Miffed melon farmer

One week after taking heat for stocking fruits and veggies predominantly grown out of state—but liberally promoting "locally grown produce"—regional Safeway stores suffered another locally delivered blow. One of the chain's three Montana suppliers, Dixon Melons, accuses Safeway of pushing them out, while another says stringent regulations undermine the whole concept of supporting local growers.

"I believe they're trying to get rid of us," says Dixon Melon owner Joey Hettick. "We're a hassle, I guess."

Hettick says Safeway marks up Dixon Melons so they don't sell, giving the store an excuse to avoid the complexities of buying from small growers.

That claim doesn't hold water for Safeway spokesperson Cherie Myers. "That's just absolutely, totally not true," she says.

Though Myers won't comment specifically on Dixon Melon dealings, she explains that Safeway policies are in place to protect consumers.

In addition to melons, Safeway also purchases local peaches and Flathead cherries from local farms. But the store's packing requirements force cherry growers to ship the fruit more than 400 miles to Domex Superfresh Growers in Yakima, Wash., before being re-imported to Montana, says Dale Nelson, president of the Flathead Lake Cherry Growers.

The cooperative, comprised of 102 growers, stomachs Safeway's required $2 million insurance policy, but can't manage packing demands. "I think Safeway buys corporate, but talks local," says Nelson.

Myers defends the shipping regulations by explaining that Safeway manages multiple stores in the region, and distribution centers simplify delivery while enabling the chain to more easily track potential food-borne illness.

"We're doing it in the best possible way we can do it," Myers says.

But Bonnie Buckingham from the Missoula Community Food and Agriculture Coalition says distribution centers actually encourage spread of disease, because products sometimes intermingle. The requirements also speak to a bigger problem.

"The systems that we have in place for the industrial food system are in place to support the industrial food system," she says, "and discount the local food movement."

And, after selling melons to Safeway for 20 years, Hettick is fed up. "I'm sure that this is going to be our last year," she says.

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