Ohio vegetable growers continue to benefit from retail demand for locally-grown produce.

Last year Ohio State University launched www.ohiomarketmaker.com, a Web site designed to connect local producers of vegetables and other agricultural commodities with buyers.

With more than half a million hits and counting, it’s been a huge success, said Julie Fox, the university’s director of marketing/tourism development specialist.

The buyers have ranged from the smallest mom-and-pop stores to Wal-Mart and Sysco, Fox said.

The success of the site reflects an overall trend in the Buckeye State, Fox said: people are buying local.

“It’s a good time to be a produce grower in Ohio,” she said.

Ohio towns and cities are changing their zoning codes to make way for urban farms. New farmers’ markets continue to open. The number of “you-pick-it” operations in the state is growing.

“Many more communities are seeing what it (the locally grown movement) means for their communities and for the local economies,” Fox said.

In 2008, Ohio retailers made a big investment in locally grown programs, said Mark Guess, president of GroCo Farms Inc., Jamestown, Ohio.

So far, this year promises a strong repeat performance, Guess said.

“There was a big push last year, and my customers are telling me it will continue this year,” he said. “People are more comfortable getting their food from their backyard than from a long ways away.”

Loren Buurma, co-owner of Willard, Ohio-based Buurma Farms Inc., also expects another big locally grown push this year from area retailers.

“More people are contacting us who want to do bigger, better homegrown programs, or some for the first time,” he said. “There’s a lot of excitement there.”

Ken Holthouse, general manager of North Fairfield, Ohio-based Doug Walcher Farms, agrees.

“There’s been double the noise around promoting the local deal,” he said. “We love what we’re seeing.”

Taste and supporting the local economy are obvious draws of buying local, but Holthouse said the environment also plays a central role.

“Everyone’s focusing on a smaller carbon footprint,” he said. “Our customers also want to know what we’re doing on sustainability — less fertilizer and chemicals, less pollution.”

One thing Walcher Farms is doing related to sustainability that no doubt pleases its green-minded customers, not to mention consumers, is better water usage practices.

With trickle irrigation, the company uses about 20% as much water as it used to, Holthouse said. And even though Ohio growers in general enjoy abundant water access, it’s still a “very precious commodity,” he said.

What’s not new at Walcher Farms is a commitment to treating the Earth well. Sustainability has always been a company virtue, Holthouse said — whether it was called that or not.

“We’ve been doing it a long time. Now we have an official word for it,” he said. “You’ve got to take care of the ground if the ground takes care of you.”

Demand for locally grown produce is “a real plus for us,” said Jim Wiers, president of Wiers Farm Inc./Dutch Maid, Willard.

“I don’t know that there’s anyone in the Midwest growing as complete a line as we are,” he said.

But, Wiers said, there’s nothing new about locally grown in Ohio.

“We’re not really getting more calls for locally grown,” he said. “We’ve been here 113 years. Retailers in this area are very much aware that we’re here, and we get great support from them.”

The only Ohio market that lacks in locally grown programs is Cleveland, Wiers said.

“There’s been such a consolidation in retail over the years in Cleveland that there’s not quite the local flavor,” he said. “The buying offices in a lot of Cleveland stores are out-of-state.”

Still, there are signs of hope, Wiers said.

“I think the local programs have a stronger focus in Cleveland than in the past, so it is improving,” he said.

One Ohio shipper benefiting less from the locally grown trend is Swanton, Ohio-based Bettinger Farms, said Don Bettinger, president.

Most of the company’s sweet corn ships to points far-flung, Bettinger said.

“Ours ends up in Florida and Georgia, around there,” he said. “Maybe some will go to the Meijer chain in Michigan.”