Last year, Cyndi Watkins took on the title “local forager” at Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market. By her own account, Watkins spent more time outside the store than in it, scouting and courting farmers, ranchers, cheesemakers, bakers and soapmakers within a 100-mile radius of the Richmond, Va., grocer.
These days, Watkins has settled back into her old marketing manager role, and Ellwood Thompson’s stocks thousands of locally made products—from bulk items to bottled water—in every department of the store. Managers in each department are now responsible for local products as well. “We’ve always carried a lot of local,” Watkins says. “But we’ve really switched our focus to local now. Local is definitely increasing in popularity.”
Grocers ranging from small independents to natural foods giant Whole Foods and conventional chain Wal-Mart are touting local to meet what they say is a growing demand from consumers. A survey of 1,609 chefs by the National Restaurant Association ranked locally grown produce as the hottest trend in 2009. “A wide array of influential opinion leaders, from foodies to celebrity chefs, and from economic development gurus to environmentalists, are urging consumers to ‘buy local,’ especially food. Yet there is little hard information on how large the buy-local movement is, or of its future potential,” writes economist Desmond O’Rourke in his October 2009 report, “Lowdown on Buying Local.” O’Rourke is CEO of Pullman, Wash.-based Belrose, world fruit-market analysts.
While buying local might seem as simple as purchasing tomatoes from Farmer Brown just up the road, the definition of exactly what local means and the reasons for buying locally produced goods are far more complex.
Definitions are miles apart
What, precisely, does local mean? There’s no single answer. According to a 2008 study by the Hartman Group, a Bellevue, Wash.-based market research firm, half the consumers surveyed defined local as “made or produced within 100 miles,” while one-third defined it as “made or produced in my state.”
While the 100-mile radius is the standard for Ellwood Thompson’s, New Leaf Community Markets, a six-store chain based in Santa Cruz, Calif., defines its local region as San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, San Benito and Monterey counties in California—less than a 100-mile radius.
Some consumers and retailers define local by geographic parameters. “Some places have mountains. Some places have subways. You have to take that into consideration,” says Debby Swoboda, a Stuart, Fla.-based retail marketing consultant and founder of askDebby.com. Corinne Shindelar, CEO of the Independent Natural Food Retailers Association, agrees. “In areas with high food production, it’s usually a 100-mile radius. In areas where food production is farther out, the radius is also farther out,” she says. “The majority of our retailers define it as the radius around the store and don’t limit it to the state.” For example, she says, if a retailer’s 100-mile radius falls in the boundaries of two or even three states, the grocer will work with producers from all those areas.
Still others think local is anything grown or produced in the United States.
No government regulations
No specific federal or state regulations or guidelines specify what local means, according to the Federal Trade Commission. But O’Rourke speculates that “as the category becomes bigger, there are likely to be calls for a more rigorous, official definition.”
That’s something Watkins would like to see. “It would be really nice to have some regulation. It would avoid confusion, particularly in packaging. Some people around here say, ‘Well, Coke is bottled here, so it’s local.’ No, it’s not.”
On the other hand, some retailers argue that the neighborhood coffee roaster is local, even though the beans are grown in a country thousands of miles away.
Local vs. organic vs. the environment vs. the economy
Arguments over the definitions pale in comparison to arguments over the reasons to buy—or not to buy—local.
On one hand, “local is obviously much fresher than organic from Australia,” Watkins says. On the other, consumers dedicated to certified organic argue that local doesn’t necessarily mean pesticide free.
But, say the locavores, look at all the fossil fuel used to process and ship products from farther away. What about the environmental impact? Not to mention that buying local supports your area’s small farmers and independent businesses, creates jobs and keeps money in the community. Yes, argue their opponents, but how do you define companies like Organic Valley, a national brand that contracts with local producers to transport to local markets? And what about sustainability, fair trade and the global economy?
“It is important for manufacturers, markets and retailers to understand that quality markers, such as use of local ingredients and narratives of local production and origin, are factors that resonate most strongly with consumers when it comes to determining what is authentically local,” says the Hartman Group in its report.
Communicate your vision
“The consumer looking for natural local products is well informed on the topic,” Swoboda says. “You have to give them all sides of the story and then they can make their own choices.” In addition, Shindelar says, natural products retailers “have to communicate … integrity” about how they choose and sell their products. That doesn’t always happen, according to O’Rourke. “There’s fudging going on, particularly with some larger retailers.”
Consumers who want to buy local often cite the importance of making a connection with local producers. Swoboda sees that as a good opportunity for retailers to have local vendors in the store to meet customers, or invite producers to be guest bloggers on the store’s website. She also believes that social media is a great way to make and keep connections—with customers and with local producers. “Use Twitter, for example, to tell your customers: ‘We just discovered that Mrs. Jones from down the street makes incredible carrot cake. She’ll be giving out samples at our store on Saturday.’”
Looking for local
Retailers can help customers find local products on their shelves in any number of ways.
Get the word out.
Signs, fliers, brochures, endcaps and featured display areas are all tried-and-true promotion methods.
Put local on the map.
New Leaf Community Markets identifies local producers on a map in the store and has designed a symbol marking locally made products throughout the store. The store’s Buy Fresh, Buy Local label is featured on locally grown produce and products made with at least 60 percent locally grown ingredients. New Leaf’s website also offers information on its buy-local program.
Ellwood Thompson’s uses signs in its “local green” color for its local products, as well as a brochure listing most of the products. Locally grown produce is ranked “good” on the signs if it comes from farms that use no or low pesticides and are family run or owned; “better” for farms that practice noncertified organic and sustainable growing methods; and “best” if it’s certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or Certified Naturally Grown, a designation from a nonprofit program tailored for small-scale, direct-market farmers using natural methods.
Marketing Manager Cyndi Watkins says that the store runs out of local items once in a while, “but that’s what makes it special. One woman makes a certain kind of cheese that’s available one month a year. People look forward
Jane Hoback is a writer and editor in Denver. She tries not to drive the 10 blocks to her local grocery store to buy locally grown apples.