NEW YORK - Locally grown produce is being touted as the new organic.
But before the economic benefits of more localized distribution can be reaped, industry experts advise retailers to do some cultivating of their own.
"It's important for retailers to really work with the local growers to better understand when quantities of produce will be available and at their peak," explained Richard Pirog, marketing and food systems program leader at the Leopold Center at Iowa State University, Ames. "California farmers are able to supply more fruits and vegetables year-round than those in the Midwest. Retailers in that region must realize that for them, merchandising [locally grown produce] is going to be more of a seasonal thing."
Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats Markets launched its "Choose Local" campaign this summer.
"Buying local means that food is on your plate faster, fresher and healthier with lower transportation costs and less environmental damage," said Krista Coleman, spokeswoman, Wild Oats. "Buying local helps family farmers and preserves local farmland. When you buy local products, money is kept in our community."
The retailer passes its savings onto consumers. At Wild Oats, locally sourced produce is priced below its conventional counterparts.
Collectively, the 110-store chain buys more than 7,200 locally produced food items from approximately 3,500 farmers and artisans based in all 50 states.
"If a grower can supply just one of our stores with his product and his product meets our standards, we can carry it," Coleman explained. "Our smaller size makes us better equipped to bring in a large mix of local foods. Large, conventional supermarkets don't have the sourcing and infrastructure capabilities to make a significant commitment to local produce."
Local farmers can help simplify retailers' more decentralized sourcing approach by forming cooperatives, Pirog said.
"It behooves producers to organize themselves into networks and co-ops so they can supply larger volumes and increase the ease of ordering," he explained. "This is a challenge because not every farmer is large enough to supply even one grocery store."
State departments of agriculture advocate such endeavors through programs like A Taste of Iowa, Jersey Fresh and Minnesota Grown, but their roles in these relationships vary.
"Some just focus on locally grown marketing programs while others move beyond to an extension of services," Pirog said. "Nonprofits also arise and help farmers find ways to aggregate their supply."
Maryland's Department of Agriculture played a pivotal role in linking Landover, Md.-based Giant Foods with local farmers when it began merchandising locally sourced produce 15 years ago, said Barry Scher, spokesman for Giant.
"That relationship grew to be very successful so we approached the agriculture departments in Virginia, Delaware and New Jersey," he said.
Today the chain's locally sourced produce inventory is harvested from as near as one mile from its stores to as far away as a neighboring state. Giant helped smooth its sourcing transition by designating a point person to communicate with the farmers.
"Bob Hartman was the man on the scene from Giant and this is one of the reasons why the program was so successful," Scher said. "We literally drop trailers at some of the farms, the farmer fills them and then we pick them up."
In addition to reducing its transportation costs, Giant's locally grown program has helped emotionally connect consumers to its stores, according to Scher. The chain promotes the program through newspaper advertisements and in store with huge posters that feature photos of the local supplier farmers.
"Consumers do believe that their purchases of locally grown foods help support farmers and the local economy and these are often important reasons why people seek out and buy local," Pirog said.
But no matter where the fruit or vegetable is harvested, the same rules apply.
"The most important characteristics are taste, freshness, quality and of course price," Pirog said. "If a local product does not consistently offer great taste, high quality and freshness, consumers are not likely to be repeat customers."
Transparency is key when promoting these programs, but retailers who fall short of consumer expectations risk alienating shoppers.
There is indeed a disconnect when it comes to consumer and retailer perceptions about what should be considered locally grown.
A 2003 Iowa State University study titled Consumer and Food Business Perceptions of Local Foods found that when presented with four choices about what they considered to be local, the majority of consumers chose 25 miles or less, while retailers were more likely to pick within their state, or region, Pirog said.
"Consumers see locally produced as really local, coming from within an hour or so drive of the store," he said.
Schenectady, N.Y.-based Price Chopper's claims of "Farm Fresh" to describe produce from as far away as Texas, California and Florida got the retailer into trouble. Saying the promotion constituted false advertising, the Vermont Attorney General's office filed a lawsuit against the chain. Price Chopper settled the lawsuit earlier this month.
Although Price Chopper wouldn't concede fault, it agreed to pay the $10,000 fine because, according to the retailer, it's a small price compared to what the court trial would cost.
Under a regulation initiated by the Vermont Attorney General, only products delivered directly from Vermont farms could be called "Farm Fresh," Price Chopper said in a statement. The retailer contends that a truckload of corn or apples delivered to its distribution center and then sent that night to its stores can rightfully be called "Farm Fresh."
Pirog agreed that freshness doesn't directly correlate to proximity.
"It's possible that local produce that isn't handled well when it leaves the field and arrives at the market within 24 hours won't be as fresh as produce sourced 1,000 miles away and arriving two to three days after harvest," Pirog said. Locally sourced produce, for instance, might sit in the back of a hot truck, while the fruit coming from farther away is cooled immediately to maintain freshness.
"There is clearly a perception that local produce will be fresher, but an important key to freshness is post-harvest handling."
Locally grown fruits and vegetables are sometimes more nutritious than their imported counterparts.
"The vitamin C content of fresh produce declines over time from when it's harvested, so the sooner that produce is eaten after harvest, the higher the vitamin C will be," Pirog said.