ANAHEIM, Calif. — Small growers are the new rock stars, but they’re not the only ones who should be able to reap fame and fortune from the booming trend of locally grown fresh produce.

Cashing in on locally grown produce

Retailers and foodservice operators can also cash in, but only if they’re savvy enough, said speakers at the Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit 2009 Oct. 3 seminar, “Locally Grown Produce & Profits: How They Go Hand In Hand.”

Industry experts provided advice and firsthand accounts of how successful produce-related businesses can become by playing up “buy local” marketing angles.

Even though locally grown food often costs more than conventional or organic, statistics support the notion that the locally grown phenomenon is not only recession-resistant but here to stay, as American consumers are buying it more and more, regardless of cost.

In response to one audience member who claimed it’s difficult to profit from locally grown produce because it costs so much more, Maurice Totty, director of procurement for Foodbuy LLC, Charlotte, N.C., offered advice on how to convert the trend into profits at retail.

“Invite your local farmer into your store and let him explain why it’s a dollar more,” Totty said, saying consumers will pay more and allow retailers to profit more if customers are allowed to connect with growers and compare the taste of locally grown produce to alternatives.

Referring to a recent promotion one of the stores in his group put on, Totty said, “It was the greatest promotion we’ve ever had.”

Calling locally grown the “fastest growing phenomenon in the produce industry” because “people like that warm, fuzzy feeling they get” from buying a product that tastes good and helps the local economy, Totty and other speakers said they believe “buy local” will not be a short-lived fad.

“Why are people going back to their roots and nesting?” Lorna Christie, chief operating officer for the Newark, Del.-based PMA asked rhetorically while moderating the session.

“This is a mainstream movement and a reaction to slick marketing and merchandising.”

Christie noted effective marketing for locally grown produce doesn’t have to be fancy or costly. On the contrary: the simpler, the better — and the more effective. She suggested down-to-earth signs such as hand-drawn chalkboard messages at point-of-purchase have proven effective for some.

To maximize the profitability of the buy local movement, Christie suggested retailers and foodservice operators acquaint themselves with the motivations behind the movement.

She said recent surveys show 3 in 4 consumers want to support local growers, 3 in 4 also choose local over organic, almost half think locally grown food can save them money, and about 2 in 5 think food sourced locally tastes better than alternatives.

Christie and Totty also agreed local produce can increase restaurant sales.

“Turn your foodservice establishment into a retail establishment,” Totty said. “Set up a retail-type display to increase your restaurant sales, (hyping the fact that your restaurant) is benefiting local farmers.

“Saying these are the tomatoes you ate on the buffet today” can provide a powerful, profitable, visual message,” Totty said.

Panelists and audience members, however, struggled to explain why many consumers flock to farmers markets in lieu of retail locations for locally grown food.

The seminar also hinted that, while large growers and retailers have their advantages with pricing and selection while small growers and retailers stand to make the most from the local-grown trend, those in the mid-sized range could be in trouble.

“Mid-sized growers risk extinction because they don’t have an audience,” Totty said.