States Amp Marketing to Brand Produce

Sweet Potato DisplayPhoto Courtesy of North Carolina Department of Agriculture

Ag agencies find the global appeal of local production.

Jersey Fresh Display

Photo courtesy of New Jersey Department of Agriculture

Since the Garden State launched its highly successful Jersey Fresh campaign more than three decades ago, most states have come up with a snappy slogan and a logo. In so doing, the states have reaped the rewards of feeding the desire many people have to feel a connection to the places and growers who produce our food.

Some of the state agricultural promotional programs regularly bring together at special events or conferences the farmers and/or growers who produce the food with the retailers or processors who buy it.

As a possible sign of things to come, the oldest of these state programs has matured to the point it has answers to the question of what the logo means, other than denoting the location of the field.

“Because of how long our program has been in place, growers have bought into it,” says Thomas Beaver, director of the division of marketing and development at the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, Trenton, NJ. “The growers are executing a lot of the marketing. We have people on the ground, and if you want to join the inspectors, come out to the field and see that your produce meets USDA #1 grade or better. The logo means the produce meets our quality standards and is deserving of the New Jersey reputation.”

Other states are also running with the idea of including assurances about the quality and safety of their produce.

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture has a marketing specialist working with wholesale producers to assist in making connections with buyers,” says Debbie Ball, director of marketing at the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Nashville, TN. “She regularly meets with wholesalers and producers. The department sponsors a produce bus tour for a regional grocery chain to allow produce managers to see the farms their produce is sourced from. The department also has an employee who is USDA-certified to perform GAP audits.”

The Global Brands

By adding to their “buy local” campaigns guarantees of the quality and safety of their crops, state agriculture departments also help create a brand that travels far beyond the state line.

State farm goods merchandising campaigns have been most effective among local consumers, and probably always will be because people want to support the local economy and reduce the environmental footprint while enjoying the freshest possible fruits and vegetables, but it is possible to build a brand that carries clout in markets all around the world.

Sakata Farms Corn

Photo Courtesy of Colorado Department of Agriculture

Fresh From Florida fruits and vegetables are being promoted in more than 30 countries,” says Aaron Keller, press secretary for the office of the commissioner at the Florida Department of Agriculture, Tallahassee, FL. “Working with retailers, distributors and foodservice establishments, promotions have been developed to highlight a variety of Fresh From Florida products. With a steadily increasing reputation in the global marketplace as a quality brand, Fresh From Florida also continues to achieve awareness by participating in tradeshows, outbound trade missions and hosting inbound delegations. Our messaging is present in Canada, the United Kingdom, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Colombia and more, for a total of 30 countries.”

Once the information has been shared at conferences and trade missions, a snappy logo can remind consumers far away from the fields or orchards that these fruits and vegetables are quality.

“Signage and the Fresh From Florida brand logo are the keys to the long-term success of the program,” says Keller. “Logo and brand recall is a very important aspect of promotional program development, coupled with measuring how well each program benefits Florida farmers and growers. Fresh From Florida promotions currently center around three major areas: domestic and international supermarkets and distributors, various mixed media advertising and community/industry outreach.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture specialists in foreign trade help growers navigate their way to sales in unfamiliar territories.

“They bring in buyers who are interested in North Carolina products from all around the world,” says Paul Jones, media marketing specialist at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, Raleigh, NC. “Our marketing division works with farmers, ranchers and fishermen. Got to be NC is more than a decade old. Our international marketing team uses it year-round, mostly to do trade missions.”

These overseas campaigns can, over a period of years, help build a state’s foreign agricultural trade to substantial levels.

“In 2015, Michigan exports totaled $2.8 billion, supporting more than 22,600 jobs on and off the farm in food processing, storage and transportation,” says Jamie Zmitko, international marketing program manager at the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development, Lansing, MI. “Michigan agriculture exports add an additional $8.2 billion in economic activity directly generated from exports. Michigan exports of fruits and vegetables rank 5th nationally for fresh and processed fruit exports and 6th for fresh and processed vegetables.”

