Kevin Flaim is somewhat of a celebrity in the Collingswood, N.J. area. He’s not a movie or TV star or some famous athlete or author. He’s not even someone who’s just famous for being famous.

Flaim is a vegetable grower. And in today’s expanding world of farmers markets and locally grown produce, that makes him — and other growers who sell their products locally — a big deal in Collingswood on Saturday mornings.

“You can’t overemphasize how important locally grown has become,” said Al Murray, New Jersey’s assistant secretary of agriculture. “People develop relationships with farmers. A lot of these guys, like Kevin … if there’s a weekend where he isn’t there, people start asking about him, wanting to know why he isn’t there.”

The concept of locally grown produce has existed as long as growers have produced goods, but has picked up steam over the past few years.

Recent outbreaks of foodborne illness, such as the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak last summer, have raised consumer awareness of where fresh fruits and vegetables are coming from. Traceability always seems to be less an issue the less distance a product moves from farm to market.

“I think the big thing is trust,” said Bryan Black, assistant commissioner for communications for the Texas Department of Agriculture. “When people have grown around the area, you know those people and know that those people can be trusted.”

According to figures kept by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of farmers markets in the U.S. reached 4,692 in 2006, its most recent year of data. That was a 50% increase from five years earlier. Sales from those markets reached $1 billion.

In New Jersey alone, the number of farmers markets has risen from 35 to more than 120 in just the last few years, Murray said.

Locally grown grows quickly

    Courtesy Texas Department of Agriculture

Shoppers pick up locally grown produce at the Austin, Texas farmers market May 2. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were 4,692 farmers markets in the U.S. in 2006.

What is local?

There are no federal guidelines or standards for what constitutes locally grown produce, and that can be a problem, especially for growers who feel their “local” territory is being infringed upon.

“Nothing burns our growers more than when some out-of-state fruit or vegetable is sitting in a display and it’s being called locally grown,” Murray said. “We’re exploring standards to regulate the meaning of that term. I don’t know what the answer is to that. But it’s going to take a national action by somebody.”

Until then, locally grown depends on “what’s important to that customer,” said Mike O’Brien, vice president of produce for Schnuck Markets Inc., St. Louis.

The California Grown consumer ad campaign started in 2001 considers locally grown as what is produced in the state.
Same for Texas, Black said.

“We want Texans to buy Texas products. That’s the bottom line,” he said.

Movement expanding

Whatever one considers locally grown, what’s certain is that the movement has grown significantly in recent years and continues expanding in 2009.

According to a survey commissioned by Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill and conducted by Harris Interactive, half of adults said it was important for restaurants in their local areas to purchase produce from local farms. A majority said they were more likely to dine at restaurants that purchased produce locally.

Also, after declining for more than a century, the number of small farms has increased 20% in the past six years, to 1.2 million, according to the USDA.

Last year’s farm bill set aside $2.3 billion for specialty crops like eggplant and salad greens grown by those small farms. While that might not seem like a big chunk out of the $290 billion bill, it was a big jump from the $100 million spent on such items in previous legislation.

“We’re seeing it more from consumers,” said Maile Shanahan Geis, executive director for California Grown, Sacramento.

“We’re getting more hits to our Web site, inquiries from consumers, more emphasis from retailers. A lot of retailers are using our logo.”

Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the California Avocado Commission, Irvine, said her organization recently performed a tracking study that “found that, from the fall of 2007 to ’08, the percentage of people who said they think of premium quality, taste, freshness and food safety when they think of locally grown avocados increased from 47 to 55.”

L&M Cos. Inc., Raleigh, N.C., uses locally grown promotions in marketing its bell peppers in Kentucky and Tennessee.

“Local grown is very important to us,” said Adam Lytch, grower development manager for eastern vegetables and melons for L&M. “We’re working with state departments of agriculture using their ongoing promotions. We’re also doing in-store with farmers actually in the stores showing their local-grown products.

“We’re also working with a lot of retailers and foodservice to be their local-grown provider.”

Retailers are jumping on the locally grown movement while it’s hot.

Wal-Mart has planned about 200 locally grown events nationwide and in-store signage in 42 states this summer, said Amelia Neufeld, media manager for the company in California.

“Wal-Mart is working to grow its partnerships with local farmers and to purchase locally grown produce whenever possible,” Neufeld said.

During summers, Publix Super Markets Inc., Lakeland, Fla., highlights locally grown products at stores in many states, such as Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama, touting local products such as peaches, blueberries and watermelon.

“We’ve had a very positive response from our customers,” said Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for Publix. “Today’s customers are concerned about the environment and also about the economy. Anytime we can educate our customers about our commitment to sourcing produce close to home, it’s a win-win for everyone.”

O’Brien said Schnucks has also ramped up its programs. It works with more than 25 growers local to their pertinent stores.

O’Brien said local deliveries often go directly to store, bypassing the warehouse, to ensure the freshest product and save consumers money.

“Our local grown programs have increased year to year,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of feedback with customers that this is what they want. We have a lot of tomato growers that deliver straight to our stores.”

No matter how the locally grown movement expands or contracts in the future, most agree — selling, buying and consuming more locally grown produce is good for nearly everyone.

“I would think if produce tastes good, and we’re selling more produce, then I think everyone benefits in the long run,” O’Brien said.

“I would think that, while people are coming into our stores to buy local grown produce, there’s an opportunity for them to purchase more product from somewhere else, like California, because of impulse buys. Everybody wins.”