State Promotion Efforts Reach Beyond Regional Borders

In Store Signage

Modern marketing outside of each state uses everything from farm tours to apps.

If you’re headed to South Carolina and wonder how to find the restaurants featuring homegrown produce, the answer is as close as your smartphone.

The Certified SC web page, which also has a guide to buying watermelon grown in the state, includes a downloadable app that will let you find the restaurants that have signed onto the local produce program. “We promote local products through our ‘Fresh on the Menu’ program that features an app to help consumers locate restaurants throughout South Carolina that feature local produce and proteins on their menu,” says Martin Eubanks, assistant commissioner of agriculture for South Carolina in Columbia.

States are finding new and varied ways of connecting people with their produce, and South Carolina finds success with an approach that involves a multitude of ways of connecting consumers to the homegrown fruits, vegetables and other farm products. “Key elements of the program include a comprehensive media campaign including television, radio, outdoor, print, and social media,” says Eubanks. “Certified South Carolina is our umbrella brand, and we have individual programs that promote fresh products, seafood, meat, deli, dairy, and grocery at the retail level.”

Numerous crops benefit from this active campaign to promote Certified South Carolina. “Peaches, watermelon, cantaloupe, leafy greens, and summer vegetables have been helped by the campaign,” says Eubanks. “Heavy local promotion combined with a comprehensive media strategy has helped consumers ‘connect the dots’ on local produce. In-store merchandising and advertising programs have elevated local sales.”

Virtually every state with a significant agricultural economy has enjoyed a return on investment over the decades in developing the brand of their local farm products, beginning with the New Jersey pioneers who promoted buying local before buying local was cool. “Our farmers benefited greatly from the Jersey Fresh program,” says Alfred Murray, assistant secretary of agriculture, New Jersey Department of Agriculture in Trenton. “Now beginning its 32nd season, Jersey Fresh was one of the first programs to tout the benefits of ‘locally grown’ long before the locally grown trend became hugely popular.”

Over the decades New Jersey developed a brand that people throughout the Northeast associate with local, and fresh. “Residents in our state and the outlying metropolitan areas have come to equate the Jersey Fresh logo with locally grown,” says Murray. “Recent polls have shown approximately 90 percent of New Jersey consumers recognize the Jersey Fresh logo, and more than 80 percent surveyed said the Jersey Fresh brand represents superior products.”

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has been working with national grocery retailers since 2003. In addition to the state of Florida, Fresh From Florida (FFF) marketing programs focus on consumers and grocers in the U.S. Midwest, Northeast, Southeast and the Eastern sections of Canada. “In 2015, we worked with 64 retail partners representing 12,357 stores in 26 countries worldwide,” says Aaron Keller, press secretary for the Tallahassee, FL-based Florida Department of Agriculture. “Our marketing programs generated more than $335 million in additional cash receipts for our farmers and growers. These additional cash receipts represent 6,299 full/part-time Florida jobs, and more than $26 million in tax revenue.”

Making the Connection

These promotional branding programs start with a snappy name, and a logo that catches the eye on the carton, in the produce department, on tote bags, and coffee cups, but many states are moving from this foundation toward extensive use of computer-based communication as important parts of marketing their farmers’ wares.

“Our website is a real selling tool for farms of all sizes throughout the state,” says Tammy Algood, marketing specialist at the Tennessee Department of Agriculture in Nashville. “Of course, it is particularly helpful to those that are just getting started and are small. With the tens of thousands of hits we get each month, it is frequently the only ‘advertising’ a farm has to do. We also provide value-added items for the producers to use with their customers, such as recipe cards, kitchen equivalent charts, farm measures and dry erase boards for pricing.”

These marketing efforts appeal to the desire to buy the freshest produce and support the local farmers. Campaigns are going beyond that start, however, by developing connections with particular elements of the community, frequently by employing the tools of computer age communication.

“We will continue to partner with major U.S. grocers to incentivize and encourage them to purchase Florida commodities during our October through June growing season by continuing with circular advertising, product samplings and e-coupons,” says Keller. “Direct-to-consumer brand advertising will continue to play an integral part in growing brand awareness and acceptance. FFF commodities have an excellent reputation for high quality and great taste. Our current and past marketing initiatives have portrayed these two qualities to consumers, and these initiatives depict how easy it is to cook and serve nutritious FFF meals.”

Virginia Grown Display

The Virginia Department of Agriculture networks to bring individual grower-shippers, or groups of them, together with potential retailers for in-store event support.

