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Summer is here, and a great number of farmers markets (also called green markets) are popping up on the scene selling fresh fruits and vegetables. The products being offered to shoppers at the markets normally send a message of being locally grown. That’s what the majority of consumers trusts and believes.

However, is all of the produce on display actually locally grown? If so, where was it grown?

Let’s suppose a farmer drove 107 miles from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, PA, to sell fresh produce at a farmers market. Would it be acceptable to claim that the produce is locally grown?

I live in Reno, NV, close to the California border. Some of our supermarket ads state “local” on produce items that I know are grown in Salinas, CA, a distance of 312 miles, or a five-hour drive. Therefore, do the advertised items qualify as local? Since we’re in a close proximity, the product appears to be local, but in another sense is not. It’s a toss-up that consumers need to decide for themselves.

In the Sept. 29, 2008, issue of The Produce News, I wrote an article headlined, “What exactly is meant by local produce?” Close to three years later, this question still brings a number of different answers. As an industry, we are having a difficult time formalizing it with some type of guideline.

Does local mean from someone’s backyard, a small family farm, or within the city or a nearby state? Is it 50 miles away, 100 miles, 250 miles or farther? Currently, there are no rules or laws that define “locally grown” in detail. “Organic” was defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture several years ago, but what is considered “local” is still up for interpretation.

“Local” is a trendy word that has substantial elasticity and is used almost everywhere these days. This has created confusion within the produce industry and especially with consumers. When a shopper in Boston spots a locally grown sign on an item and the package label reveals it was packed by a California company, the term “local” loses much of its impact.

 

Close to home

“Local high school team wins state title” was a headline in a local newspaper late last year. Obviously, that high school was located in the area where the newspaper was published. It wasn’t from a town 350 miles away or a nearby state. “Local” in the headline meant that it was within that town and community. People typically think of “local” as being close to home.

When a television weather announcer in New York City says, “Local isolated rain mixed with snow is possible,” does it apply to Rochester or Syracuse? Certainly not. Viewers consider it to be meant for the New York metropolitan area, close to their homes.

According to Anthony Totta, produce consultant and owner of Grow My Profits LLC and a member of FreshXperts in Kansas City, MO, “I would say ‘local’ in most folks’ minds means within a state or their state. If they are on the dividing line like Kansas City, the meaning may include a bordering state as well. I do not think distance is the determining factor. My recommendation would be that the industry uses the words “local farm raised” meaning not raised commercially in the mainstream many states away.”

Paul Kneeland, vice president of produce and floral for Kings Super Markets in Parsippany, NJ, added, “I think some companies that trade in multiple areas have a tougher time with local from a sign-management perspective. The non-definition of local is the hardest part of the whole thing because everyone defines it differently. I believe that as part of the next phase of the farm bill, they are going to put some guidelines on it. From our perspective, we have to look at it through the consumers’ eyes. Our stores in New Jersey and New York have local defined as New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. Our stores in Virginia and Maryland are defined as Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania, and our stores in southern Connecticut are Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. I think people understand that [local is] no more than 100 miles or three hours.”

Ken Meyers, chief operating officer of Kegel’s Produce in Lancaster, PA, said, “Local is a fresh produce option being embraced by all. As a wholesaler, we have implemented strict standards to maintain food safety. This is one hurdle I see the industry having a tough time overcoming. As regional crops are harvested, thousands of small operations are thrust into the fresh produce network. Many small operations do not have the resources or knowledge needed to maintain records and keep up with industry guidelines.”

More retailers are capitalizing on the trend, but simply placing the word “local” on items that are shipped in from hundreds of miles away is misleading and overstating the program.

Consumers today are smarter and wiser. They will ask more questions and expect honest answers. Perhaps they will be the determining factor in steering the industry to clarify “locally grown” once and for all.

(Ron Pelger is the owner of RONPROCON, a consulting firm for the produce industry, and a member of the FreshXperts consortium of produce professionals. He can be reached by phone at 775/853-7056, by e-mail at ron@power-produce.com, or check his web site at www.power-produce.com.)