Locale Not Local

It is now commonplace to say consumers thirst for “locally grown” produce. Yet qualitative research being done by Produce Business is starting to indicate this is not the complete story.

With the help of a generous grant from Stemilt Growers, we’ve been exploring consumer attitudes toward locally grown produce in an ongoing series of focus groups this author has moderated in London, England, and Houston, TX. A presentation of some of the findings was made at the PMA convention in Houston.

As the groups discussed locally grown, it became evident consumers in different places feel differently about this issue. Even when endorsing locally grown, they are expressing different preferences that mean very different things than what the trade understands locally grown to mean.

Enthusiasm for locally grown only applies to traditional agricultural areas. If you ask consumers in Houston if they yearn for locally grown, you get a lot of, “Not if they’re growing it by the BP refinery!” Participants exhibited skepticism about hypothetical farming operations set up to grow things locally, doubting the expertise of the farmers or the quality of the product.

When we pointed out in London that sections of France were far closer than the hinterlands of Scotland, the hosannas switched from an undefined “Local” to a patriotic “British.” In Houston, when we pointed out Mexico was closer than, say, Washington, participants did not want more Mexican produce.

Now it appears there were different dynamics at work. In London, the desire for British produce seemed an expression of nationalism, a dislike for things foreign or, at least, French. In Houston, the preference for American produce seemed an expression of distrust with the food safety and quality standards in Mexico.

Either way, the significance is clear — locally grown, as consumers understand the term, can and does encompass much more than propinquity.

Group participants did not like locally grown as an end in itself. They liked it because they identified locally grown as incorporating or offering several distinct advantages. This is significant because produce shipped nationally or internationally could equally please consumers if it could deliver on the important attributes consumers hope to get from buying local.

Here are some of the key locally grown attributes:

  • Fresh — Consumers figure something grown nearby should be fresher when purchased. Freshness has many attributes but seems to principally relate to quality and “shelf life” in the home.
  • Flavor — Group participants reasoned locally grown produce could be kept growing longer and thus would be more flavorful.
  • Less Expensive — Figuring there should be major savings in transportation, consumers expect locally grown to be cheaper than product shipped across the country or around the world.

Many things commonly believed to be drivers of the locally grown movement were factors for only a small minority or in only certain circumstances:

  • Knowing where food comes from — A cardboard cutout of a farmer in-store, even on a Web site, didn’t allow consumers to know, in any meaningful way, where their food came from. A few made a point of buying from farmer’s markets or box schemes where they actually met the farmers and/or visited the farms. For most, however, a farm six hours away might as well have been 600 hours away.
  • Carbon Reduction — Although there was more talk on this in England than here, there was skepticism about the significance of produce procurement in saving the world from global warming. There was also much discussion of produce sent to distant depots negating any carbon reduction. In both countries, the sense was there was not enough evidence to motivate a change in behavior on this basis.

Beyond these specific points, there was a general yearning for authenticity and supporting “one’s own.” However, one’s own was seen as mostly a matter of nationalism, and authenticity seemed less a matter of geography than of consumer perception of history.

Geography doesn’t seem to be the main point of the local phenomenon. While posing challenges for imports, retail promotion methods, rather than intrinsic appeal, may be driving locally grown. Because retailers promote locally grown, consumers — predisposed to think fresher, more flavorful and less expensive — jump on the bandwagon.

If they could be assured of fresh, flavor and cost, consumers, at least in these focus groups, were looking for authentic farmers who knew what they were doing and cared for the land and the crop.

In other words, consumers were more accepting of a Cape Cod farmer growing cranberries than of a local guy who decided to grow cranberries to sell to a supermarket.

The challenge for shippers is to persuade consumers of the authenticity of their farms — to make consumers think of Delano for grapes or Yakima for apples the way they think of Napa for wine.

After the presentation in Houston, your humble correspondent had dinner with Roberta Cook of U.C. Davis. As we discussed what these consumers were telling us, she exclaimed, “It’s locale, not local.” And, in a phrase, she caught it.

Consumers want their food raised with love by farmers deeply knowledgeable about the land and its fruits. They want it to grow in the right places, with the right soil, water and sunshine — under the watchful eye of a farmer who cares. Communication of that authenticity is the challenge for a national shipper as we approach 2008.