State Agencies Ride The Buy-Local Wave

Originally printed in the May 2018 issue of Produce Business.

Retailers, growers and government forming powerful alliances.

Florida has earned a reputation for its oranges, fresh squeezed and shipped as juice nationwide, even worldwide.

The state’s agricultural industry is also a national leader in seasonal production of strawberries and fresh market tomatoes.

But less national is the extraordinary branding success that resulted from a collaborative effort among growers, state agricultural agencies and retailers to promote the state’s fledgling blueberry sector.

“When we began featuring blueberries in 2003, sales were $18.2 million,” says Mindy Lee, bureau chief for Fresh From Florida of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Tallahassee, FL. “Strong support continued for the next 15 years and we witnessed sales increases just about every year, reaching $82 million in 2015. So a 355 percent overall increase — that’s about a 27 percent increase each year.”

Many state agricultural departments find there can be a powerful impact when teaming up with retailers and shippers to feed the growing demand for produce grown locally.

“When customers want to buy locally grown produce, retailers can use the trademarked Arkansas Grown logo to help customers identify what was grown in Arkansas,” says Christian Olson, director of marketing at the Arkansas Agriculture Department, Little Rock, AK. “Walmart announced its intention to provide more locally grown produce in Walmarts across the country and highlighted the fact they were using the Arkansas Grown logo.”

The impact on sales of a particular fruit or vegetable, or group of crops, can be impressive when agricultural agencies are able to enlist the cooperation of numerous retailers at the same time. “The great challenge is orchestrating and aligning many chains to feature our products simultaneously and then enhancing the experience through secondary promotional elements,” says Lee. “These might include samplings, coupons, displays, recipes, social media and other novel approaches to build awareness and interest. We’ve been working with more than 20 chains since 2005 and usually have 50-65 retail chains with more than 10,000 outlets worldwide in our promotions. When retailers place items on ad, sales can increase 50 to 300 percent.”

A FRESH IDEA

It seems like yesterday New Jersey launched an idea that swept the nation by mounting the first state homegrown produce promotional campaign, but Jersey Fresh turned 35 this year with no signs of slowing down.

“The Jersey Fresh program is the oldest state-branding program in the country, now entering its 35th growing season, and remains one of the most well-known produce marketing imprints,” says Tom Beaver, director of marketing and development for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, Trenton, NJ.

Even after decades of promotions, the New Jersey campaign continues to increase the number of consumers who say they prefer buying produce grown by their neighbors.
“Each year, we survey consumers not only in New Jersey but also in the Greater New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas to gauge opinion of the brand,” says Beaver. “Last year’s results were very telling. Fully 72 percent of consumers surveyed indicated their preference for Jersey Fresh produce relative to produce from other places, an all-time high, and up 10 percent year-over-year. Additionally, 64 percent of consumers indicated they are likely to ask for Jersey Fresh if they don’t see it readily available on store shelves, up 11 points from the year prior.”

Over time an effective campaign can build awareness among a large majority of a state’s residents.

“We are across many categories at retail and pleased with an 80 percent consumer recognition of the Certified SC Grown brands,” says Martin Eubanks, assistant commissioner of agriculture, at the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, Columbia, SC (see Q&A with Martin Eubanks on page 52). “SC Grown has opened doors for many of our medium and smaller producers across the state at the retail and foodservice level. Specialty items have found a place on menus in the finest restaurants. Food hubs have been developed to provide wider opportunities for small producers. Even local farm market demand has grown due to programming.”

Other state agencies also have documented a large and growing number of consumers who recognize their brand, and prefer these homegrown fruits and vegetables.

“We have more than 70 percent awareness among consumers of the Colorado Proud program,” says Wendy White, marketing specialist at the Colorado Department of Agriculture, Broomfield, CO. “In our September 2017 survey, 65 percent of consumers said they were more likely to buy food labeled Colorado produced. More than 90 percent of Coloradans are more likely to buy Colorado grown and produced products if they were available and identified as being from Colorado.”

RETAIL BUY-IN

Participating growers generally finance these campaigns, with maybe a little help from the taxpayers, but success over time depends on buy-in from retailers.

“The Ohio Grocers Association (OGA) has been very supportive over the past 25 years of the program,” says Lori Panda, senior program manager of the Ohio Proud program of the Ohio State Department of Agriculture, Reynoldsburg, OH. “They promote our programs and activities to their members and encourage retailers to participate. OGA is very supportive of our Ohio Proud Food Summit, which is an event we coordinate to bring retail buyers and Ohio Proud partners together in a trade show-like format where buyers can sample and network with growers and processors. The Food Summit is one of the best benefits we offer our partners. We have had several success stories develop from this program.”

Other agencies also are finding their buy-local campaigns resonate with members of state retailer organizations.

