‘Made or Grown Close to Home’ — Thoughts on Local Food Branding

When it comes to local food marketing and state branding, Vermont has pretty much always been ahead of the pack.  And it’s not just the Department of Ag–it’s producers and businesses as well.

This shelf tag is at Hannafords, a large regional grocery chain. And there were a lot more of these shelf tags throughout the store.  I like the wording here, as it allows a little flexibility with ingredients that may not be available in-state.  They add the town name, too, which is pretty cool.  In larger states, this might be even more significant considering the distances.

Otter Creek Brewery is in my hometown–as are the bridge and waterfall depicted on this six-pack.  There are lots of great microbreweries in Vermont (as there are in Minnesota), and most of them really highlight their locality.

An interesting question about local marketing: what is the best balance between highlighting your locality and highlighting your own specific brand?  Vermont itself is a premium brand–so how much should you use that and how much should you focus on the specifics of your own product?  Do the two ever conflict?

I think the “Vermont brand” can function as a ladder for lesser-known products–one that can help them scale up and build on their own brand image.  Products like Ben & Jerry’s ice cream grew beyond the “Vermont brand” (yes, in more ways than one), but aspects of their product image still hearken back to the “little dairyland”–Woody Jackson’s Holstein artwork, for example.

And we out west have the Minnesota Grown label, of course–plus the various Buy Fresh Buy Local Chapters.  The program actually seems a little more cohesive than the many Vermont labels–“grown,” “made,” seal of approval, etc.  But lack of label cohesiveness hasn’t seemed to hurt much here.

The tagline, “Keeping Vermont Farmers Smokin'” might be a little misleading, as the finer print says this meat is sourced from the US and Canada.  But, as businesses like Vermont Smoke & Cure grow, they are forced to cast a wider sourcing net–much like Thousand Hills Cattle Company and Vermont Soy.  And hey, it’s not like Canada is far afield–certain provinces, anyhow.

Green Mountain Coffee’s spread is huge–it’s available pretty much everywhere you go: convenience stores & gas stations, hospitals, grocery stores, etc.  One thing that’s really big right now are the “Keurig cups”–little foil-sealed plastic cups of grounds that are meant for brewing a single cup of coffee (or other hot drink) in a special brewer.

I’m frankly kind of disturbed about the packaging waste involved in these things.  For such a “green” state, I’m surprised this trend has caught on here.  Those plastic cups aren’t even recyclable as far as I can tell.

Organic certification is pretty widespread, but it seems like from what I’ve seen so far, the locality factor is more heavily and prominently marketed.  Of course I had to include a picture of Vermont’s most famous product.

This above half gallon from last year’s crop will be coming home with me later in the week.  And yes, I am aware that I can get Minnesota maple.  I’ve been using that–and Wisconsin syrup, too–all winter.

There is regional marketing, too.  A couple of products on the store shelves (and in my parents’ pantry) are proudly Maine-made and/or grown.  And there are the vine-ripened greenhouse tomatoes from Backyard Farms (also headquartered in Maine)–packaged in a very cute picket-fence-detailed (recyclable) cardboard box with both “New England Grown,” and “Grown Not Too Far From Here” verbiage.

I always walk right by the tomato section of the supermarket in the winter months (OK–all year–I don’t remember the last time I bought a tomato in the supermarket), but that cute packaging caught my eye, and I had to look closer.  I put them back down, but my mom saw me looking, picked them up, and bought them for our salad.  Now, that is awesome marketing.  The tomatoes were pretty good, too!

When you think about how to define local, the “in-state” argument seems a little silly in a place where the states are so much smaller.  But then, many smaller states have better-developed small and niche ag sectors than larger ones. Many, but not all.  Should the definition of local depend on the size of the state and the development of its local food production and processing infrastructure?

Potatoes, beans, and seafood.  Pretty much what Maine is known for.  Pronounce this brand “Bah Hahbah” if you want to be recognized as a local.

One thing I’ve noticed is how well integrated local products are into everyday life in Vermont.  It is expected (yes, and in some cases it’s the law) that the maple syrup is real and the coffee is Green Mountain–that the cheese is Cabot (or Jasper Hill) and many of the beers in the watering hole are local as well.

To those not familiar with Vermont culture, this might seem like a kind of yuppie conspiracy.  And, hey, it’s not like they won’t take the yuppie dollars.

But to say that it’s all about some kind of effete, leftist agenda is to seriously misunderstand this place.  It’s about self-sufficiency, independence, and protecting their own.  Even my conservative dad, when asked about the “real maple rules,” pretty much says that if other people (aka non-Vermonters) want to eat crap, that’s their business.

When Vermonters work hard to build something up–to make something good–they damn well ought to be able to enjoy it.  If you want high fructose corn syrup and artificial butter flavor on your pancakes, go buy a bottle and carry it with you.

I’m hoping to post more thoughts on and examples of local food marketing in this area if we can get out in the next couple of days (twenty inches of snow and still coming makes that questionable).  Mom wants to make a return visit to Middlebury Natural Foods Coop, so we can “do more research.” 🙂

Oh, and I could go for a little more of that local arugula!

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