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AMES, Iowa - Consumers are supportive of locally grown food and the farmers who grow it, according to a study conducted by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.
"The term 'locally grown,' when combined with family farms, appears to be a powerful marketing message," said Leopold Center marketing and food systems coordinator Rich Pirog. "Consumers said that if price and appearance were equal, they would choose products with these features over organic options."
Pirog's observations stem from an Internet study that tested prototypes for food ecolabels -- seals or logos indicating that a product has met a certain set of environmental and/or social criteria. The study included survey responses from more than 1,600 consumers in Iowa, seven other Midwestern states, and the Boston and Seattle metropolitan areas.
In the survey consumers were asked to respond to one of three sets of ecolabel prototypes for fresh produce (grapes) that conveyed information on product origin, distance from farm to point of sale, transport method, and the environmental impact of its transport measured by the amount of fuel emissions. They also were asked a series of questions about their perceptions of locally grown/raised products and meats. Another group of consumers in the survey did not view any ecolabels.
More than 75 percent of the consumers in both groups chose the products labeled "grown locally by family farmers" as their first choice for produce or meat products. In both groups consumers were most responsive to labels that connected product freshness with the time (in days) that it took for the product to travel from farm to store.
About 25 percent of the consumers in both groups said they would pay a premium of 6 percent to 15 percent for products with these additional qualities.
Pirog said a similar response came from a second, smaller population sample in the study -- managers of food-related businesses, such as supermarkets, meat lockers, and distributors.
"Food business respondents perceived that more than 50 percent of their customers would be interested in ecolabels," he said. "Although their idea of local was much broader geographically than the one held by consumers, they said that their customers would most often request 'grown locally' over other options, with price and appearance being equal."
Pirog said the results show that ecolabels can be an effective way to educate consumers about locally grown, sustainably raised foods. Although not rated as highly in the survey, a product's secondary benefits -- low environmental costs and support for the local economy and farmers -- can be linked to freshness and quality, issues of critical importance to consumers.
Pirog noted that conclusions drawn from this Internet study, although commonly used in product marketing research, can't be applied to a general population. Consumer respondents didn't represent a statistically random sample of the three geographical areas but were selected randomly from e-mail address lists owned by a survey administrator.
Pirog is working with the Business Analysis Laboratory at Iowa State to refine the ecolabel concept. The work is part of the Leopold Center's marketing and food systems initiative, which includes projects directed by center staff and researchers from ISU and other Iowa organizations. The market research also has looked at food miles -- the distance produce travels from the farm to point of purchase in both local and conventional marketing systems.
The report, "Ecological Value Assessment: Consumer and food Business Perceptions of Local Foods," is available on the Leopold Center's Web site, www.leopold.iastate.edu (look under Papers and Information), or contact the center at (515) 294-3711.