“We have been working more closely with the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association in reaching out to retailers and connecting them with growers,” says Laura England, director of the bureau of market development at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Harrisburg, PA. “We participate every January in the Mid Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Connection.”

“Last year’s results were very telling. Fully 72 percent of consumers surveyed indicated their preference for Jersey Fresh produce relative to produce from other places, an all-time high, and up 10 percent year-over year.”

— Tom Beaver, New Jersey Department of Ag

In North Carolina many retailers large and small participate in the Got to Be NC program, including Publix, Kroger, Whole Foods, Food Lion, Piggly Wiggly and a host of smaller chains and independents.

Some of the participating markets even designate a section within produce that features North Carolina fruits and vegetables.

“We do in-store promotions with signage to show individual farmers,” says Kevin Hardison, agricultural marketing specialist at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, Raleigh, NC. “We also do demonstrations. It might be cooking a particular item, such as sweet potatoes. It might be tasting something like our sweet strawberries.”

A very important step in connecting consumers to the places their food is grown is bringing together retailers and farmers.

“We work very hard with the retailers,” says Hardison. “It can involve farm tours. We get the buyers out to see what the farmers have and talk with them. We have buyers from out of state coming down for our farm tours. We try to do two or three tours a year. We have growers tell us they have had buyers as a result of the tours. The growers are very happy.”

For decades the state has also held an annual fair of sorts in Raleigh and Charlotte to display a full range of state grown and produced edibles.

“We have an annual Flavors of Carolina event,” says Hardison. “We have fresh produce, value added items, meats and breads. More than 2,000 people come every year, including hundreds of buyers.”

These regular events provide retailers opportunities to meet and develop relationships with growers just down the road.

“Growers at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Connection were able to make connections with retailers after that event,” says Ashlee Duggan, Pennsylvania Preferred coordinator at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

Arkansas Grown also emphasizes the development of relationships between local growers and the nearby residents who might buy their wares.

“We also use the program to offer the various opportunities that are available,” says Olson. “Whether it’s the networking events we host, trainings on how to start selling produce to local schools, or trade shows, we want to maximize the value to our produce growers, and we do that through communication with them and listening to them on what they want and need.”

MAKING CONNECTIONS

Arkansas also, however, takes growers and their wares to the largest assemblies of retailers in the country.

“We help bring a number of producers to the Fresh Summit hosted by the Produce Marketing Association each year, where Arkansas sweet potatoes, tomatoes, Muscadines, watermelons, squash and other produce items are marketed to more than 20,000 attendees from around the world,” says Olson. “It is a global fruit and vegetable show and we are proud to showcase our producers under the Arkansas Grown logo.”

In some states the key agency contact is with wholesalers, who serve as the bridge to the retailers.

“We do more with wholesalers and have a very active program for produce,” says Elaine Lidholm, director of communications at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Richmond, VA. “For retailers we will provide signage, shelf signs, banners, etc., and occasionally we will work with a chain on a special promotion just for them. We work much more at the wholesale level.”

‘TIS THE SEASON

Because the harvest is seasonal everywhere, except maybe California, there is a time of year when the connection to homegrown produce is most powerful.

“August is Ohio Proud month as well as when the majority of Ohio produces is available,” says Panda. “Many retailers feature displays of Ohio produce during the month. The Ohio Proud program is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.”

Some programs even provide point-of-sale materials retailers can use to let customers know what will come from local fields each month. ‘

“We operate on a seasonal calendar; we educate the public about what is in season,” says Duggan. “Pennsylvania Preferred provides point-of-sale materials to our members at no cost.”

“We are now using digital retail advertising to reach our target consumers that shop at certain markets using digital advertising and other platforms such as MobileFuse and Ibotta. We coordinate this advertising to coincide with grocery cart advertising and store signage.”

— Mindy Lee, Fresh From Florida

The state campaigns, generally, reach their peak in visibility during the summer harvest season.

“We’re gearing up for our Colorado Proud summer promotional program,” says White. “Retailers feature farmers on signage, and also put up the schedule of the Colorado harvest. We work closely with the Colorado Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association (CFVGA). The CFVGA and Colorado Proud co-branded the Colorado Produce Calendar that can be found in grocery stores across the state.”

Seasonal displays of homegrown produce, or displays that change seasonally, build consumer awareness over time.

“Consistency across categories also helps retailers, who can put together an all-encompassing Jersey Fresh display as the hallmark of their produce section in-season, driving traffic for the suite of fresh fruits and vegetables coming off of our farm fields,” says Beaver. “From blueberries to asparagus, tomatoes to peaches, the Jersey Fresh brand resonates across virtually every category. This is thanks in large part to the incredible growers we have here in New Jersey and their longstanding commitment to packing and shipping under the Jersey Fresh logo.”

While the campaign is statewide, each retailer has an opportunity to put their own stamp on their display within produce.

