( Courtesy New Jersey Department of Agriculture )

Companies have their own definition of what “local produce” means, but the consensus is the closer the better. 

Calling U.S.A.-grown produce “local” is a bit of a stretch when it’s cross-country. Regional is better, and in-state is even better. 

And produce that’s grown within 150 miles of consumption? Pretty much the best.

When it comes to tropical fruit and root vegetables, grown in South Florida is pretty local, said Jessie Capote, executive vice president of Miami-based J&C Tropicals. His family has been farming in the Homestead and Redlands agricultural areas of South Florida since 1963, growing items such as avocados, mangoes, dragon fruit, the boniato variety of sweet potato, lychee, starfruit, mamey sapote and limes.

“Before local was trending, we’ve been Florida-grown,” Capote said. “It’s an enormous part of our marketing effort. We’re very proud of our heritage.”

In all of J&C Tropicals’ labeling it says “J&C Tropicals Homegrown,” from the the PLU sticker on each piece of fruit and the packaging to in-store demontrations, retailer point-of-sale materials and all marketing and advertising.

July is right smack in the middle of South Florida’s tropical produce high season, which runs April through November.

About 30% of the company’s annual distribution comes from Florida and the rest is imported, but during this time of year, about 70% of the produce is from Florida, Capote said.

Some grocery stores are even growing produce within the store, such as the mushrooms at Whole Foods Market in Brooklyn, N.Y., where there is also a leafy greens grower on a rooftop greenhouse, Gotham Greens. 

Hudson, Ohio-based Free! Leafy Greens, another hydroponic grower in controlled environment agriculture, ships salad greens to retailers as far as 200 miles from the farm, usually within 48 hours after harvest.

The concept for this company’s hands-free, fully automated cultivation method came in 2017, and the greenhouse started operating in February, said Mark Chenoweth, executive vice president of sales and marketing.

“Business has been great. Many retailers are reducing their conventionally grown product, choosing greenhouse-grown product due to the increased safety and freshness,” Chenoweth said.

State-grown brands

Most state agriculture departments offer state-grown, and sometimes certified, marketing tools featuring a logo, such as “Fresh from Florida,” “Maryland’s Best,” “Jersey Fresh,” “CA Grown” and “Go Texan.”

Launched in 1984, Jersey Fresh was possibly the first state-branding initiative of produce grown in the state. 

“This year, with the stay-at-home orders in place and reduced traffic on New Jersey roadways, we opted to launch our season with targeted online display and responsive ads reaching primary shoppers who have shown an interest in fresh produce, and introduce billboards and radio as more and more people began to use their vehicles again,” said Joe Atchsion III, director of marketing and development at New Jersey Department of Agriculture.

All participants have access to Jersey Fresh point-of-purchase materials, including banners, price cards, bin wraps, pennants, stickers, truck decals, hats and aprons, along with a digital version of the Jersey Fresh logo in each company’s different marketing efforts.

Direct marketing and farmers markets

The steep drop in foodservice customers for growers has meant finding new revenue streams, such as direct marketing and farmers markets, both which can keep the produce distribution local.

State agriculture departments, such as Georgia and North Carolina, have created interactive maps and lists of where consumers can do curb-side pickup of produce from their local farmers.

Georgia’s department launched a Georgia Grown To-Go program, offering contactless drive-through markets around the state to support the state’s farmers.

The Atlanta State Farmers Market, which is also a wholesale market terminal, saw an increase in consumers shopping at the retail side, said Jeff Howard, markets manager.

“The pandemic, I think it’s brought more people outside. I think they learned to appreciate open-air shopping a little more. I walk this market every single day and talk to different vendors, and everyone’s talking about the uptick in sales,” Howard said.

The same is true in the Northeast.

Farmers markets didn’t close, even in New York City, which was once the epicenter of the pandemic. 

“Farmers markets are reporting increases in business year-over-year, which they are attributing to COVID-19 and peoples’ desire for local products,” Atchison said. 

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