There is no one official definition for “local.” Yet, put a state department of agriculture logo on a fruit or vegetable and there is no question of where it was grown.
Originally printed in the May 2021 issue of Produce Business.
In the wake of COVID-19, consumers are even more interested in “buying local,” and state ag department personnel have become even more creative in their promotional approach, especially when supporting retailers.
New Jersey may have been the first to promote local back in 1984, when it launched its Jersey Fresh advertising, promotional and quality grading program. Since then, nearly every state has started some type of branded marketing program for in-state grown fresh fruits and vegetables as well as other agricultural products.
Over the past year, there has been a greater demand for locally sourced produce in retail, restaurant and institutional trades. In addition, with more meals being prepared at home, consumers were drawn to expanded local offerings from growers.
“Just as our farmers and businesses have pivoted during the last year, we, too, are doing that at the speed that business demands to have a successful season. Our marketing campaign this year is centered around keeping the new customers that were gained last year, as well as keeping those who have long preferred Jersey Fresh with ‘Stay Loyal to Local. Jersey Fresh!’,” says Doug Fisher, secretary of agriculture for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture (NJDA), in Trenton, NJ.
SALES & SUPPLY SIDE SUPPORT
One of the state departments of agriculture’s most important and perennial roles is that of matchmaker. That is, helping farmers find markets for their fruits and vegetables and for retailers and foodservice operators to find the products and ingredients their customers want. This took on an even more important role during the pandemic.
“Last year, the agency became aware that some Virginia farmers experienced market disruptions in their normal distribution at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and due to social distancing,” explains Michael Wallace, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), in Richmond, VA. “At the same time, produce retailers and wholesalers in the state were requesting more local Virginia grown produce, as they continued to develop local produce programs in stores.”
The South Carolina Department of Agriculture (SCDA), in Columbia, SC, recently created a market development team to unite its retail merchandising and specialty crop outreach efforts.
“The team’s goal is to help match up producers with appropriate markets — retail, wholesalers, food hubs, and others — as well as to help them identify resources to build their capacity and reach new markets,” says Katie Pfeiffer, market development coordinator. “Retailers should consider this good news because it will help fill the pipeline of growers to ensure an even more stable, diverse supply of great produce coming out of South Carolina.”
FACE-TO-FACE INTERACTIONS STILL IMPORTANT
Trade shows are a great way for producers to explore new markets and foster relationships with regional retailers, wholesalers, and foodservice buyers. Yet, these shows experienced COVID challenges in 2020 and early 2021. “We have found that attendees are not fully embracing virtual conferences or trade shows unless there is an educational component involved,” says the VDACS’ Wallace.
“Along with many Virginia producers, they want the personal connection made through face-to-face interactions. As international business meetings have always been conducted in-person, the agency intends to return to in-person meetings.”
The SCDA was successful in holding its Certified South Carolina Grower Buyer Mash Up, a one-day networking and education event held in March at the state’s open-air farmers market in Columbia. Partnering with the Midlands Local Food Collaborative expanded the footprint and attendance to serve a broader audience, incorporating chefs in addition to retail and wholesale buyers, to provide producers with ideas of how to expand their market opportunities.
MARKETING AND MERCHANDISING SUPPORT
- BRAND LOGO. One of the simplest, yet most effective, ways for growers to identify and retailers to call out state-grown fruits and vegetables is by using the state department of agriculture’s promotional program logo.
“When a consumer sees that New York Grown and Certified logo, they know the product comes from New York and New York farm families, that the grower has an environmental management plan in place, and a food safety plan,” says Richard Ball, commissioner of the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets, in Albany, NY.
The brand recognition of logos is substantial. For instance, Colorado Proud reached 80 percent familiarity among the state’s consumers in 2020, according to Danielle Trotta, senior marketing specialist for the Colorado Department of Agriculture Markets Division, in Broomfield.
“We have seen a significant increase in brand awareness over the last four years,” says Matthew Kulinski, program manager for the Atlanta, GA-based Georgia Department of Agriculture’s (GDA) Georgia Grown program.
He says, based on a recent study by Marshall Marketing in the fall of 2020, awareness of the Georgia Grown program reached 45 percent among all Georgia adults. This is a 60 percent increase from 2017 when it was measured at 28 percent.
- POINT-OF-SALE MATERIALS. Each season, the NJDA’s Jersey Fresh staff works with hundreds of outlets to provide them with a multitude of point-of-purchase marketing materials that highlight all Jersey Fresh products through banners, price cards, hats, bin wraps and aprons, etc., says Fisher.
Fisher and his staff visit stores throughout the season talk to produce managers and determine other ways the department can best help them.
The GDA recently launched a promotion with Collins Brothers Produce, a wholesaler located in Forest Park, GA. The campaign includes Georgia Grown point-of-sale signage highlighting 14 farmers across Georgia. The signs are being placed in more than 90 independent grocery stores throughout Georgia.
The Tallahassee-based Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ (FDACS) Fresh From Florida brand conducted multi-faceted campaigns, including POS materials, display contests, product stickers and weekly circular advertisements to promote the state’s sweet corn and peaches.
