Agri Leader

New UF project aimed at marketing local produce

Researchers at the University of Florida are set to begin a major new initiative aimed at helping Florida farmers sell more specialty crop products locally.

The two-year project, expected to commence Jan. 1 and funded by a $151,101 USDA specialty crop block grant administered by Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), is sponsored by Florida Specialty Crop Foundation.

It will develop marketing and messaging strategies and practical tools farmers can use to maximize consumer interest in local foods and capitalize on a constantly growing market niche.

The new effort will build on previous UF research conducted by the Center for Public Issues Education, known as the PIE Center.

A key goal of the research is to help growers better understand and exploit consumer food purchasing preferences and behaviors, particularly the so-called "locavore" movement, or specific consumer interest in buying locally grown food.

"Then we can determine the best ways to target marketing and communication activities toward those preferences and behaviors to increase sales of local food products," said researcher Joy N. Rumble, an assistant professor in UF's PIE Center, who has worked on the project since the inception of its first phase two years ago.

One key aspect of the new research will be to measure public perception of how "local" food is defined, said Sonia Tighe, executive director of Florida Specialty Crop Foundation. "Ideally, for our growers, we're hoping that consumers understand that anything grown within the state is actually a local product," Tighe said, adding that one potential avenue is more aggressive

exploitation of the highly successful and ongoing "Fresh from Florida" branding campaign being

conducted by FDACS.

The new research will test messages aimed at promoting locally grown specialty crops. In addition to identifying the most effective communication strategies and messages, the research will also identify the specific communication channels that are most effective at reaching the local target audience for Florida specialty crops.

Researchers will test the effectiveness of consumer communications through print, online and interactive media. The project will also address ways to increase retail distribution channels for locally grown produce. The final phase of the project will include the development of research-based recommendations and tools, including workshops for growers, designed to aid specialty crop producers in the marketing and promotion of their products.

Florida sales of local food accounted for $8.3 billion in economic activity for a one-year period during 2011-12, according to UF research announced earlier this year. The study analyzed data from 1,600 households.

Almost three-fourths of the total estimated revenue - $6.1 billion - was spent on local food at retail grocery stores, according to the study. Consumers also spent $1.8 billion at farmer's markets, roadside stands and U-pick businesses. Restaurants and other food-service establishments accounted for $320 million, and prearranged farm-to-consumer sales, including community-supported agriculture, totaled $103 million.

Among the households where local food was purchased, 62 percent obtained it at farmer's markets, 53 percent bought local food from retail grocery stores, 28 percent ordered it in restaurants, and 5 percent bought local food through community-supported agriculture or another prearranged transaction between farmer and consumer.

The total spent on local food averaged $1,114 per household. That number was somewhat higher in Central and North Central Florida, compared with South Florida or the Panhandle.

Given the clear opportunity represented by the earlier research, another key goal of the new research is improving the ability of Florida specialty crop producers, such as strawberry and blueberry growers, to compete with foreign producers such as Mexico who are exporting to the U.S.

"One goal," Tighe said, "is to encourage consumers to be more aware of local products and to look for labels that to say 'Florida,' as opposed to growing blueberries produced in Chile."

More effective labeling by producers and packers is a key consideration, Tighe said.

"There is no question that 'Fresh from Florida' labeling in produce departments has had an impact on consumer choices," Tighe said. The question is how to best use labeling and other marketing strategies to position their products and exploit that opportunity.

Rumble also noted that research shows growing consumer concerns about the safety of foods grown in foreign countries. In addition, she said, research also shows that consumers are increasingly skeptical about large commercial agri-businesses, a concern that is generating more interest in sustainable production from smaller local producers.

The ultimate result of the research will be a tool kit of specific marketing strategies, including social media tactics, that will be offered to any interested grower at no cost.

"We will have specific media and messaging strategies to deliver to producers, whether you're a small producer who grows one acre or you're a large producer who grows 10,000 acres," Tighe said. "But either way, you will have something in your hand that you can integrate into your marketing and promotion plans to sell more products to local consumers."

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