We all know fresh is best. Freshness is good for consumers; nothing tastes as good as a fresh-picked tomato or ear of corn. Freshness is good for local farms; it’s their marketing edge over imports. Yet, we owe at least a nod to canned foods and their role in our culinary history.

Why do I bring this up? Well, the other day I was watching a History Channel program on canned foods, and the show was packed with interesting food and agriculture facts, and perhaps a marketing lesson or two. I definitely saw some parallels with produce marketing today.

Now often maligned, canned foods were first developed to feed armies and later became a modern convenience food that symbolized a family’s prosperity. They’ve been key to disaster preparedness and allowed people to enjoy seasonal fruits and vegetables year-round. Cans even brought some exotic fruits and veggies into the mainstream diet.

Most Americans had never tasted a pineapple before Dole started canning the tropical fruit in the early 1900s. Without refrigerated shipping, fresh pineapples couldn’t withstand the long trip from Hawaii. Once they started marketing canned pineapple, the company found that some consumer education was necessary. Not only were folks unfamiliar with the taste of pineapple, they had no idea what to do with it.

That sounds just like what farmers who grow so-called ethnic crops are doing today. Growers of Latino and Asian fruits, vegetables and herbs often have to educate farmers’ market shoppers about what the produce is and how to prepare it.

The Green Giant brand, which was named for a pea variety bred for its large size and sweet taste, went through some growing pains with its visual identity. An early rendition of the green giant on the label was scary looking, and he wasn’t green. Eventually, artists came up with a version of the giant that was green, large and sweet, like the product.

So, if you’re struggling with your farm’s visual identity, take heart. Keep working at it and you’ll come up with a memorable brand identity of your own.

Then there’s the story of Chef Boyardee. Ettore Boiardi came to America from Italy in 1914, becoming a chef in New York City and later opening a restaurant in Parma, Ohio. When his spaghetti sauce became so popular that customers asked him to package it for them to enjoy at home, he felt that it was important to put his picture on the label so people could see who made their food.

Sound familiar? That’s exactly why so many consumers today shop at local farmstands and farmers’ markets: to see who grew their food.

The Del Monte brand of canned vegetables was started during the Gold Rush days by some California growers who formed a cooperative to process and package their produce. They selected the Del Monte brand name because a local hotel by the same name was known for quality food.

The History Channel program explained that some strong brand identities developed around canned food because advertising, by necessity, centered around the brand because consumers couldn’t see or touch the product. That’s where fresh produce growers have an advantage, though as a result, brand often takes a backseat.

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia: Del Monte was the first U.S. fruit and vegetable processor to advertise nationally, with their first advertisement appearing in the “Saturday Evening Post” on April 17, 1917.

According to the show, Americans eat about 85 cans of canned foods per year. Various online sources put annual per capita consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables in the U.S. at around 300 pounds. Consumption of fresh produce is rising. It seems to me that fresh produce is winning, or at least holding its own.

Nonetheless, canned foods still serve a purpose in terms of convenience and shelf life, and they’ve influenced both American agriculture and the American diet. So, while we can still continue to promote buying fresh and buying local, let’s at least give a tip of the cap to the can.

The author, a freelance writer, is public affairs specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Amherst, Mass., and was previously director of communications at the Mass. Dept. of Food & Agriculture. Read past marketing columns by this author online at http://www.farmmarketing.blogspot.com.