“Locally grown” is a buzz phrase that’s music to Carolina grower-shippers’ ears.

The locally and regionally grown movement is very real, and it’s yielding tangible results for TC Smith Produce Farm Inc., Seven Springs, N.C., said Curtis Smith, president.

All Smith has to do is compare the first weeks of the 2008 strawberry season with the first weeks of the 2009 season.

“I can look back and see that sales are better than last year at this time,” he said. “Customers are requesting more locally grown stuff.”

The locally grown movements in the Carolinas have been given a big boost by marketing programs like those initiated by the South Carolina Department of Agriculture three years ago, said Doug Patterson, vice president of China Grove, N.C.-based Patterson Farms.

Some commodities have already benefited greatly, Patterson said. He hopes others will follow suit.

“It’s definitely hold for strawberries,” he said. “We’ve seen a real increase. We hope it carries over for tomatoes.”

Also noting a positive effect from locally-grown promotions is Leonard Small Jr., owner of Virginia Fork Produce Co. Inc., Edenton, N.C.

“ ‘This grows in North Carolina’ — I like to see those stickers,” he said.

The cost of fuel may be down from last year, but transportation is still a significant input cost for shippers of fresh fruits and vegetables, said James Sharp, president of Wilson, N.C.-based Fresh-Pick.

And that’s a plus for growers in the Carolinas.

“With transportation costs, there’s been a move toward more regional deals,” Sharp said. “We’ve seen a big increase in locally grown.”

Fresh-Pik has boosted acreage this year across the board about 15% on its melons, strawberries, lettuce and other commodities, Sharp said.