Demand for locally grown fruits and vegetables is nothing new, of course. But its growth continues to amaze Eastern apple growers such as Mark Nicholson, executive vice president of Geneva, N.Y.-based Red Jacket Orchards.

“It’s gone from big to huge,” Nicholson said.

Fifteen years ago, Red Jacket began sending a single truck loaded with fruit downstate to the Union Square farmers market in New York City.

Now the company supplies farmers markets and gourmet grocery stores all over the Big Apple, Nicholson said. It even has its own 5,000-square-foot warehouse in Brooklyn to house product en route.

“It’s exciting and encouraging to see it go from niche to mainstream,” Nicholson said. “And it’s continuing to grow.”

The flip side of the locally grown boom has been what is in some cases the tightening of a company’s distribution net, Nicholson said. Companies like Red Jacket, who benefit enormously from the locally grown trend within New York, may face hurdles when they try to market their product too far from home.

After all, those “foreign” markets may have locally grown deals of their own.

“There are opportunities and challenges,” Nicholson said.

Still, Red Jacket has enjoyed some notable successes in cases where the definition of “local” is stretched to its limits. The company, for instance, sells empires at Whole Foods stores in Atlanta, Nicholson said.

The phrase “Eat Fresh, Buy Local” will be found on all apple bags packed this year by Rice Fruit Co., Gardners, Pa., said John Rice, president.

“In the market we sell in, that plays very well,” Rice said.

Rice Fruit, like Red Jacket Orchards, has been able to stretch the definition of “locally grown.” Bags the company ships to Florida, for instance, say “Eastern apples.”

“We try to play up the difference between East and West,” he said.

Rice Fruit, Rice points out, can ship to Florida in a day or a day and a half, versus four or five days for West Coast shippers. In addition to the advantage of freshness, growers like Rice Fruit have varieties like the mcintosh, Rice said, that simply aren’t grown on the other side of the country.

It is hard to say how the lingering storage supplies in Washington will affect grower-shippers, said Peter Gregg, spokesman for the Fishers-based New York Apple Association.

What is more certain is that East Coasters will, given recent trends, greet the new local crop with open arms, Gregg said.

“‘Buy Local’ puts us at a big advantage,” he said.

“Local,” of course, has additional weight when your orchards are located between New York and Boston, and not a whole lot further from other population centers.

Many of the state’s growing areas, Gregg pointed out, are within one tank of gas of 30 million consumers.

New this year in stores will be point-of-sale signs from the association aimed to cash in on the locally grown trend, Gregg said. Generic “New Crop” signs will be accompanied by two variety-specific ones: “New Crop McIntosh and New Crop Empires.”

Also part of the point-of-sale campaign are banners, display wraps and new health cards, Gregg said. The association also has created a new poster with a stick-on “New Crop!” starburst.

Even with the recession looming, the locally grown movement should keep demand for East Coast apples “pretty high on the East Coast,” said Peter Forrence, vice president of Forrence Orchards Inc., Peru, N.Y.

New York City and, to a lesser extent, Boston, have proven to be outstanding locally grown markets for Forrence Orchards, Forrence said.

The locally grown boom is a big reason Forrence Orchards has plans to expand its 5-pound tote bag sales this year, Forrence said.

“It seems more like they (consumers) are buying it at the orchard,” Forrence said, explaining the appeal. “They’re not buying a prepackaged cellophane bag.”

Rice also expects continued strong sales of 5-pound totes in the 2009-10 season.

“They’ve had a tremendous amount of play the last five years,” he said.