling with the short shelf life of food shipped in from such places as Florida and California. So the chain approached about a half-dozen tobacco farmers in Southwest Virginia who were about to lose their government subsidies. It was an easy call: Ukrop's needed fresh organic foods closer to home, and the farmers needed to grow something other than tobacco. The Appalachian Sustainable Harvest Group grew from 12 farmers to 65, and last year shipped $100,000 worth of produce to Ukrop's, its most important customer.

Losing Ukrop's would be a crippling blow to the farmers, says Robin Robbins, marketing manager for Appalachian Harvest. “It would be complete devastation,” she says. “There's a lot of people that have claims about how they support [local farmers]. Ukrop's was a local supporter before it was a buzzword. They talked the talk and walked the walk years before the phase we are in.”

There haven't been any discussions with the produce managers and the Ukrop family, Robbins says, about the impact of a possible sale. And the family has remained mum about widely reported rumors that the chain is on the block. Almost everyone, however, seems to acknowledge that the chain has lost some of its edge. The one area that Ukrop's seemed best positioned to exploit — the organic foods movement — never really gained much momentum or set Ukrop's apart.

But it's important to note that the family committed to local farmers before everyone else found it profitable to do so, Robbins says.

“I'm not exactly sure as a marketer what my plan would be,” she says of losing Ukrop's. “Our profiles mirror each other so much. It's kind of difficult to fathom going to another corporate level where you are just a number, just a name.”

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