Consumers are beginning to understand that “homegrown” and “organic” are not interchangeable terms, according to organic shippers and marketers, as well as industry observers.

Their education is by no means finished, though, said Joy Goodwin, assistant professor in Department of Agriculture Education and Communication and Center for Public Issues Education and Agricultural and Natural Resources at the University of Florida.

“Within the last year, we did research with consumers in Florida and held discussion groups, focusing on local food, and organics kept coming up,” Goodwin said.

Participants would regularly use “homegrown” and “organic” interchangeably, Goodwin said.

“But a lot of consumers could see the difference,” she said.

Talking with farmers

Some are drawing distinct lines between homegrown and organic, Goodwin said.

“A lot of times, consumers would say local food has the advantage of being able to know the farmer and talk to the farmer,” Goodwin said.

Through such interactions, consumers learn how foods are produced, as well as where, Goodwin said.

“It’s not as important that the food is organic if people know how the food is produced. It’s more important to them to be able to talk with and learn from the farmer,” she said.

The research indicated a split between participants who said organic was more important and those who had a preference for homegrown, Goodwin said.

“There were also people who thought organic food was expensive and overrated, and there were people who thought the organic movement was more popular than the local food movement.”

Some participants said organic enjoyed an edge in news coverage or publicity.

The organic marketing message often is more emphatic, too, since large-scale growers in a certain area often have wide, even global, distribution networks, Goodwin said.

“With small producers, maybe they aren’t doing as good a job as getting the word out about their local product,” she said. “People told us they didn’t see ads for local foods and didn’t know where to find it. There were barriers to accessing local food.”

The local and organic categories often overlap, she said.

“If a producer is local and organic, I think a lot of consumers would add value to that,” Goodwin said. “(If) a producer is in a situation where they are growing organically and they can market it locally, they should make sure they are branding and marketing product that way.”

Confused consumers

Goodwin said consumer perceptions of what constituted “local produce” often were fuzzier than their understanding of the organic category.

That’s understandable, said Amber Kosinsky, marketing director for Wish Farms, a Plant City, Fla.-based organic berry grower.

“There are different perceptions of local, whether it’s from down the street, in the same state or region or even U.S. vs. imports,” Kosinsky said.

Organic, on the other hand, is now a legal term, as defined in detail by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Simcha Weinstein, marketing director with Bridgeport, N.J.-based Albert’s Organics.

“We therefore know how the (organic) food is grown and processed. There is no standard or definition for what constitutes local — at least not yet,” he said.

Media discussions of organic and homegrown often blur the two categories, which doesn’t help, Weinstein said.

“It’s not at all an uncommon assumption for shoppers to believe that food that is grown locally is also organic,” he said.

That’s a huge misperception, which is “confounded by the fact that so much of the food you see at local farmers markets is labeled as organic,” Weinstein said.

Homegrown may be — but doesn’t have to be — organic, Weinstein said.

“Organic and local are not the same, and just because something is grown locally does not mean that it is raised using organic farming methods,” he said.

Both categories have their strengths, Weinstein said.

“The ideal, of course, is to find food that is both local and organic. That is the optimal food system,” he said.