My work often takes me away from Northern California, but I always love driving home. There's a particular spot along Highway 37, where Marin and Sonoma counties meet, where I can roll down my window no matter the weather, take a deep breath and know I'm home. The scent is so distinct and familiar—it's grapevines and grass-covered hills—that I wouldn't even need to have my eyes open to recognize this sense of place.
This idea is also taking root in the United States, particularly in the evolving organic marketplace. The organic industry is large enough to provide impressive produce selections nearly everywhere we go these days. We have federal standards in place that safeguard the integrity of organics, and we are still growing at a strong clip.
But as is the case with many evolutionary periods, some parts of the industry are experiencing some fallout. As many organic farms grow larger and sell produce cheaper, some smaller growers are feeling the squeeze. They are unable to compete on this uneven playing field and are looking for other ways to stay economically viable.
That's where the idea of terroir comes into play. Many consumers who buy organic believe their purchases support an ideal—the pastoral family farm. But this is not necessarily the case, nor can it be in a growing global industry. Even those customers who purposefully choose to buy local don't always have a connection to the farm, or an understanding of the sense of place.
If you don't hear that, it's opportunity knocking.
Our stores can provide that needed and wanted connection to place during times of change. Pride in place can counter the ignorance that often results from affluence and erodes family livelihoods, farms and community. Stores such as Wal-Mart can only offer a sense of price but never a sense of place.
Terroir describes what many growers have always known about their farms. Growers can tell magical stories about daily and seasonal life cycles. They can tell you what elements create great flavor and why. This is what distinguishes farms with handpicked and packed produce from those that fill the organic marketplace's commodity needs.
There's a wonderful program in France that illustrates the connection between customers and local farms. The supermarket group E.LECLERC created a program built on these regional love affairs called "Nos Regions ont du Talent," or "Our regions have got talent." These independent grocers offer 15 percent to 18 percent of their shelf space to regional products and producers. According to a November 1999 article in New Product Sightings by Amanda Archibald, "E.LECLERC is actively promoting and cross-marketing regionally produced products throughout France. In true E.LECLERC fashion, not only does this campaign provide an even more diverse choice of products to the French consumer, but it also gives the small regional producer a chance to shine in a national market."
E.LECLERC could be a perfect model for retailers looking to give customers a better sense of community, true flavor and connection with their food. The E.LECLERC program includes grower profiles that feature, but go beyond, warm, fuzzy family-farm pictures.
Customers want what these farmers have. Promoting terroir is a way to let customers participate in that magic and wonder. This concept could be the next step in helping consumers understand their role in family farming's future. By understanding the sense of place, they will know how housing developments or casinos in the Capay valley near Sacramento, for example, affect the food and farms they have come to know. At the least, appreciating terroir gives shoppers the sense that they, too, are part of the magic that comes from appreciating a sense of place.
Mark Mulcahy runs an organic education and produce consulting firm. He can be reached at 707.939.8355 or by e-mail at [email protected].
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 5/p. 30