The State of Michigan does this merchandising work in collaboration with specific agricultural commodity groups. “The international marketing program conducts a variety of activities and projects each year with the objective of assisting specialty crop commodity groups and companies in promoting their products both domestically and internationally,” says Zmitko. “Activities and projects include exhibiting at major domestic and international food shows, trade missions to key markets and providing market research to assist in identifying export opportunities for Michigan specialty crop products.”

Getting To Know You

Hothouse Beefsteak Tomatoes

Photo Courtesy of New Jersey Department of Agriculture

Many agriculture departments set up events that give retailers an unprecedented opportunity to meet a large number of the state’s growers and shippers all at once.

“Ohio food and agriculture businesses have seen success from the annual Ohio Proud food summit, where producers have the opportunity to meet one-on-one with buyers from the foodservice and retail industries,” says Lori Panda, senior program manager of Ohio Proud at the Ohio Department of Agriculture, Reynoldsburg, OH. “Several Ohio Proud partners have gained new business with retailers and restaurants from this activity. Ohio’s Farm to School program also provides opportunities for Ohio’s agriculture businesses. One of Ohio’s largest school districts is now purchasing Ohio apples. Annual regional marketing meetings not only provide education to our partners, but the networking opportunities have resulted in sales between companies.”

These get-togethers are opportunities for retailers to kick around merchandising ideas with a large number of grower-shippers at a single event. “We have hosted buyer-vendor shows to bring local retailers and producers together to help increase product placement,” says Laura England, director of the bureau of market development at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Harrisburg, PA. “By facilitating these connections, we help make Pennsylvania products more accessible to consumers. We provide farmers and growers with product sourcing and referrals, helping them reach the right outlets (retailers, restaurants, schools, etc.) for their products. We also help connect manufacturers of processed products to distributors, retailers, chefs and foodservice professionals.”

New Jersey sends representatives from the agriculture department around the country to at least a half-dozen conferences each year, according to Beaver, to make themselves available to potential buyers.

Local Still Matters

As exciting as some of the national and even global campaigns can be, retailers generally will still find agriculture departments are most helpful merchandising produce from in-state, or from a neighboring state.

“We have focused much of our effort in-state, but have expanded regionally with efforts in Louisiana, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and other southeastern and mid-Atlantic states, as well as the greater New York market,” says Martin Eubanks, assistant commissioner for agricultural services at the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, Columbia, SC.

Because enough consumers want to buy local for economic and environmental reasons riding that wave can be profitable.

“Research shows us it has been successful and grower and retail buy-in has been very positive,” says Eubanks. “Local markets have also benefitted greatly from the program. We are helping folks identify locally grown products so they can make an informed decision to support local producers. Our return on investment for the period from 2011 through 2014 shows for every dollar invested in the program, we generate approximately $12 in return to the state’s economy. In-state consumer recognition of our brand now stands at 80 percent. Growers have seen the value of incorporating the logo into their marketing programs. It makes a difference in sales.”

States with important agricultural industries frequently have huge buy-ins to their “buy local” campaigns.

“Our Got to be NC program has 3,000 members officially signed up,” says Jones. “All the major grocery chains use the logo.”

Some states are geographically located in such a way that their produce is “local” to a wide swath of the country.

“Ohio has a geographic advantage because we are within 500 miles of 60 percent of the U.S. population and 50 percent of the Canadian population,” says Panda. “This allows Ohio’s growers to deliver their produce within 24 hours of being picked, providing fresh, quality product to consumers. Agriculture is Ohio’s top industry; with one in seven Ohioans employed in food and agriculture. Ohio’s ag industry is very diverse; we grow more than 200 crops. We are a leader nationally in several crops.”

Some states track their effectiveness in building a brand, and the results are encouraging.

“According to our annual survey, 83 percent of people are very or somewhat familiar with the Colorado Proud logo, up from 59 percent in 2008,” says White. “Sixty four percent are looking for the Colorado Proud logo more often when shopping; 84 percent are more likely to buy produce that is labeled with the Colorado Proud logo; and 45 percent buy Colorado products to support local businesses.”

This kind of brand recognition is paying in increased sales in produce departments.

“We have seen positive results for a wide array of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as other categories throughout the retail store,” says Eubanks.

