Produce departments don't need this publication to tell them that local foods are still hot. Some shoppers want to support their local economy; others believe that buying local helps reduce carbon emissions. Others say local fruits and vegetables are simply fresher and tastier. But whatever the motivation, consumer demand continues to grow.
Most supermarkets have always sourced a portion of their produce locally. The challenge that many produce departments now face is meeting this growing demand while finding ways to identify locally grown items in store.
In many states, the state department of agriculture has become a good resource for connecting local farmers with wholesalers, retailers and consumers. Through programs like “Pick Texas,” “Pride of New York” and “Ohio Proud,” produce departments can also find point-of-sale materials and other resources to help showcase and market products grown in their state.
And, these programs are becoming more retail-savvy as the local food trend continues to grow. Paul Hugunin, program coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's “Minnesota Grown” program, noted that Minnesota retailers have a long history of promoting locally grown produce, but the popularity of the local food trend during the past several years has changed the nature of those promotions.
“In the last few years, it's become really important for them not just to identify products as local, but to identify the farmer and the farm family that grew the food. To really personalize that product,” he explained.
“Consumers have always wanted to buy local because it's fresher and it's good for the local economy, but what we've seen lately is that they really want that personal connection. So, retailers are adapting how they promote local foods to reflect that.”
One of the best examples, he said, was at Lunds & Byerly's stores, where they have developed signs and POS materials that incorporate photos of local farmers and tell their story — details such as how many generations the farm has been in a family, and how long the company has been sourcing from them, for example.
“A lot of chains have done really nice stuff, but that's one that really jumps out at you,” Hugunin said.
Minnesota Grown originated in the 1980s, when a group of state fruit and vegetable growers approached Minnesota's commissioner of agriculture about providing a tool to help differentiate their produce from fruits and vegetables that were being sourced from out of state.
The state made its first appropriation for the program in 1987, although the Minnesota Grown logo had been used prior to that, explained Hugunin.
The logo is now licensed and trademarked by the state's Department of Agriculture. Growers can obtain a license to use the logo — renewable annually — for $20 per year.
“That gives them the right to use it on anything grown or raised on a Minnesota farm,” Hugunin said. “It's a simple application with a simple annual fee. The logo doesn't certify specific production practices, so we have folks that are small, big, sustainable, conventional, certified organic. What that logo means is that it comes from a Minnesota farm.”
These fees don't apply to retailers or distributors, and to promote the products, the program provides POS materials free of charge to growers and retailers, including stickers, price cards, laminated cards and other signage.
Recently, in an effort to get retailers more engaged with the program at the store level, Minnesota Grown began working with distributors and retail chains to sponsor a merchandising contest.
“We can provide them with some of the prize money that they need to provide incentive to have the stores really go the extra mile, and make a nice display of Minnesota Grown products,” Hugunin said.
In an effort to help farmers make a personal connection with shoppers, the Minnesota Grown program also recently began offering a cost-share program for in-store sampling.
“So, if a farmer has products in a store and they want to do some demos, we can provide part of that cost back to the farmer,” Hugunin explained. “It helps customers taste how good the product is, know where it is in the store and move sales, which helps everybody.”
One of the challenges with seasonal products, especially in a state like Minnesota where the fruit and vegetable growing seasons are short, is that a farmer's crop needs to get attention quickly and sell quickly, Hugunin said.
“In-store signs are one way, but if you can actually get people to taste it, then that's an even better way.”
The program's website, linked through minnesotagrown.com, offers an extensive set of tools for retailers. There's a searchable online database of wholesalers selling Minnesota Grown products, an online form for ordering the free POS materials, downloadable logos for use in ads, and new downloadable table tent displays.
For consumers, there's the Minnesota Grown Directory, which just published its 30th anniversary edition. More than 190,000 copies of the free guide are available to the public through libraries, tourist information centers, retailers, farmers and other establishments interested in promoting local food.
Shoppers can also search the directory online to find retailers, farmers' markets and other places selling locally raised foods, or check out a chart that explains which local fruits and vegetables are currently in season.
The site also features a regularly updated video blog. Recent entries include a story about locally produced maple syrup, a visit to a winter farmers' market in downtown St. Paul, and a story on locally grown poinsettias. Overall, the site currently boasts more than 200,000 unique visitors per year.