Along with its usual retail-focused promotions, Florida’s sweet corn growers and packers plan to use new media to help show consumers that Florida fresh sweet corn is available during other times of the year.

Through the Maitland-based Florida Sweet Corn Exchange, the industry plans to continue to spread the word that Florida fresh sweet corn is available throughout the fall, winter and spring, not just during the summer, which many shoppers associate with corn.

Prolonged freezing weather which struck Palm Beach County and Homestead, Fla., growing regions in January didn’t affect spring plantings and Jason Stemm, associate vice president of the New York-based Lewis & Neale Inc., the exchange’s marketing and public relations firm, said the freeze hasn’t prompted the industry to adjust any of its promotional programs.

Changes in technology and digital connectivity have forced everyone to reconsider how they are reaching consumers, Stemm said.

Social media focus
The industry plans to construct a fan page on Facebook to build a community of corn lovers to share recipes and ideas to enjoy Florida supersweet corn and to support the growing presence of retail chains.

“Florida corn growers are looking to utilize the opportunities that the social Web offers by conversing directly with consumers,” he said.  “The expansion of high-speed connectivity and growth of smart phones have helped the social web develop quickly. Engagement with consumers is an opportunity and challenge in this new space as we all try to evolve from the traditional paradigm of pushing out information to the masses via print and broadcast outlets to a conversation directly with the end user.”

To support this change in communication, Stemm said Florida’s corn industry is retooling its Web site to better serve the needs of consumers and retailers. One page will be dedicated to point of sale and training support.

The industry plans to work with newspaper and magazine food writers and editors and television personalities such as Mr. Food as well as others in the social media, such as bloggers, to help build awareness that fresh corn is available in the market in April and May, Stemm said.

Florida typically produces its biggest promotable corn volume during April and May.

The industry has developed relationships with leading food publications to get them to start thinking about corn availability earlier in the year.

Those investments have seen them featuring more corn-based recipes throughout the year, particularly in the spring, Stemm said.

Retail support

A team of retail merchandisers remains in close contact with retail buyers and category mangers and updates them on what consumers think about buying corn.

As part of its retail promotions, the exchange plans retail sales and display contests. While the exchange has funded such efforts in the past, Stemm said the industry is looking into tying such promotions into other larger promotions conducted by chains throughout their retail stores.

Category management research the exchange funded a couple of years ago provided some good tips and best practices advice to retailers and helped prompt them to start thinking about featuring corn in events and other holidays such as Easter, Cinco de Mayo, when consumers think about buying food.

“We are trying to give consumers some other ways to be thinking about preparing and enjoying corn outside of their traditional summer thoughts,” Stemm said. “That’s why education is a key component and challenge. We are trying to get retailers to market and display corn outside of summer months not as a loss-leader but something that can help bring consumers to the stores and help them make more profits.”

Using funds from a $100,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture farm bill specialty crop grant, the exchange in 2009 photographed growers for advertisements and for visuals to be used in retail point-of-sale material designed to increase awareness of Florida corn availability.

Growers  John Scott Hundley of Loxahatchee, Fla.-based Hundley Farms Inc. and Tommy Holt, a co-owner of S. M. Jones & Co. Inc., Belle Glade, Fla., along with their wives and children were filmed in corn fields. The growers were used to help show consumers how Florida corn is brought to them by real growers.

The exchange this season plans to use remaining funds from the grant for a series of radio advertisements scheduled to run on stations in Florida and in select northeastern U.S. markets, such as New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston as well as Chicago.

The growers’ photos will be used in a series of retail promotional materials such as price cards that fit into produce display wire racks, recipe and information leaflets and three- by five-inch tear pads that focus on different ways consumers can prepare corn.

Consumer focus
The material shows how consumers can roast corn. Stemm said roasting is important because many consumers early in the season may think it’s too cold to begin grilling. Other information shows how consumers can grill and microwave ears of corn.

A sudden interest in skillet steaming prompted the exchange to produce material showing how consumers can put ears of corn in a skillet with two inches of water and steam the corn in 4-5 minutes versus the 20 minutes it might take to boil the corn.

The exchange this spring also plans to apply for another USDA specialty crop grant to fund consumer and category research through the University of Florida, Gainesville.

Survey results would not only help with corn merchandising but could also be applied to other Florida-grown commodities, something Stemm said USDA grant writers like to see.

In another retail promotion, growers plan to continue a retail-based charitable program they started last season.

Last season, exchange growers contributed more than $25,000 to charitable programs by donating five cents per crate the stores bought to the retailer-chosen charities.

Calling the program successful, Stemm said the exchange is slightly reworking the program, which runs for two weeks mid-April to mid-May, to allow more retailer flexibility.