It's the dog days of late summer in Southern California, and “the weather has been fierce!” wrote Megan McDowell, owner of Wildomar, Calif.-based MM Livestock, in a recent blog post on localharvest.org.
Despite the heat, there were still ewes lambing on McDowell's independent ranch, which specializes in naturally raised lamb and heritage beef from Belted Galloway Cattle. So, she improvised to help the newborns beat the heat, and explained the solution to her readers.
“We have misters up for the animals but babies can't regulate their body temperature for the first few days of life. Over 80 can be tough on newborns but when it hits 100+ it's really dangerous. No laughing but here's what we did. We took a portable swamp cooler and put it in the barn, moved the jug panels inside and voila no stressed lambs.”
McDowell's blog, which she started in May, was recently listed as one of the most popular on localharvest.org, a nonprofit site that hosts a searchable database of thousands of local farms, farmers' markets and community supported agriculture programs throughout the United States and Canada, as well as profiles of the farms and blogs by many of their operators.
The details McDowell offers readers are surely a big part of the appeal. Posts this summer included news about her facilities shifting to solar power, an in-depth explanation about how she runs a grass-fed beef and lamb operation in an arid region of Southern California, an update on a local U.S. Department of Agriculture plant closing, and, of course, stories like the one above about day-to-day work on an independent ranch.
It's hardly a surprise that a growing number of independent farms and ranches are setting up websites and blogs on the Internet. The local food movement has enjoyed growing popularity among foodies, environmentalists and shoppers who simply think that buying local is a great way to find the freshest foods and still support your local economy.
And, while blogs and online photographs will never have that face-to-face appeal of farmers' markets, they do give small growers and ranchers an outlet where they can outline the standards of their operation, respond to questions from readers, and generally explain who they are and what they do. For independents with few marketing dollars to spend, it's an excellent way to introduce their brand and reach out to potential customers.
“To the extent that farmers are tech savvy and are leveraging digital media, that's going to be a home run,” said Jay Jacobowitz, president and founder of Retail Insights, a Brattleboro, Vt.-based consultancy for the natural products industry.
“It's a win on three counts,” he added. First, these new means of communication, such as blogs, social networking sites, text alerts, Twitter, etc., have a particular appeal to younger consumers.
“A Gen X or Gen Y shopper receiving a mobile message from the farm down the street has got to think that's cool,” he said.
Second, while the advent of all these new forms of communication has arguably led to a state of information overload for many consumers, small producers still have an opportunity to cut through the clutter.
“It's artisanal vs. mass market,” Jacobowitz said. “The major CPG companies are mounting a digital media approach, but it's more exciting to get a grass-fed lamb text than it is to get something from Unilever.”
And third, shoppers already strongly associate locally grown and raised products with freshness and quality. And simple updates from farmers about what's being harvested now, or which farmers' market they'll be at next week helps enhance that connection with their customers. By contrast, mass-market blogs, websites and ads struggle to achieve that effect.
“Everybody has a crap detector, and mass market messages are seen for what they are, regardless of the medium,” Jacobowitz said. “That doesn't mean that folks who are inundated with those messages won't buy more of the stuff, but it's going to turn off a large cohort.”
Recognizing that many of their shoppers are looking for this type of information about the local farmers that sell to their companies, a handful of supermarket chains have also devoted portions of their websites to grower profiles.
Rochester, N.Y.-based Weg-mans, for example, hosts a locally grown produce section on its site, divided by the different regions of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland where the company operates. The links feature photos of farmers with their crops, along with brief profiles of their operations. A handful even features Q&A's with the growers, where the farmer describes the farm's history, their insight into the local food movement, and their favorite way to serve their signature crops.
“At Wegmans we have long partnered with farmers that are local to each store, providing our customers with the freshest fruits and vegetables possible,” reads the local food section on the Wegmans site. “When you buy produce that's labeled ‘locally grown,’ you are not only getting the best quality, you are supporting your local farmer, community, and helping to reduce the impact on the environment by shortening the distance from farm to you. Taking steps — even little steps — together can make a difference.”
Similarly, at dorothylane.com, Dayton, Ohio-based Dorothy Lane Market features lists and descriptions of local farms and other local producers that the company works with, as well as a PDF of an “Eat Local” brochure published by the company, highlighting local growers, local specialty cheese makers and even local wine makers.
Visitors to yokesfoods.com, the website of Yoke's Fresh Markets in Spokane Valley, Wash., lists more than 120 local growers, ranchers, dairy farmers, brewers and other producers that supply the chain, and offers direct links to those that have websites. And, of course, many other retailers regularly profile local growers in their newsletters.
“The Internet has played a large role” in the growth of the local food movement, noted Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association. From the outset of the movement several years ago, “most of the discussion about local and organic food systems was on the Internet. The media wasn't really covering it in its early stages.”
Now, he said, the movement has been catching on not just among food activists, but among other groups as well. And the media has been taking note, ramping up coverage of farmers' markets and independent farms.
“We're very happy to see this,” he said. “The future is going to have to be about localized and regionalized food and farming systems for the most part, because of the climate and the likely — or in my opinion inevitable — rise in energy costs.”
Unfortunately, there's still a great deal of misunderstandings out there about how supermarkets work with small farms. For example, now that “local” is such a buzzword, many shoppers may not be aware that most supermarkets have always offered some locally and regionally sourced produce, whenever those local items are in season. But, now that this trend has gone mainstream, shoppers are going to be on the lookout for the real deal, and may be wary of retailers that overhype the trend, fudge signage or become too loose with their standards for describing an item as “local.” Keep in mind that websites and social networking tools are great for facilitating relationships — introducing customers to growers, in this case — but that aggressive marketing schemes using these tools are likely to turn off the very customers they're trying to attract with the “eat local” message. In other words, there's always the potential for backlash, Jacobowitz noted.
“We're in awe of digital media, and we may lose sight of the fact that even if you're media savvy and 25 years old, you recognize the difference between digital communication and a human interaction,” he said. “Digital media is an essential tool that is not going away and will only grow, but is ultimately only a tool, only a medium.”