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"Buy local." It doesn't get any more grass-roots than that. Yet in an environment that finds consumer interest and appreciation for locally grown foods at an all-time high -- coupled with the federal government's recent announcement pegging the average retail price for a gallon of gas this summer at $2.62 -- homegrown state agricultural marketing programs are poised to become even more important for grocers.
That is, for those grocers that not only buy into the objectives of local marketing programs, but also make the commitment to full-fledged and consistent execution in the stores. In the case of operators preoccupied with big contracts and big shippers, flying the state flag might be easier said than done, and that can leave local program officials and growers frustrated.
Despite such inherent challenges, however, the month of May is typically peak season for agricultural promotional program officials to visit retailers and discuss buying patterns and other pertinent issues for the upcoming produce-selling season. And this spring, market sources report that many retailers are looking to increase their purchases of locally grown products, not only for their freshness and taste, but also for the added good will that accrues from supporting local farmers.
Local marketing campaigns, administered by state agriculture departments with varying degrees of sophistication, have been around for a while. Designed to be cost-efficient marketing tools for small- and medium-sized family farmers to spread out the costs over a large group of grower participants, the programs are also important image builders for state lawmakers, who frequently tout the programs' contributions to economic development as keys to keeping rural economies vital.
More than two decades have passed since New Jersey put state-funded agricultural marketing campaigns on the map, with the venerable "Jersey Fresh" initiative, which began life as a radio advertising program. Jersey Fresh has been used as a template by other states to increase consumer awareness of local agriculture products, while simultaneously encouraging retailers to promote those products.
It's certainly safe to proclaim Jersey Fresh a roaring success: A federally funded N.J. Department of Agriculture report in March 2004 found an impressive $54.49 in returns for each dollar spent on Jersey Fresh promotions.
To be sure, locally produced products are growing in importance nationwide, and many consumers seem willing to spend a little more for farm-fresh items grown close to home.
The tricky part, according to industry experts, is getting retailers to commit to consistent, proper execution of local produce promotions. The difficulty of working with some supermarket operators, especially the largest ones, to promote their products is a common complaint among local growers. The task is made even more difficult when fluctuating weather patterns interfere with the availability of pre-established featured commodities.
One produce industry official says that contractual obligations many larger retailers have with national shippers are a major obstacle to local efforts. "When you're a one- or two-state retailer, it's a lot easier to execute locally grown programs than if you're a multistate retailer, since [in the latter case] it's harder to think and procure locally," says the produce executive, who requested anonymity.
But when a retailer does commit to thinking and acting locally, the results can be fruitful. The support Carlisle, Pa.-based Giant Food Stores has shown to the "PA Preferred" program, for example, has not gone unnoticed by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. The agency awarded the Royal Ahold subsidiary the distinction of being the Keystone State's first-ever Retailer of the Year.
Gov. Ed Rendell commends Giant for "playing a significant role by opening the door to new opportunities for hundreds of small companies. Their commitment helps us promote the quality products found across the state that bear the PA Preferred brand."
Jeff Martin, Giant's s.v.p., says that as one of the largest food retailers in the state, "[w]e embrace our responsibility to support the local economy and offer our customers the widest selection of locally grown products possible. The PA Preferred program strengthens the connection between the agricultural and retail industries, so that every Pennsylvanian, from the grower to the customer, wins."
Arizona launched its own program, "Arizona Grown," in 1993, even though it had no appropriated funds available for promotions. Times have certainly changed during the past decade: The program's logo can now be found on a variety of products year-round in seven retail supermarket chains representing 350 stores, or 75 percent of supermarkets in Arizona. In fact, more than 140 agricultural businesses now use the Arizona Grown logo to differentiate their high-quality, locally grown products.
The logo alone won't make such a program a winner, however, says Katie Decker, public information officer for the Arizona Department of Agriculture. "Statistics show consumers are more confident in the products when they buy their produce and groceries locally," she says. "We need retailers to push Arizona Grown produce through their ads, and also with Arizona Grown stamps on price signs for our products throughout the store, from fresh produce to eggs."
To get maximum support at retail, the agency has been proactively "recruiting the local grocery chains to get involved in letting their shoppers know what has been produced right here in the Grand Canyon State," says Decker, "because the consumer is getting smarter every day and wants to know if their products came from another country or a spot down the road." A member of Arizona's Agriculture Advisory Council, Clint Hickman, has been working diligently to build relationships with retailers, she says, but more work needs to be done.
