How can you capitalize on the food-crazed society?

Students reach for fresh fruit as part of the 5 A Day Program for the school program in Florida.

Everywhere you look, food is being promoted. Books such as “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” are marching out of the bookstores, the Slow Food movement has taken hold, and food-related tourism is gaining popularity. Consumers are more aware of healthy eating and are looking to organic and locally grown produce as ways of tapping into a safe food chain. How do these trends impact fruit and vegetable growers, and how can they market their products to food-crazed consumers?

The trends

At last, Americans are turning slowly from their junk-food diets and beginning to adopt healthier eating habits. With approximately two-thirds of the country now overweight, it isn’t a moment too soon. Concerns about the health of an obese society have led to better information about food contents. With nutritional information now required on all food products, consumers have an easier choice when shopping and dining out. Another positive sign is more fruits and vegetables being served in fast-food restaurants. Wendy’s, for instance, has modified its menu to allow diners to choose between several side items, including fruit and salad, rather than always serving french fries with combo meals. More and more research points out the benefits of fruits and vegetables, prompting diners to try new varieties. School cafeterias can’t ignore the evidence, either and are providing more nutritionally sound choices.

The demand for organic produce has escalated in recent years, and there’s more interest in locally grown food. These trends relate not only to overall health issues, but also to safety concerns. With tainted products being recalled frequently, consumers wonder if their next meal will leave them sick. Building relationships with local growers assures some that they are purchasing from a safe supplier. That notion ties in with the Slow Food movement’s concept of the consumer as a copartner in food production. Supermarkets acknowledge the public’s desire to know its farmers; some identify the geographic area, and sometimes even the specific farm, from which produce originated.

Health and safety worries aside, Americans are intrigued by food itself. They enjoy reading about it and watching television programs about it. The tourism industry is seeing a market emerge for food-based travel, as food trails join the ranks of wine and cultural trails. A 2007 Travel Industry Association survey shows that 27 million people, or 17 percent of American vacationers, engaged in culinary or wine-related activities while traveling within the past three years. Food travelers spent 33 to 50 percent of the trip’s budget on food.

Implications for growers

All the interest in food is great news for growers. The Center for Agricultural and Rural Development at Iowa State University reports that per capita consumption of fresh fruits increased by 19 percent and consumption of vegetables (including potatoes) increased by 29 percent between 1980 and 2001. The health and safety issues that have arisen since 2001 seem likely to push those increases higher, but the USDA Economic Research Service says the public will have to try a lot harder to meet the 2005 dietary guidelines.

The agency’s 2006 report “Food Con-sumption: Effects of Food Consumption Choices on Agriculture” indicates that Americans would need to increase daily fruit consumption by 132 percent to meet the goal. The greater demand could require U.S. producers to more than double harvested fruit acreage from 3.5 million to 7.6 million acres. However, production levels are constrained by land, labor and climate, making it likely that imports would continue to increase.

If Americans followed the 2005 dietary guidelines, we’d need a lot more green beans like these.

To hit the mark for vegetables, Americans’ daily vegetable consumption would need to rise by about 31 percent and the mix of vegetables eaten would need to change. For example, consumption of legumes would have to increase by 431 percent, and consumption of starchy vegetables would have to decline by 35 percent. United States vegetable production would have to increase from 6.5 million acres to 15.3 million acres to fill the need.

In addition to higher production levels, growers also have the opportunity to diversify into related income streams, such as food-related tourism.

Strategies

Growers, researchers and marketing professionals are working together to formulate strategies to capitalize on these trends. On the nutritional front, Cornell University received a USDA grant in October 2007, to study methods to improve the lunch choices schoolchildren make. Techniques such as branding healthy foods more positively, preselection of menus and convenience will be tested.

The C. S. Mott Group, a Michigan State University effort to strengthen sustainable farming, issued a 2006 report outlining ways the state’s growers could significantly increase their revenues and create new jobs without increasing production. Their Eat Fresh and Grow Jobs program shifts growers from selling produce for processing to marketing fresh produce. Coupled with a consumer campaign to promote buying fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables, the change could represent close to 2,000 new jobs and $187 million in personal income. Michigan asparagus growers have already reaped the benefits. By utilizing the state’s Select Michigan marketing program to create consumer demand, the producers increased fresh sales from 5 percent of the crop to 25 percent.

In 2005, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Iowa studied the viability of place-based food festivals as an additional revenue stream for growers. Place-based events key on the location, rather than the particular food; a Grown in Iowa festival is an example. The events differ from urban festivals by occurring in rural settings and highlighting local agriculture, past and present. Researchers found that 36 percent of consumers will pay 1 to 5 percent more for place-based food, and another 36 percent will tolerate increases up to 10 percent. Although initial investments are required for the organization and operation of festivals, the study determined a .61 output for every dollar spent.

Food tours offer both income and marketing potential. Some firms are offering place-based tours, in which visitors spend a weekend, take in cooking demonstrations, tour food and beverage companies and sample the area’s best cuisine. Vermont’s Cheese Trail gets tourists down on the farm, as do the Carolina Farm Stewardship’s (CFS) farm tours. For a donation to CFS, consumers may visit up to 30 participating farms over a weekend. Operations from large beef producers to small organic farms are represented. Although it is a voluntary effort, farmers may conduct on-farm sales, while educating the public.

Food-related tourism and agritourism pair up well. An operation that now offers farm tours can expand to market valued-added foods to visitors. On-farm dinners are gaining popularity; the host farm partners with other growers and livestock producers to collaborate on an all-local meal. Cookbooks, CSA memberships and related products can be offered to diners.

Jenan Jones Benson is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C. Contact her at jenanbenson@bellsouth.net.