Local eating events bring opportunities for growers

Photos all by Jenan Jones Benson
Eat Local Wisconsin challenge participants cited farmers’ markets as their top source of local foods.

Programs encouraging consumers to eat more locally grown foods are spreading throughout the country. This is good news for commercial growers looking to market their products close to home.

What are local eating challenges?

One offshoot of the elevated interest in locally produced food is the challenge event. Local eating challenges highlight the benefits of seeking foods grown and processed in one’s own backyard. Consumers may be asked to make local eating a priority for a period of one week or longer, and may be offered prizes based on their success. Groups such as food co-ops, sustainable agriculture organizations, agriculture departments and other related entities are supporting the efforts.

The National Cooperative Grocery Association (NCGA), representing more than 130 co-ops across the country, has dedicated a Web site to its national challenge program, www.eatlocalamerica.coop. NCGA dares consumers to strive for 80 percent local food consumption. Local co-ops sponsor events up to one month long during their community’s prime harvest season. In the northern United States, 2008 dates varied from July through September.

Local events

The Viroqua, Wis., co-op is pumping its September challenge through its Web site (www.viroquafood.coop), weekly e-mails, newspaper advertising and newsletter. It held a kickoff event during a harvest festival on Sept. 6. In its store, special shelf tags call attention to local foods, which the co-op defines as those produced in a 50-mile radius.

The co-op is participating in the Eat Local Wisconsin event as well, also in September. Sponsored, designed and organized by several agriculture-related organizations and individual growers, last year’s event drew 540 participants. The event Web site, www.cias.wisc.edu/eatlocal, offers a scorecard, local food sources, flyers and a blog. The public is encouraged to visit farms during the promotional period and consider joining community supported agriculture (CSA) groups as ways to continue the commitment.

Results

Following the 2007 Wisconsin event, participants were surveyed to assist organizers in evaluating the event. Eighty-eight percent reported that they took part in order to support local farmers. About three-fourths cited health benefits, taste and reduction of distance food travels as primary motivations. More than half sought to encourage area stores and restaurants to carry more local food. The same number was simply curious about the feasibility of obtaining food produced in their area. Most participants learned about the event through word of mouth.

The challenge made a clear difference in the amount of local food consumers purchased. Before the event, one-third of those completing the survey said that 10 percent or less of their food purchases were local. Thirteen percent reported obtaining 50 percent or more from area sources. During the event, those on the low end decreased to 10 percent of the group; those buying at least 50 percent locally increased to more than 30 percent.

Shoppers used farmers’ markets three-fourths of the time and grocery stores about one-half. Wisconsin has a particularly high number of independently owned food stores, which may be more likely to obtain food within their home area. One-third purchased directly from local farms and about one-fifth participated in CSAs. Although most entrants found it easy to meet the challenge, some lacked the time to locate local food sources.

Consumers are interested in meeting and knowing those who produce their food.

The best news for growers is that those surveyed indicate a permanent change in their food purchases. More than three-fourths plan to buy local food when available and almost two-thirds will encourage others to do so. More than half looked forward to continuing shopping at farmers’ markets. Forty-six percent reported requesting local foods from their grocers and restaurants. About one-fifth will consider joining a CSA.

The view from Vermont and New Hampshire

Tim Taylor, who grows 50 acres of vegetables at Cross Road Farm in Vermont, says his area has long supported its growers, but with greater emphasis and awareness, his sales have increased. He reports a 23 percent hike in receipts at his farm stand over the last few years. Taylor also markets to the Co-op Food Stores of Lebanon and Hanover, N.H., other retailers and restaurants. He says that challenge events benefit growers by highlighting healthier eating habits.

“Last year, we sold 500 percent more Hubbard squash due to [publicity] about its long shelf life and beta-carotene content,” Taylor adds. “ Now, people are demanding what once was hard to give away.”

Taylor’s produce was featured at the Lebanon and Hanover co-op stores during their August challenge.

“We plan to wow customers with exciting displays of local food,” Store Merchandiser Bruce Follett said prior to the event.

He adds that such events are a boon for growers because they spotlight what’s available in the area. According to Follett, the demand for local food now is greater than the popularity of organics. His co-ops help to solidify that preference and the relationship between growers and customers by sponsoring producers’ fairs, which allow for interaction and sampling.

Taylor suggests that growers can organize or enhance local eating challenges and similar promotions themselves. He says emphasizing the nutritional value and freshness is a key. Product diversity is a must that could be achieved by working with other growers. If your eye is on the local market, select varieties that flourish in your locale and offer premium taste, since shipping isn’t an issue.

“Try to extend the season to make local eating more possible,” Taylor says.

Making the most of challenges

Growers may have several reasons to corner the local markets. The savings in transportation costs alone may make the difference between profit and loss. The public demand makes it easier to be successful locally than in the past. Environmental concerns and community cohesion may be important factors for some growers.

Those who are targeting this market sector can benefit from challenges. It is an opportunity to piggyback on a promotion to earn new customers. A challenge can bring media exposure and visits to your operation. To see and be seen as integral to the event can make yours the farm participants remember and seek out in the future.

Since the events occur during harvesttime, take advantage of the slower months to contact the organizations promoting local foods in your region. Explore ways to be a big part of the program, with an eye to securing a strong local customer base. You might host a kickoff event at your farm, provide tips and recipes for local produce to participants or offer specials to those taking part in the challenge.

Other opportunities locally

Challenges aren’t the only method growers have for connecting with local consumers. Of course, farmers’ markets are popular these days and the perfect place to build relationships with people who want to know how their food is grown. Farm to school programs are strong in some communities.

There’s no cost to list your operation on local food Web sites such as www.localharvest.org. Most state agriculture departments also offer free listings.

Targeting local chefs and restaurants can be fruitful, as many are quite interested in what’s grown in their areas and may be looking for growers of specific items. If restaurants also list your farm on the menu, you may gain new households as customers.

Because transporting produce from the farm to restaurants can be difficult, one state is intervening. Connecticut’s agriculture department has established a farm-to- chef program to connect interested parties and iron out the wrinkles of delivery. Both growers and chefs cite lack of personnel for delivery or pickup as a significant obstacle. Connecticut is considering options such as providing a delivery truck and driver, consolidating orders for delivery to a central location or holding a “chefs only” market.

Connecticut is the home of another unique program. A private nonprofit organization, Plow to Plate (www.plowtoplate.org), connects growers and families in the New Milford area. Through its Farm Bucks program, participating doctors distribute $5 vouchers to their patients. The bucks can be redeemed at farmers’ markets and individual farms for fresh food. The farmers can exchange the Farm Bucks for products at other farms or for cash.

The possibilities for similar partnerships are infinite. As individuals and communities return to an appreciation of the land and its bounty, innovative local foods programs will become more common, a boon for both growers and the public.

The author is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C.