“There are myriad examples of fantastic Jersey Fresh point-of-purchase displays,” says Beaver. “What’s so cool is the fact every retailer puts his or her own spin on it. I love nothing more than traveling the state throughout our growing season to visit with retailers in their stores to see how they’re leveraging the Jersey Fresh brand. We’re also working to promote what they’re doing online and through traditional advertising, encouraging consumers to visit the stores that are consistently sourcing and promoting New Jersey product.”

While visible displays in produce are essential to promotion, the “buy homegrown” message can be energized through social media.

“Collaboration with retailers is continuing to expand in the digital marketing age,” says Fresh From Florida’s Lee. “We are now using digital retail advertising to reach our target consumers that shop at certain markets using digital advertising and other platforms such as MobileFuse and Ibotta. We coordinate this advertising to coincide with grocery cart advertising and store signage. We also continue to use social media advertising to raise awareness that certain commodities are ‘available now’ in retail markets.”

Many states are beginning to see the importance of making high tech communication about locally grown produce a point of emphasis.

“We completely redesigned our ArkansasGrown.org website to be more user friendly last year,” says Olson. “Connecting growers and buyers is what we do. Yesterday, I had someone call looking for Arkansas tomatoes, and I was able to bring up the website and help them find a lot of tomato growers in the state, ranging from small to commercial-sized operations. Helping people find what they are looking for is a major focus of the program.”

A multi-media approach, with state government, commodity groups and retailers all using numerous ways of communicating, is becoming the norm.

“Television, radio, outdoor, print and social media help consumers to recognize local products in the marketplace,” says South Carolina’s Eubanks. “They can then make an informed decision to purchase items grown locally. Combined with retail promotional materials and attractive advertising, local products can drive sales in the category during peak season. Our programs are developed to enhance the efforts of retail local programming and are tailored to meet individual needs.”


TAKING THE MESSAGE ON THE ROAD

State marketing programs are frequently successful in building a brand far beyond the borders.

“The Ohio Proud Program focuses on promoting food and agricultural products throughout the state,” says Lori Panda, senior program manager of the Ohio Proud program of the Ohio State Department of Agriculture, Reynoldsburg, OH. “However, several growers take advantage of Ohio’s geographic location and sell their produce beyond the state’s borders as Ohio is within 500 miles of 60 percent of the U.S. population. This allows Ohio’s growers to deliver fresh produce within 24 hours of harvest.”

Efforts have also helped Florida blueberriess, for example, develop some cache on the far side of the globe.

“We’ve helped feature our blueberries in Florida, all over the United States, in Canada, tested and then expanded interest in Singapore and introduced them into the Japanese market for the first time three or four years ago.” says Mindy Lee, bureau chief for Fresh From Florida of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumers Services, Tallahassee, FL. “We have routinely run retail operations in 20 to 25 nations, including nations and territories in the Caribbean and Central America, the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and as far away as Singapore.”

This effort begins by building trusting relationships with retailers before the promotional campaign is put together.

“Our international marketing team has been working directly with retailers in many parts of the globe for more than a decade, in some areas, for instance Canada, we’ve had active operations there for around 15 years, in the United Kingdom and Asia about a dozen,” says Lee. “You build relationships and trust, and then you build campaigns.”
South Carolina partners with key commodity groups on publicity that brings their message to half the country.

“We have developed successful merchandising programs throughout the Southeast, Northeast, Eastern Seaboard, and Midwest markets,” says Martin Eubanks, assistant commissioner of agriculture, at the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, Columbia, SC. “Our efforts are either commodity-specific or combined programming with top spring, summer and winter commodities. We provide support materials and signage promoting items as Certified SC Grown to enhance retail-advertising promotions. These range from season-long promotions for items like peaches to more ad specific support for shorter season commodities such as watermelon and cantaloupe. We partner with commodity groups to leverage retail merchandising efforts.”

Even campaigns that promote farm products far and wide generally identify prime territory that is larger than the state boundaries but still close enough to feel like home.
“We promote the brand throughout the East Coast, particularly in the New York, Philadelphia, Greater New England and Mid-Atlantic regions,” says Tom Beaver, director of marketing and development for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, Trenton, NJ. “We also promote heavily in eastern Canada, where much of our fresh market blueberries, leafy greens and other vegetables end up. Of course our brand resonates in New Jersey, but it also has tremendous visibility up-and-down the eastern seaboard and into Canada, where several of our major commodities are regularly exported.”

Successful campaigns beyond the state’s borders take consistent, concerted promotional efforts across a broad range of relationships.

“The Jersey Fresh marketing team provides point-of-purchase materials to retailers in other states that source from our growers as well as Canada,” says Beaver. “We participate in regional, national and international trade shows to promote the brand and cultivate relationships between New Jersey growers and buyers from out-of-state, and we advertise in a suite of produce trade publications including Produce Business to emphasize the heft of our brand and the unparalleled quality of Jersey Fresh produce.”

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