“Peaches, watermelon, blueberries, leafy greens, summer vegetables, cantaloupe, tomatoes and other items have received a significant boost from the Certified South Carolina branding program. We do not stop thinking about new ways to get our message to consumers and to create opportunities for producers.”

Can You Say Produce In Chinese?

Farmers almost everywhere are finding it easier to sell to their neighbors, but two East Coast states are finding fertile markets for their agricultural products among the rising Chinese middle class that has grown wary of the safety of food from contaminated soil and water in their homeland.

For the past decade, Georgia has worked tirelessly to develop major markets in China for its pecans. “We’ve had success selling Georgia Grown pecans in China,” says Matt Kulinski, deputy director of marketing at the Georgia Department of Agriculture, Atlanta. “The Chinese prefer Georgia Grown pecans for the taste, quality and food safety control.”

Developing this market involved taking numerous missions to China and enlisting the assistance of various U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies. But it also took the Georgia pecan growers coming together to develop standards on which the Chinese could rely.

“Our pecan growers’ work well together,” says Kulinski. “We had hiccups with quality issues, but we moved quickly to resolve those issues. They also work well on storage conditions that let you ship pecans that distance.”

Georgia pecan growers already lead the nation with a harvest worth nearly a quarter of a billion dollars from more than 140,000 acres of trees.

The Chinese may be New York’s first customer for its new New York Grown and Certified program. “We’ve come up with a new program called New York Grown and Certified,” says Richard Ball, commissioner of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, Albany, NY. “This program tells the consumer the farm is in New York. It signifies the farm has good agricultural practices (GAP) and it tells consumers it has a good environmental management plan.”

After Ball explained the new plan to a group of interested buyers at an event in New York City, he was approached by a fairly large importer from China. “He came up to me and said they have so much polluted land and water that their ascending upper middle class is concerned about eating food from China,” says Ball.

The state of New York exports a substantial volume of dairy products, including to Asia, and also ships significant amounts of apples, sweet corn, pumpkins, carrots, and potatoes, and is looking to increase those markets. “The importer who approached me in New York buys for five provinces,” says Ball. “This is potentially a very large volume; they are interested in a pretty wide range of products.”

The prospect of landing another high revenue deal with China has piqued interest at the highest levels of state government.

“The governor is talking about a trade mission to China,” says Ball.

New Way Of Talking

Some states are using social media and the internet to spread the word about their produce in ways that are more current, frequently more powerful and usually wider in impact.

“We promote the PA Preferred program through traditional and social media,” says England. “Our PA Preferred Facebook and Twitter posts promote various Pennsylvania commodities, as well as the growers and farmers behind those products.”

The State of Tennessee has developed an app that lets the user access an incredible amount of detailed information about particular farmers — what they grow, and even how they grow it. “The directories listed on the website and the app provide direct contact information to the farmer, including phone and email addresses, in addition to indicating how and where they market their produce,” says Ball. “We have received positive feedback from farmers crediting both platforms with significant portions for their farm direct sales.”

This information can be used by retailers looking to source a particular fruit or vegetable, or consumers wanting information about the people who grew the food they are examining in the produce department. “The website contains directories listed by product and section of the state,” says Ball. “The free Pick Tennessee mobile app maps users to the item they are searching for based on their real-time location. Both platforms are available nationwide.”

Social media can be used to let retailers virtually experience produce events they did not attend.

“We made a big push promoting Colorado produce last year,” says Wendy Lee White, marketing specialist for the Colorado Department of Agriculture, Broomfield, CO. “Our 2016 Follow Your Fruits & Veggies Journey campaign was a huge success.”

This technology can let both consumers and retailers see farmers discuss how the produce was grown and shipped. “Part of the Journey included sending GoPro cameras to produce growers across the state to give consumers a glimpse into the journey produce takes from farm to fork,” says White. “The videos were promoted through social media on Facebook.”

Social media has become an indispensable part of the marketing campaign for most state agriculture departments. “The Ohio Proud website, coordinated co-op advertising and social media are key elements when promoting the Ohio Proud program and its partners,” says Panda. “Ohio Proud focuses on three marketing initiatives: consumer promotion, marketing services, and new market access and development.