The concept of “local” dovetails nicely with the current emphasis on home, family and health. Some studies suggest that the movement — encompassing freshness, support for farmers and environmental friendliness — is immune to economic turmoil, so retailers are looking for more products to sell — and stories to tell.
Enter the nation's big produce processors, who are busy setting up unique partnerships with local growers. In one recent instance, a grower based in California contracted with a farm in the Hudson Valley region of New York state to grow 60 acres of leafy greens during a 16-week deal. The arrangement opened up new opportunities for the company to connect with consumers via smaller family-owned enterprises.
“It's not just about moving their operations to a region, it's about doing a better job of telling their own individual stories,” said Lorna Christie, chief operating officer of the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.
The involvement of national growers in local farms may not raise eyebrows within the food industry, but consumer advocates argue the practice goes against the spirit of local foods.
“It's implied that you are buying from a small-scale farmer and that there's more of a direct connection between the farm and you,” said Erin Barnett, spokeswoman for LocalHarvest, an online, nationwide directory of small farms, farmers' markets and other local food sources. “Grocery stores, for sure, are trying to carry more local foods, and in some cases this makes sense, and in others it's just getting in on the market value of the local movement.”
Many large-scale growers are reluctant to talk about their strategy, in part because supporting community farmers is one of the top reasons consumers buy local in the first place. The PMA's own study showed that consumer support of local farmers was second only to freshness.
Growers “are developing more than just a transaction-based relationship,” said Christie, adding that investments made by national producers allow local farmers to access resources they could not otherwise afford.