Locally grown produce has become common in retail and restaurants. Farmers are touted by name and region. It’s part of a strategy to respond to consumers who want to know more about their food – where it comes from and who is growing it.

That interest is here to stay.

The National Restaurant Association named “locally grown produce” as the No. 2 trend in its 2014 Culinary Forecast, after locally sourced meats and seafood. Local sourcing has been among the top trends for the last five years and is expected to be among the hottest menu trends 10 years from now.

What does this mean for grower-shippers? While it may be tempting to separate the action items for “big” versus “small” farmers, digging into the factors underlying this trend reveals an opportunity to strengthen the link between farm and fork for all suppliers.

As we know, local has many definitions.

The Hartman Group finds that 57% of survey respondents completely agree that “buy local” means buying food products grown “close to home and sold within their community,” while 47% completely agree it means “buying food products grown within 100 miles.”

Fewer individuals define local as products grown in their state or region. Further, the concept of local may be about image. According to the Hartman Group, “fresh agricultural products and romanticized notions of family farms are a central part of what make up ‘buying local’ in the minds of consumers.”

Thus, sharing more about the farmer may be as important as sharing his GPS coordinates.

Proponents of the “buy local” movement equate local with “fresh,” “sustainable” and “trusted.” Bolstered by perceptions that “buying local” helps strengthen communities, these benefits provide value.

In terms of “freshness,” it’s hard to deny there is a texture and crispness to produce immediately post-harvest that is difficult to maintain after vacuum-cooling and shipping.

Studies also show that consumers equate local with sustainable in terms of reduced food miles, fair labor/social practices, and enhanced animal welfare. These perceptions are closely tied to trust and transparency.

In retail or foodservice, there may be an intermediary between the farmer and the consumer, but the logic still holds true.

“My” local restaurateur or “my” local grocer knows where the food comes from, and I trust him to deliver a product that is good for the environment, good for me and good for the community.

Supporting local businesses is seen as a way to not only increase local economic prosperity, but also make communities more vibrant. It’s about neighbors helping neighbors. And in the case of operators, it’s about local farmers being responsive.

A local grower can try new items and varieties, and respond quickly to customers. If a local restaurant says, “I’ll take 20 pounds per week of Padron peppers,” it won’t be long before those peppers are delivered to the back door.

A local grower can tell operators “if you want it, I will grow it.”

So what does this mean for the “non-local” grower? First, all growers must demonstrate their commitment to freshness. Operator demand for “fresh” is an opportunity to communicate efficiencies in your supply chain, including speed to market and quality-focused initiatives.

When it comes to sustainability, are you proactively communicating your company’s efforts? Have you spelled out how your company contributes to local economies?

If you are working with other growers or through associations to address resource use or other shared issues, have you told that story? Have you measured the outcomes of your efforts to share the true impact (i.e. gallons of water saved, pounds of plastic recycled, etc.)?

Paramount Citrus features employees on its boxes. Humanizing your company is an effective way to introduce narratives about your brand.

You can build trust — in part — through efforts related to food safety.

Have you adopted a food safety culture? Talk about not only steps you take to minimize risk, but also how providing safe food reflects your company’s values and commitment to doing the right thing. Also, think about how you may be able to provide value to customers where other local suppliers can’t.

Do you have data or access to trends info that you can share with operators? Are you trying new varieties? Can you serve as a resource related to menu innovation?

The trend toward locally grown produce is part of a larger, positive story in agriculture: food is playing a greater role in Americans’ consciousness and wellbeing, and fruits and vegetables play a central role in that.

From that perspective, we all win. Regardless of your size and physical address, demand for “local” calls on all of us to invest in communicating the stories of the good work happening in agriculture.  

Tim York is CEO of Salinas, Calif.-based Markon Cooperative, made up of eight North American foodservice distributors. Centerplate is a monthly column offering a peek at “what’s now and next” for foodservice and the implications for the produce industry.