“The Virginia Grown website seems to be particularly helpful at connecting consumers with fresh, local produce at pick-your-own farms, and farmers markets,” says Elaine Lidholm, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in Richmond. “C & E, our largest producer of fresh-market green beans, uses a video we produced as a major sales tool with buyers. Consumers learned to look for the Virginia Grown logo on banners, signs, price cards, etc., and farmers at local markets like to give away the Virginia Grown tote bags.”

Virginia has a larger than average number of military personnel, and the state has linked its marketing campaign with the bases. “Our Virginia military commissaries have a Hometown Heroes program that features Virginia Grown produce in all the Virginia commissaries during our harvest season,” says Lidholm. “Our farmers, many of whom are veterans, are really proud to be feeding the troops.”

Other states with large veteran populations are also linking their buy local campaigns with the farmers among them who are veterans. “Homegrown by Heroes is a special Arkansas Agriculture Department program — and specific extension of the Arkansas Grown program — that highlights military veterans who are also farmers in Arkansas,” says Adriane Barnes, director of communications at the Arkansas Agriculture Department in Little Rock. “Homegrown by Heroes has its own logo and signage to further set apart members of this special group of Arkansas growers.”

The Homegrown by Heroes program was first started by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, and the Arkansas Agriculture Department later developed its own Homegrown program in partnership with the Farmer Veteran Coalition, according to Barnes.

It’s a Neighborly Thing

These marketing efforts generally carry weight with consumers some distance beyond the state lines. “We promote South Carolina produce heavily through the retail and wholesale community throughout our home state and the Southeast region,” says Eubanks. “We also work with retailers in major markets in the Mid-Atlantic region and Northeast for crop specific promotions.”

Different arms of this program help growers of varying sizes to increase their sales. “Promotional programs provided sales lift at retail,” says Eubanks. “Many smaller producers are now able to access retail through direct deliveries. Larger producers have realized significant increases in sales throughout the region. In addition, we promote heavily through community-based markets and through roadside markets locally. Certified SC Grown is highly recognized across the state, and local demand continues to grow providing additional market potential to our farm producers.” One “buy local” program developed a reputation that even reaches across the border into Canada.

“The Jersey Fresh program promotes the New Jersey’s farm products primarily along the Eastern Seaboard with an emphasis on New Jersey’s three largest markets: New Jersey/New York/Philadelphia, New England, and Eastern Canada,” says Murray. Regional retail partners can play a significant role in making the campaign work beyond the border of the home state.

“We have done several events with retailers that have stores outside of the state to market North Carolina produce,” says Paul Jones, media marketing specialist at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services in Raleigh. “We’re talking fairly local, like in Virginia and South Carolina. We also do onion and tomato promotions as well.” Many, maybe most, state agriculture departments team up with the major crop groups to put the marketing campaign together.

“Our efforts rely heavily on partnerships as well,” says Wendy Lee White, marketing specialist at the Colorado Department of Agriculture, Broomfield, CO. “We have great support from our produce growers and industry organizations including the Colorado Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, Colorado Potato Administrative Committee and the Rocky Ford Growers Association.”

The Colorado Proud program received the 2015 Produce Business Marketing Excellence Award, three Colorado Chapter Public Relations Society of America awards, and two MarCom awards.

The Virginia Department of Agriculture networks to bring individual grower-shippers, or groups of them, together with potential retailers.

“We do an annual potato promotion with Wal-Mart,” says Lidholm. “We initiate production area tours with buyers, merchandisers and store personnel to discuss new sales opportunities with producers and evaluate crop conditions as well as packing facilities. We work one-on-one with farmers to bring buyers and sellers together with outlets such as national, regional and local grocery chains; independent stores; big box stores. We use social media to promote produce and related events, such as tomato or berry festivals. Our most active sites are Facebook and Twitter and we also have a Flickr account.” Some campaigns shift their focus to match the movement of the harvest from one area of the state to another, and from one crop to another.

“As the three stars on the Tennessee flag represent the three very different areas of our state, we are able to assist farmers at their peak need,” says Algood. “Our biggest produce items have certainly been helped such as tomatoes, from Grainger County in particular, green beans from the Plateau region, pumpkins from the southeast, and fruit from the middle and west portions of the state. By targeting each area with a marketing campaign, we are able to help the producers there rather than having a blanket marketing effort that is a one-time shot, which might be perfectly timed for one area, but either too early or late for another.”

Global Reach

In the age of the global economy, campaigns promoting “buy local” produce and efforts to market internationally are frequently housed in the same state agency, and sometimes even organized by the same individuals.

The markets division of the Colorado Department of Agriculture promotes Colorado produce statewide, nationwide and worldwide, says White. Colorado Proud is a free marketing program that promotes food and agricultural products that are grown, raised or processed in the state. The division has contracted with a public relations firm. “We focus heavily on produce promotion in the summer,” she says.

