Produce marketing agents are raving about the momentum of the locally grown category. Local is even outpacing organics now, according to some.

“I work with a couple of companies on the sell and buy sides, and local is becoming more and more important,” said Dick Spezzano, president of Monrovia, Calif.-based Spezzano Consulting Services.

He said he was “stunned” when he heard Don Harris, former vice president of produce and floral with Wild Oats Markets, say locally grown had become a “much stronger trend” than organic.

Spezzano said he agreed with that assessment, even though local does have its own built-in barriers.

“There are still limitations on local because of seasonality,” Spezzano said. “It’s not going to change that we’ll have to source product globally. But the local trend is growing and retailers are supporting it.”

Stan Steppa, president of Rockville, Md.-based retailer Magruder Inc., agreed that the momentum of the local movement had surpassed that of organics, which, he noted, was still doing well itself.

“No question, it’s getting bigger and bigger, where you would think it would be getting smaller and smaller, with all the land development,” Steppa said.

That growth can be traced to a host of reasons, said Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications with the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

“It’s hard to put a finger on any one or two motivators that constitute locally grown,” Gilmer said.

“For instance, if you take a retail supermarket, how does it package the concept of locally grown? Are they showcasing local growers that are regular suppliers for their season? Are they showcasing, maybe, a processor or somebody that’s offering a unique pack that’s become a local asset?”

Any of those strategies can work, because local is adaptable to them, Gilmer said.

“It’s what’s important to the consumer about locally grown produce,” he said. “A good marketer in the retail industry will create desire by educating their customers about the benefits of locally grown products. And it’s up to the retailer to paint that picture and drive interest and traffic about locally grown produce.”

Local product, like organics, has numerous positive marketing connotations, said Ed Odron, owner of Odron Produce Marketing & Consulting, Stockton, Calif.

“I think the big thing about locally grown is how fresh it is,” he said. “They pick it today and it’s in store today or tomorrow. That’s the same thing that sells the farmers market.”

Whatever the cause, the category’s growth is measurable, said Mike Passafiume, a salesman with Horton Fruit Co., a Louisville, Ky.-based wholesaler with an affiliate, Grow Farms, that grows a full-line of summer vegetables.

“When I first started, we had a handful of guys growing. Now we have guys who were growing tobacco and decided to diversify,” he said.

Grow Farms has 25 growers, he said.

Restaurants can market local produce effectively, as well, said Gwen Gulliksen, sales and marketing director for Harvest Sensations in Los Angeles, a specialty arm of foodservice distributor Pro*Act.

“Diners like to ‘know’ their farmer and local produce tastes better so it is becoming popular by default,” Gulliksen said. “Those who have always made the effort can tell you that it always has been popular. It is now just becoming ‘known’ with the growth of the ‘greening’ of America.”

The best way to get involved with local programs is to start using it, even little by little, Gulliksen said.

“Even if you just use one or two items in one or two menu selections and/or specials, do what you can to get it into your menu,” she said. “The best chefs have it all over their menus and identify it on their menus by farm or farmer.”

Naturipe Farms, based in Naples, Fla., has a nationwide network of berry growers, giving the company “local” reach across the U.S.

“We have growers in something like 26 states, including the 14 major producing states,” said Robert Verloop, executive vice president of marketing.

“We work with retailers on a local basis to promote local production. We also see it as a larger, year-round opportunity for bringing in the wider scope of what consumers want. They want local when it’s available, but year-round availability is important, too.”