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'Virginia Grown' initiative brings retailers and farmers together

by Christina DiMartino | June 07, 2011

"Virginia Grown," the state's locally grown initiative, was developed over 12 years ago. Kent Lewis, director of sales and market development for the Virginia Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, said that the program has grown tremendously since then.


"The program was original developed for the green market, pick-your-own and roadside stand categories," said Mr. Lewis. "Then retail chains started to request the materials and to participate. Today, the VDACS operates two locally grown divisions, one that continues to oversee the smaller merchants and one that caters to the retail chain category."

Mr. Lewis believes that locally grown is important to consumers today, and he said that increasing numbers of retailers are joining forces with the department to participate in the program.

"Our goal is to market and increase the visibility of the 'Virginia Grown' trademark on the chainstore level," he explained. "More larger chains are participating today in Virginia and other areas of the East Coast. It's good for everyone: growers, retailers and consumers. It puts everyone on a different pedestal."

He added that the program has been strong from the first day it was launched. The department offers banners, point-of-sale materials, kids' coloring books and more to those who participate.

Mr. Lewis' staff is involved with promoting to retail chains, asking them to use the point-of-sale materials in their produce departments. Although the Virginia Grown program has separate logos for the meat and nursery categories, fresh produce is where it has the strongest participation.

"Some retailers prefer to use their own locally grown programs within their stores," he said. "That's OK with us, as long as they're buying fruits and vegetables from Virginia's growers."

Like other states' locally grown initiatives, the Virginia Grown program is at the financial mercy of the state budget -- and also like others, budgets have declined in recent years.

"We used to run print ads, billboards and run other programs," he said. "And hopefully we'll be able to do it again in the future. But for now, we have to pick the projects that give us the best return for our money. The most important effort we make is in letting people know about the program and helping them to get the trademark in front of people through their own promotions and in-store displays."

Growers and retailers are not required to sign up to participate in the "Virginia Grown" program. It is available to any grower or retailer that wants to be involved. Hundreds of growers use it today at farmers markets, roadside stands and pick-your-own operations.

"Our main emphasis is on our production-area tours today," said Mr. Lewis. "We bring field and corporate buyers into production areas of Virginia to see the field conditions, packinghouses and to talk with growers on a one-to-one basis. That usually leads to more business for the grower and often times it brings them new business."

This year, the department has worked with a corrugated-box manufacturer to design and develop a pumpkin bin that incorporates the "Virginia Grown" trademark. "The 36-inch bins have the logo and our web site," said Mr. Lewis. "Growers will be packing pumpkins in the bins in August and September for delivery to retailers."