Many of the state marketing efforts focus on international markets that are relatively close to home. FFF marketing programs have taken the form of commodity advertising incentives for in-store ads, point of purchase ads and materials, periodical print ads, co-branded TV ads, social media initiatives, integrated media campaigns utilizing billboards and TV, grocery cart advertising, e-couponing and in-store product sampling events. “Canada represents Florida’s leading agricultural trade export destination and is our No. 1 international marketing partner,” says Keller. “Other international areas of interest include Asia, Europe, and Central and South America.” “We do a lot of promotions in the Mid-Atlantic, including some joint endeavors with other states, with big national or regional outlets,” says Virginia’s Lidholm. “We promote produce in Canada and on a more limited basis, with other countries. Mexico and Cuba are good examples of places where we promote Virginia apples and other produce.”

Virginia, however, is also sending agricultural product representatives around the world for these promotion efforts. “We have international marketing representatives on contract around the world who promote Virginia products,” says Lidholm. “Virginia growers have made more than $800 million in sales brokered by Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services since we hired our international reps in 2010. One specific produce example is apples – most, if not all, of the $1.6 million in apples sold from Virginia to India in 2014 were due to contacts provided to the growers from our Indian reps and the Office of International Marketing. Most of the 2015 sales came as a result of a reverse trade mission of Indian apple buyers we organized and hosted in December 2014.”

Virginia is expanding its international marketing to embrace more fruits and vegetables, and more destination markets thousands of miles away. “Apples, peaches, green beans, peanuts and potatoes certainly have benefited from our promotions,” says Lidholm. “For example, India, China and Latin America are places where we are helping our apple growers to access sales opportunities beyond our borders. We also worked, and continue to work, on opportunities in Panama and Colombia for our apple exporters.”

“Georgia Grown is used on products delivered both domestically and internationally,” says Matt Kulinski, deputy director of marketing at the Georgia Department of Agriculture, Atlanta, GA.

“The most famous product that proudly utilizes the Georgia Grown logo is the Vidalia onion,” he says. “The boxes and bags of Vidalia onions are shipped across the country with the Georgia Grown mark. Georgia pecans are often delivered to Asian nations with the Georgia Grown logo. Asian consumers relate the Georgia Grown logo with high quality and strong food safety standards.”

These international efforts can be so important that the top agricultural official in the state personally takes the lead. “Arkansas Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward directly represented and promoted Arkansas agriculture on three international trade missions in 2015 to the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Sub-Saharan Africa,” says Barnes. “During each trade mission … valuable contacts and relationships were built during these trips for exporters of Arkansas’ agricultural commodities.”

The Sweet Smell of Success

A few years ago a team demonstrating the many possible uses of New Mexico green chile in a major East Coast city made the sort of connection of which promotional dreams are made.

The evocative aroma as they roasted the chile, an important step in the cooking process, was enough to transport one passer-by to memories of long ago and thousands of miles away.

“It’s very aromatic,” recalls Katie Goetz, spokeswoman for the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, Las Cruces, NM. “A woman showed up in tears. She was from New Mexico, had smelled the chiles, and it reminded her of home. We had a laugh, had a hug, and she bought a lot of chiles.”

Green chile is the crop promoted from New Mexico, which is second only to California in chile pepper production.

Only a few states have such a branded crop, as Georgia has peaches and the sweetest onions in the world, while California has the invention of sunshine in January, but farm states have pretty much all developed promotional campaigns with recognizable brands like Jersey Fresh, Colorado Proud or It’s Got to Be NC.

These names are associated with distinctive logos prominently displayed at harvest time in produce departments throughout the state, and usually a little bit beyond the borders, and at the larger trade shows.

But some marketing efforts go further, and culinary demonstrations in store are one way to enjoy the sweet smell of prospective customers.

Paul Jones, media marketing specialist at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services in Raleigh recalls a promotion that involved sweet potato, blueberry and strawberry growers. “We had in-store displays, and we had chefs come in and show how to cook with these ingredients.”

New Mexico, too, includes the cook’s touch in promoting its signature agricultural product.

“We educate the store managers, show them how to roast it and how to incorporate it into different dishes,” says Goetz. “This is a unique crop that can add color as well as flavor to a lot of foods.”

When the harvest comes, this educational campaign goes to thousands of stores in every corner of the country.

“Every August and September we work with a variety of groups to help them promote New Mexico green chile,” says Goetz. “We’re talking 30 to 35 retail chains, including Wegman’s and Whole Foods, and around 2,000 stores. It’s far and wide.”