COLUMBUS, Ohio — Consumer demand and community interest in local food are heating up in Ohio.

“Local food continues to expand with consumer demand,” said Julie Fox, direct marketing specialist for Ohio State University.

That interest is reflected in an increased number of farmers markets, an increased number of vendors in farmers markets, more restaurants carrying local food, more grocery stores buying and promoting local food, and an expansion of community-supported agriculture and produce auctions, she said.

The influence of local food has been felt in direct-to-consumer sales and wholesale transactions.

“It is not just produce — it is all kinds of food,” Fox said. “It is not just fresh, it is value-added.”

The evolution of demand for local food has created new opportunities for Ohio growers, with existing producers adding new products and expanding to new buyers.

New landowners are exploring what types of products they should grow and gaining knowledge about production issues.

Another area of growth is the rise of urban agriculture, Fox said. That includes collective community gardens and honeybee hives within the city and a variety of other efforts.

“It’s exciting to see the growth of urban agriculture,” she said.

To help Ohio growers connect with new markets, Ohio State developed a Market Ready program last year, piloting five workshops in 2010. This year, Ohio State will offer one-day workshops in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus.

The workshops are designed to help producers sell to restaurants, grocery stores and other institutions. They feature a panel of buyers who help inform growers and producers about selling to specific markets and developing business relationships.

“It helps producers go to that next level,” Fox said.

Meanwhile, Fox said the MarketMaker program is a Web-based program that features information about local producers in 19 states. Ohio joined the network about three years ago, she said.

The website allows buyers and sellers to describe their sales tactics and provide a full profile of their operations, including links to Facebook and other social media accounts.

Agriculture officials also have been working with the Ohio Grocers Association and the Ohio Restaurant Association to connect small growers and buyers, Fox said.

She noted that a regional supermarket in central Ohio, The Hills Market, is a distribution point for community-supported agriculture produce in what they call a “harvest happy hour” during CSA distribution.

Officials also are planning ahead for the continued growth of local agriculture and the workforce needs required to expand the supply of local food.

In fact, Fox said, several central Ohio communities recently received an $800,000 grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to develop the local food infrastructure.

In the end, the success of the local food movement must go beyond the mere fact that food is local, Fox said. More important are the relationships growers develop with their customers and the quality of fresh produce they provide to the market, she said.