Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as the saying goes. And so, apparently, is the meaning of locally grown. That’s the gist of new research by the University of Florida’s Center for Public Issues Education (also known as the PIE Center) that examined consumers’ perceptions of local food and fresh produce. The project also included an analysis of the economic impact of food grown in Florida. The results represent the first phase of a two-year project funded by a Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services block grant. The grant is supported by the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association (FFVA) and the Florida Specialty Crop Foundation.
After conducting 10 focus groups across the state, researchers found that consumers’ perceptions of “local” and their purchasing behavior are changing, which means they can be influenced. That’s important because it represents “a marketing opportunity for some and a branding opportunity for all,” said Dr. Tracy Irani, development director for the PIE Center. Irani presented the findings to FFVA’s Executive Committee and members of the association’s Emerging Leader Development Program in November and also during the 2012 Florida Ag Expo.
Not So Easy To Define
Focus group participants said that “local” can mean a number of things. It certainly includes food grown near where they live. But after engaging in a deeper discussion of the “local” label, the consumers said it also can mean produce from anywhere in Florida, the Southeast, or the U.S. The product itself is one factor that determines whether a consumer considers it local. For example, members of the focus groups said they preferred tomatoes that are grown in their area, but they also consider tomatoes grown in anywhere in Florida as local. They have different opinions, however, of products that aren’t grown in the Sunshine State. Take apples, for example. Participants said they would consider apples produced in other regions of the U.S. as local.
Conflicting Feelings By Consumers
Irani said the findings also show that consumers are conflicted when it comes to local produce and the size of the operation producing it. On one hand, consumers want to trust smaller operations but are hesitant because they feel the products aren’t proven or controlled, Irani explained. On the other hand, focus group participants said they don’t want to trust larger producers (think “big agriculture”); however, they feel their products are more quality-controlled.
Those sentiments show that branding works, Irani said. Consumers will choose a brand (in this case, typically the larger producer) over a non-brand when given a choice because there is a level of trust. “That’s the reason consumers will pay more for branded products and are brand-loyal,” she said. “The trust is that they expect [a product with a brand name] to always be the same. They see there is value in big because it’s like a brand.”
The researchers were looking for entry points to the consumer mindset, Irani said. This project pointed the way to several opportunities to help consumers understand the complex process of production. For example, if out-of-state consumers are willing — as these findings seem to indicate — to consider Florida-grown produce local, that’s a major marketing opportunity, Irani said.
The economic analysis by Dr. Alan Hodges, UF/IFAS, was the second component of the research project. Hodges found that consumers buy locally produced food to the tune of $1.63 billion a year from grocery stores, restaurants, farmers’ markets, and produce stands. Those food products represent 38,573 full- and part-time jobs, contributing $1.28 billion in wages, benefits, and proprietor income. All told, Hodges’ research shows that locally produced food contributes $2.26 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product.