Since the integration of Country of Origin labeling, there are numerous brightly colored stickers that cover various fruits and vegetables. And most recently, local grocery stores have begun to identify which products are grown locally through a series of signs and advertisements. Some consumers even base their purchase decisions on where a product was grown.
This change in consumer demand has rapidly changed the food industry and is putting the power back in the hands of small producers. The knowledge of health issues has risen and increased the consumers’ need to put a face of the producer to the food they are buying. This changing situation has been ideal for producers, including the owner of Apple Country Hi Plains Orchards in Idalou, Texas.
Although Cal Brints started his orchard more than 30 years ago, the consumer trend to eat and buy locally has dramatically changed his business.
“We thought we would have the pick-your-own orchard, it would be open maybe six weeks of the year during the harvest season, then we would close it and that would be it,” Brints said. “Long story short, the public had a lot of different ideas when they came to the orchard about what we should be doing there.”
The increase in public interest has been driven by statewide programs, such as Go Texan, a program of the Texas Department of Agriculture. The purpose of Go Texan is to promote local growers in Texas and introduce consumers to the food produced in their area.
As a member of the Go Texan program, Brints participates in Go Texan events and receives benefits from the Texas Department of Agriculture to help market his products.
Matt Williams, Texas Department of Agriculture’s coordinator for regional marketing programs in region one, organizes the Go Texan events in this area. When producers, retail stores or organizations join the Go Texan program, they are given benefits to promote Texas-produced products. Williams works closely with Go Texan members to help them market their product, as well as educate the public on which products are available.
“It is only going to make everybody stronger if we support what we have right here,” Williams said. “A lot of times people that are buying stuff, they don’t really realize that it is right here in your backyard.”
Williams and Brints work together on a program called Market-to-Menu which has been active for two years. The one-day tour is held annually and allows local chefs and members of the Lubbock Restaurant Association to tour local farms. The tours showcase the local products available for purchase. In addition, a chef cooks a complete meal from local products at a tour stop. Market-to-Menu participants not only get to see what meals can be produced, but also taste the food and take home recipes.
This partnership between small producers and the Texas Department of Agriculture has increased the public’s knowledge of not only the produce grown in their area, but value-added products that are available.
Apple Country Hi-Plains Orchards utilizes many different facets of food production. The orchard has a restaurant, bakery, and produces a range of products from their apples including cider, cake and wine. Along with the pick-your-own orchard, Brints and his family deliver fruit and vegetables to more than 40 schools in the South Plains through their Farm-to-School program. Brints also runs a similar program called Farm-to-Work, where locally grown produce is delivered to businesses who place orders.
Some of Brints’ fastest-growing projects are the three farmers markets he manages in Lubbock. Brints, who is the executive director of the Texas Farmers Market Association, has had his markets certified by the Texas Department of Health and Texas Department of Agriculture. Brints’ markets are also sanctioned to accept WIC and Lonestar food stamp program cards.
“The whole ‘eat local’ movement has really taken hold that I’ve seen, in the last 18 months,” Brints said.
Brints believes the public has become more interested in local food because of health and safety issues in recent years. Brints believes the rise of issues such as obesity, food allergies and the overall health of the public are making consumers more interested in the food. He said people feel more comfortable purchasing products when they know where the food comes from and how it is produced.
As part of the Go Texas program, Williams wants to highlight the great products available locally not only because they can be healthier, but also because of the benefits buying locally can have for the economy.
“I think for our economy to get strong again,” Williams said, “instead of having to pay for products that come from different countries or across the U.S., we have that product right here close to us. We need to support the grower, and we also need to support the economy and our community.”
Buying locally is something large grocery stores and supermarkets are starting to believe they can benefit from as well.
Eddie Owens, United Supermarkets’s director of corporate communications, said the supermarket chain has been doing business with local producers since its stores opened more than 94 years ago. However, with the growing popularity of consumers wanting local food, United Supermarkets is emphasizing awareness in the fact that they carry local produce.
Owens said he is very concerned with the large amount of product recalls he sees.
“When we are able to tell our guests not only do we know where this product came from, but we know the people who grew it very, very well. That is pretty significant in our book,” said Owens.
Cal Brints sells black-eyed peas and apples from Apple Country Hi-Plains Orchards in local United Supermarkets. Brints said grocery stores selling local food is great and will be a big drawing point for consumers who are interested in locally-grown food.
It is apparent that consumer interest is changing. Brints said 85 percent of his business still comes from the pick-your-own orchard, where consumers can see firsthand where their food is grown. As programs and supermarkets get more involved, there is no doubt the public will see an increase in the labeling and marketing of locally-produced food.