While the locally grown fresh produce craze took root in 2007, it took off in earnest in 2008 (ranking as No. 4 on our list of top stories). Proving it wasn’t a one-hit wonder, the locally grown movement earned the No. 7 slot in this year’s countdown.

#7 story of 2009: Locally grown food movement expands

The topic dominated discussions at industry conventions in 2009 as leaders tried to determine how to fully maximize locally grown from a profitability standpoint.

Locally grown, in fact, proved popular enough to draw plenty of attention in The Packer’s last Produce Pulse survey of the year, where people in the produce industry reiterated how important locally grown still is.

About 35% polled touted the locally grown produce craze as the No. 1 trend story for 2009 — and who could blame them, as that topic took an intriguing turn when New Jersey and New York dramatically cut funding for “Jersey Fresh” and “The Pride of New York” despite their proven success and popularity.

In November, a report outlining the challenges of locally grown food indicated consumers can’t get enough of it.

However, that report found there is little strong data on how big the local food market is now or how big it will become. The movement tends to overlook the economic benefits in trade between regions, the report said.

On the other hand, all signs point to large buyers increasing their buy-local emphasis in the near future.

As the local movement has challenged the organic movement, the report indicated some other concern may emerge to challenge the trend.

Government intervention to define “local” more precisely could also inhibit retailer strategies, for instance.

What’s more, the competitive advantage for retailers to feature local produce could dissipate as the trend becomes more widespread.

Bryan Silbermann’s State of the Industry speech at the Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit 2009 in Anaheim, Calif., in October, focused some on the locally grown movement and its profitability potential.

Fresh Summit speakers stressed American consumers are buying more and more locally grown produce, regardless of cost.

To maximize the profitability of the buy local movement, speakers suggested retailers and foodservice operators acquaint themselves with the motivations behind the movement, citing surveys showing 75% of consumers want to support local growers, 75% also choose local over organic, almost 50% think locally grown food can save them money, and about 40% think food sourced locally tastes better than alternatives.

Speakers also raved about how locally grown produce on restaurant menus helped buoy foodservice sales mostly flailing because of the recession.

In fact, a summer survey suggested locally grown as one of the top trends in the restaurant industry.

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 U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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.