The efforts to promote local produce in Kentucky and Tennessee are going strong.

Annette Wszelaki, commercial vegetable extension specialist for the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Tennessee, says there are now farmers markets in nearly all 95 counties in Tennessee.

“Promotions for the upcoming season will focus on farmers markets, where we encourage consumers to frequent at least weekly — a spring, summer, and fall supermarket alternative for all things local,” she said.

Other Tennessee programs include the Pick Tennessee Products campaign, which began 27 years ago as one of the first of its kind in the country, Wszelaki said.

“It has evolved from a word-of-mouth promotion to highlight grocery store products to a program that now encompasses all types of Tennessee items from food to wines to Christmas trees,” she said.

The free program now is a successful marketing tool for both large and small operations.

In Kentucky, the Kentucky Proud program is still going strong.

It began in 2003, after the legislation was initially passed in 2000, and there are 3,229 active members, said Adam Watson, produce marketing specialist for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

There are also reimbursement programs for companies that use Kentucky products.

The Restaurant Rewards aspect of the program now has around 200 participating restaurants and foodservice entities, Watson said.

The program works by providing up to $12,000 annually to foodservice operations that provide receipts that show they’ve purchased products from a Kentucky Proud member, Watson said.

He said funding for the program has increased because of its popularity.

Brian Knott, president of Grow Farms, Louisville, Ky., deals with growers in both Kentucky and Tennessee and has seen the success of both programs.

“We work with the Kentucky and Tennessee departments of agriculture, and we do attach the Tennessee logo to our cases from Tennessee and from Kentucky, the Kentucky Proud logo,” he said. “It’s been very helpful.”

Challenges still exist

Rick Gaia, sales manager for M. Palazola Produce Co., Memphis, Tenn., said there’s still room for growth in the locally grown category.

“There are a lot of efforts going on right now, but it’s just getting started,” he said.

Gaia said he thinks all schools will double their use of fresh produce next year, and local will be a big market for that. Still, he recognizes some challenges with the idea of using all local produce.

“Quality issues can hurt efforts, and there’s not always has much to choose from,” Gaia said.

He also said smaller growing operations can have trouble with packaging and grading, and they don’t always provide the standardized crates that customers want so it can be a problem to supply to large wholesale outlets.

Another main challenge with locally grown promotions is that not everyone agrees on what counts as local.

“Some consider locally grown a 400-mile radius, where others see it a lot tighter than that. I mean, 400 miles will almost get me to Florida,” said Kenny Pendergrass, vice president of purchasing at Dixie Produce Inc., Chattanooga, Tenn.

Pendergrass tends to focus his locally grown definition to between 50 and 75 miles, but he agrees that it’s hard to define.

“We have a few clients who want all Tennessee products, but we are right on the border so it’s kind of all right here together in this growing region with Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama. Those are all less than 50 miles,” he said.

Pendergrass did say that efforts to promote locally grown have grown across the industry, with demands for local produce about equal in the retail and foodservice sectors.

“Even chain-managed accounts are wanting locally grown, so I think it’s pretty equal,” he said.