David Hickman says he likes having the power of state government behind his Virginia-grown vegetables.
“They have marketing specialists that contact the chains and let them know when product will be ready — not only potato but green beans and other vegetables that are produced in the state, and they promote Virginia produce all over the East Coast at trade shows, and when they make a contact with the chain stores, they follow up, not only in Virginia but all along the East Coast,” said Hickman, vice president of Horntown, Va.-based Dublin Farms.
The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services runs Virginia Grown and its www.virginiagrown.com website keeps buyers and sellers connected. The site has market news, the latest on a growing network of farmers markets and contact information.
“It’s pretty fun to be a part of. It has grown steam in the last three or four years,” said Russell Brown, salesman with Oak Grove, Va.-based Parker Farms.
Brown said Virginia Grown logos are popping up in more places each year.
Virginia Grown’s growth parallels the evolution of buy-local movements across the country, Hickman said.
“Buy local is helping us market within the state of Virginia, particularly with the major chains,” he said.
Retailers and restaurants are asking for local product first, Hickman said.
“They are featuring local produce and want in-state potatoes in their stores,” he said.
The reasons vary from economic to environmental, Hickman said.
Mostly, though, consumers today want to know where their food comes from, and they want to feel as though they have some connection with its origins, Hickman said.
“I think in the past the stores more had generic potato bags year-round, but now I find they’re wanting more in-state potatoes in their stores with bags that identify as being in-state,” he said.
Retail and foodservice customers want that knowledge, too, and Virginia tries to accommodate them, said Butch Nottingham, marketing representative with Virginia’s agriculture department.
Among the department’s initiatives are regular farm tours for buyers, he said.
“Virginia has a wealth and diversity of geography, and we found one of the best ways to develop good relationship with buyers was to bring them here and show them around a little bit,” Nottingham said.
Similar programs are ongoing in other states across the Mid-Atlantic region.
Growers and shippers say they make the most of the marketing opportunities the homegrown movement presents.
“We offer our peaches to a wide variety of local wholesalers, retailers, and food service providers — and we encourage them to identify the state in which these peaches are grown to help support locally grown produce,” said Mike Blume, salesman with Greencastle, Pa.-based Keystone Fruit Marketing Inc.
Fruit grower-shipper Sunny Valley International Inc., Glassboro, N.J., works with an array of roadside stands, said Bob Von Rohr, marketing and customer relations director.
“Every sale, whether it’s a dollar or a billion dollars, is important. Even the small stuff all adds up,” he said.
It’s easy because the nationwide buy-local movements are carrying sales momentum, Von Rohr said.
“Everybody wants to support the local farmer, with the sustainability aspect of it, the carbon footprint,” he said.
Wyoming, Del.-based Fifer Orchards focuses its strawberry production particularly on local markets, said Curt Fifer, sales director.
The company’s chandler variety — ideal for consumption soon after harvest — is well-fitted to local consumption, he said.
“Growing the chandlers means we have to move them out the same day,” he said.
Steve Balderston, who operates Colora Orchards, an apple and peach producer in Colora, Md., said marketing locally makes sense.
“Anybody who’s in the produce business tries to locate apples or peaches that are homegrown in the state of Maryland first, and that’s pretty important to us, since we deal with a lot of market chains, such as Whole Foods, Giant, Shop Rite and Acme, and we like to think our peaches are picked tree-ripe and have a lot more sugar in them,” he said.