“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.”