What is “locally grown” produce? Growers, shippers and marketing agents offer different answers to that question.

Some rely on geographic proximity of the field to the consumer as the final yardstick — a concept popularized by the late health magazine publisher and environmentalist Robert Rodale.

“I also think it is really important to note that the definition of local was defined by Rodale a long time ago as one day’s drive, and I think this is the best definition,” said Gwen Kvavli Gulliksen, sales and marketing director for Harvest Sensations, Los Angeles.

Others put a precise number of miles on the definition.

“The technical term is supposed to be within 100 miles,” said Michelle Mannix, co-owner of Ted & Honey, a New York restaurant that sources products from Long Island, upstate New York and Pennsylvania.

“I’m not sure who put miles onto that definition, but living in a huge city like L.A. makes the mile definition a big deterrent to small family farmers,” said Gulliksen, whose company has been involved in a farmers market program for more than 11 years.

Others say there is no universally agreed-on limit.

“I don’t know that there’s a set rule,” said Ed Odron, owner of Odron Produce Marketing & Consulting Services, Stockton, Calif. “Is it 100 miles? 200 miles? Here in Northern California, San Diego from me is 400 miles. If I have some beautiful tomatoes out of Oceanside, they’re 400 miles away, but it is also California. So, if you asked two or three different retailers, you’re probably going to get five answers. There is no defining locally grown.”

He said produce coming from the same state often is considered “local.”

“In some states, one end to the other is 400 or 500 miles,” Odron said. “I’d feel comfortable as a retailer if I put California-grown. That works. If it grows in your state, that works. If I were a retailer, I’d be marketing California-grown, and in Iowa I’d be touting Davenport or Muscatine or whatever to get that local flair. I think the customers are in tune with it.”

There’s hardly a consensus, though, he said.

When considering locally grown, proximity can be irrelevant, according to David Visher, senior analyst with the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program at the University of California-Davis.

He said the most important element in “local” is a connection to the grower, and that connection doesn’t have to be geographic.

“You cover a lot of these issues by telling the farmer’s story and making sure that the story is authentically attached to the product,” Visher said. “When you say ‘Buy California,’ for instance, it isn’t meeting the consumer’s desire to have a connection with the farmer who grew their food.”

“It may stir their patriotic interest or their state loyalty interest, but I question how effective it is at accessing and meeting their need for local product.”

The focus needs to be on telling a story and part of the story is where the produce comes from, Visher said.

“If a consumer believes local is anything from their state, then if they learn about the producer and it says in the story where the producer is from, then the consumer will judge for themselves whether that product is local,” he said.

Regional, state-sponsored programs are useful, but they’re only part of the local movement, Visher said.

“This is where the join between regional agriculture or regional marketing programs and local fit in,” he said. “A lot of people are saying what people care about is regionality, rather than locality. They’re saying, ‘This is a region I know and understand, and there’s been some branding coming out of that region, so I can have a feel for how nice it is, what kind of area it is and I consider myself a part of this region.’ Regionality may be emerging soon as more important than locality.”

A substantial segment of the buying public wants to know who grew their food and where it comes from, Visher said.

“It gives them a sense of context with the supply of the most substantial thing they have in their lives, which is their food supply,” he said.

“That’s what the local-food movement is about. Supply chains are successful to the extent that they can tell the farmer’s story to the consumer, so the consumer who cares about this feels like they know where their food comes from and their values are in alignment with those of the producer.”

Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, said he foresees no consensus on a definition for locally grown.

“I don’t think they want to,” he said. “The definition needs to fit the situation. You talk to different people and they give you different definitions, and it works for them. Who’s to say they’re wrong? Local kind of embraces a number of different qualities. It’s not just proximity. Local is what you make it.”

Dick Spezzano, owner of Monrovia, Calif.-based Spezzano Consulting Services, agreed.

“I think it’s going to be extremely difficult to do,” he said.

“Sometimes they consider multiple states to be local. It could be from Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut and be locally grown because of the miles. For others, anything within an eight-hour drive is local.”