"This type of promotion not only supports our growers and producers, but also, as mentioned earlier, satisfies shoppers' growing demands," explains Decker. "We would like to see more of the grocers coming to our producers and recruiting their local products. Oftentimes they are very comparable in price to what grocers may be used to just importing from another country."
Currently, adds Decker, "a huge push toward niche markets" is underway with items such as mixed greens and organics. "While we have many large producers in Arizona, we also have a lot of smaller growers that are pushing into the market. They may not have the name recognition, but the use of the Arizona Grown logo has been a huge asset in getting them on their way to reaching more shoppers and establishing their spot in the marketplace."
Establishing a spot in supermarkets for locally grown agriculture is, not surprisingly, the major goal of the Idaho Department of Agriculture as well. Its "Idaho Preferred" program offers retailers a host of POS and POP promotional materials to enable them to clearly communicate their support for the state's farmers, ranchers, and food processors.
"We have a wide variety of retailers involved in our program," says Leah Clark, Idaho Preferred's program manager. "One of the first to sign on was a seven-store local independent, Paul's Markets, which has always been proud of the fact that they promote local products. The Idaho Preferred program has worked out really well for them. They make great use of our logos with in-store permanent displays, as well as with our display crates for secondary displays."
Every week, adds Clark, "Paul's Markets features products that are identified with the Idaho Preferred logo in both newspaper ads and in-store promotions, be it with peak season commodities, like local apples, peaches, pears and nectarines, or on a year-round basis with onions, potatoes, breads, and wines."
The Idaho program has also had success in forging partnerships with some the biggest operators in the business. "Wal-Mart has been extremely supportive locally of what we're doing, as one of the first of the major chains to come to the table and embrace the Idaho Preferred concept."
Last fall Wal-Mart teamed up with Idaho Preferred for a "Pick of the Crop from Idaho" promotion that featured an assortment of Idaho-grown products, including peaches, pears, plums, pluots, nectarines, watermelon, corn, and new-crop Gala apples.
"Wal-Mart does a great job in the fall with identifying our fresh fruits and vegetables in-store with our POS materials, which now appear on headers primarily with fresh fruit," says Clark. In addition to doing big fall promotions with Idaho fresh fruits and veggies, Wal-Mart kicked off a large spring promotion for the second year in a row in 13 Idaho stores, featuring large Idaho product displays for both perishable and nonperishable products.
"Obviously we're just really thrilled with Wal-Mart's participation," she adds.
Perhaps not surprisingly, another strong supporter of Idaho Preferred is Boise-based Albertsons, which "is very interested in letting customers know they're still a locally based company," says Clark. "Albertsons has also done a great job with Idaho Preferred, primarily during peak season, and is now currently testing an all-Idaho section in a couple of stores' specialty foods departments." Clark adds that the all-Idaho concept has some real potential.
She also applauds Albertsons "as our major retail sponsor for Taste of Idaho, a culinary event showcasing the diversity of Idaho's food and agricultural industry."
As for member development initiatives, Clark says, "We've really been trying to work with our members to make sure they're doing all they can to identify their products, whether as a permanent part of their labels, or using our stickers, neck hangers, or rail strips."
The Kentucky Department of Agriculture's (KDA) flourishing "Kentucky Proud" program now boasts more than 500 producer-members. The number of retailers now participating in the program is growing as well. Those that participated in a holiday Kentucky Proud marketing campaign last fall reported significant increases in sales, according to KDA officials.
Last September, three E.W. James stores in Lexington hosted a large "All-Kentucky Day" promotional event as the regional supermarket chain launched its partnership with the Kentucky Proud marketing program. Remke Markets, which has served northern Kentucky customers since 1897, also celebrated with a series of special events last December, in conjunction with signing onto the Kentucky Proud program now in place at its seven stores.
New York has also enjoyed success with its "Pride of New York" program, managed by the state's agriculture department. Currently the program has over 1,500 members, including growers, wineries, food processors, foodservice and retail outlets, agritourism initiatives, and other organizations.
Last fall 17 New York produce companies participated in the Produce Marketing Association's Fresh Summit convention and exposition, an event that coincided with a large fall promotion with Empire State Wal-Mart stores that highlighted items from over 1,500 Pride of New York members -- from apples and vegetables to a wide variety of baked goods, dairy products, and more.
"Having such items prominently displayed as Pride of New York products in all of New York's Wal-Mart stores effectively helps guide consumers seeking fresh, wholesome products from the Empire State," says Pat Brennan, the state's agricultural commissioner.