The corn promotion, now in its fifth year, was in partnership with the Sunshine Sweet Corn Farmers of Florida, along with 18 select grocery retailers in the U.S. and Canada. The promotion ran from March to May. The peach promotion in April and May was in cooperation with the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association with seven supermarket retailers including Detwiler’s Farm Market, Hitchcock’s Market and Lund Food Holdings.
- MEDIA. Traditional media like print publications and television are key ways state agricultural promotion programs help to drive shoppers in-store. For example, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA), based in Nashville, reminds consumers of seasonal opportunities to buy farm-fresh produce via news releases. In May, a release about the start of the state’s strawberry season featured two farmers and received coverage in major media outlets. What’s more, the day the release was distributed, the Pick Tennessee Products website received over 4,000 page views.
In February, the FDACS’s Fresh From Florida launched a new TV commercial titled, You Can Depend on Florida Farmers, in six Florida markets. This came on the heels of the state receiving feedback from a recent survey that more than 90 percent of respondents were interested in supporting Florida’s farmers, keeping dollars in their local communities and reducing environmental impact.
To tie in with more consumers cooking at home, staff from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDACS) showed WRAL TV audiences in Raleigh how to make easy, healthy recipes with state-grown produce. This was part of the Got to Be NC state agricultural promotion program. The station in turn made print copies of the recipes available on its website by linking to the NCDACS, according to Kevin Hardison, in charge of community markets, grants, certified roadside markets and agricultural fairs for the state.
- DIGITAL MARKETING. Digital marketing is also a must-have marketing tool that state agricultural departments have capitalized on in several creative ways, especially in the last year.
In some cases, digital marketing enabled the states to reach further outside their borders. The online program promoted Fresh From Florida tomatoes, sweet corn, and strawberries on retailers’ Facebook, Instagram, and websites. Seventy-one Bravo Supermarkets in Florida and the Northeast and over 200 C-Town Supermarkets in the Northeast participated. These campaigns highlighted Fresh From Florida recipes throughout December and February.
According to Louis Scagnelli, director of produce and floral operations at White Plains, NY-based Alpha 1 Marketing, which services CTown, Bravo, Aim and Market Fresh stores, “The Florida Department of Agriculture continues to help us grow through its Fresh From Florida campaign. Our Florida tomato and vegetable program is stronger than ever.”
In Pennsylvania, PA Preferred members are provided with a social media toolkit to help promote their in-season produce and other products. The program has a dedicated Instagram account, a newsletter, and content is shared across the department’s other social media accounts, says Shannon Powers, press secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, in Harrisburg.
The Tennessee Department of Agriculture introduced its Pick Tennessee Products free mobile app in 2014.
“Tools like this enabled us to continue marketing even as the pandemic dramatically changed the way we all do business,” says Kim Doddridge, public information officer. “With virtually no opportunity for face-to-face visits in 2020, we found success in highlighting producers on social media. Now we have resumed on-farm visits and we are using video to promote producers and their seasonal goods.”
In response to COVID and consumer behavior, Fresh From Florida introduced shoppable display banners to its integrated marketing campaign, says Julie Kay Charles, industry communications for the FDACS’s division of marketing and development. The Fresh From Florida digital ads send consumers to their preferred retailer where they can add Florida products to their shopping cart.”
Supported by third-party grocery delivery services Instacart and Shipt, the online shopping campaign has proven successful at converting browsers to buyers, says Charles. As of May 2021, the campaign resulted in 179,156 units sold, attributing $879,198 in sales and more than 8 million impressions. In addition to shoppable display banners, Amazon Fresh digital display ads promote Fresh From Florida products available for purchase on the Amazon Fresh website, including Florida bell peppers, zucchini squash, grapefruit and cherry tomatoes.
Fresh From Florida’s campaign with Ibotta, the leading mobile rewards platform in the U.S., also contributes to online shopping efforts. Most recently, Ibotta app users earned cash back on their purchases of Florida strawberries, sweet corn and watermelon. The most engaged audience segment is women ages 35 to 44. The preferred retailers are Publix (47 percent), Walmart (23 percent), Winn-Dixie (9.7 percent) and Walmart Pick Up/Home Delivery (9 percent). As of May 2021, Charles says results include more than 68,000 units sold for Florida strawberry cash back offers.
- VIRTUAL RETAIL PARTNER PROMOTIONS. Last fall, Raley’s participated in a creative COVID-safe ‘California Happy Hour at Home’ promotion, according to Chelsea Minor, corporate director, public affairs. The West Sacramento-headquartered 124-store retailer, along with its banners Nob Hill Foods and Bel Air Markets, featured special price promotions on the state’s wines, plus partnered with the California Department of Agriculture’s Buy California Marketing Agreement’s California Grown brand, the California Table Grape Commission, California Pear Advisory Board, the California Fig Board and California Avocado Commission and broadcast virtually via Zoom how to pair these foods and make easy-to-prepare appetizers.