A study by Salinas, Calif.-based Top 10 Produce found some consumers were willing to pay 30% more for Valencia oranges with barcode stickers naming their California grower.

Part of an ongoing project, the study explores barcodes as a way for small- and mid-size growers to establish traceability and cover some of its cost, said John Bailey, Top 10 executive director. The codes can be scanned on cell phones and yield a range of information from the grower’s identity and location of harvest to their sustainability practices, photos and consumer reviews.

The oranges were sold in three San Francisco Bay Area and Central Coast stores: Bi-Rite Market, Oliver’s Market and Star Market.

“They had the same produce in two bins next to each other,” Bailey said. “Pile one was 99 cents, pile two was $1.29. Based on traceability, consumers bought almost as much of the higher. It’s not a statistical clincher, but it’s worth follow-up.”

Bi-Rite sold 250 pounds of oranges with the barcodes, 360 pounds without. At Oliver’s, the traceable product outsold the alternative, 500 pounds to 280 pounds. Star Market in Salinas sold 183 pounds with the barcodes, 220 without them.

“But Star Market made more profit off the traceable,” Bailey said, citing the 30% premium.

In the study — the first of two on the subject — the premium went straight into retailers’ pockets. Longer term, the idea is to benefit growers too.

“If we can sustain a premium regularly, more can go back to the grower,” Bailey said. “But we’ve got to prove that in phase two, whether or not any of that can trickle back.”

Next up: berries

The study’s second phase will last two years. One candidate for the barcodes is a new line of Salinas Valley strawberries expected to hit markets there in May under the Locale label. Healthy Berry Farms will distribute Locale, for which eight growers have signed up, Bailey said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture funded the study’s first phase with $90,000 as a Small Business Innovation Research study. The oranges were grown by Bob Blanchard and Terri Blanchard of Cayucos, Calif.-based Old Creek Ranch.

Bob Corshen, director of local food systems at Davis, Calif.-based Community Alliance for Family Farmers, encouraged Top 10 to push the scope of the barcodes beyond raw traceability.

“My idea was to connect produce to a piece of dirt, a parcel number,” Bailey said. “Bob said, ‘If you want traceability to create value, you’re not just connecting it to a farm as a place, but to a farmer as a person.’ Three months later the USDA came out with Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food. We just got lucky.”

Top 10 Produce barcodes are consistent with those of Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, (http://tinyurl.com/USDA-KNOW) which promotes educating consumers about how produce is grown and who is growing it.