The goal of the project is to develop local direct marketing opportunities for farmers and ranchers in San Luis Obispo County and 30 miles beyond the county line. Expanding beyond the political boundary allowed the project to include growers who, because of geographic constraints, normally market in San Luis Obispo County instead of their own.
Successful implementation of this project would:
• Satisfy local food needs
• Enhance the qualify of our environment
• Help sustain the viability of our farm and ranch operations
Six farmers, orchardists and meat and fiber producers began the “Marketing Locally Grown” project, an independent grassroots effort. To begin educating the county on the benefits of buying locally grown food and value-added products, the group identified a local brand as the cornerstone of any consumer campaigns.
After some initial startup challenges, including joining a statewide farm organization only to find that the membership eroded autonomy and local control, the group articulated its vision and what it wanted to accomplish with help from the area’s Resource Conservation and Development Council. To accomplish its goals, the group developed a managed structure called Central Coast Ag Network, a nonprofit, to oversee its marketing campaign. To accomplish short-term goals it set these objectives:
1. Design a new logo
2. Create a website where consumers could find produces
3. Develop criteria and levels for membership
4. Expand membership to expand consumer supply
5. Advertise the campaign and logo and create a “Local Food Guide”
Two logos were designed, both with the words “Central Coast Grown,” one that’s colorful and works for large displays and advertising, the other best suited to label products. The logos and Central Coast Grown campaign were launched in February 2006.
The website, www.centralcoastgrown.org, organizes producers into categories that make it easy for consumers to find specific products or growers near them. Individual producer websites are linked to the main site. The site educates consumers about the importance of buying local and how to do it. At the time of this report, the site featured 40 grower members, numerous restaurants and caterers, a large regional grocer, Spencer’s Markets, and many supporter members. The site receives about 400 hits a month.
There are three membership levels, “Producer,” “Supporting Member” and “Member Group,” each with specific criteria.
Since the Central Coast Grown campaign was launched in February 2006, the number of Producer members has increased by 400%, which is critical for success. Without a strong supply inventory, “buy local” is just a philosophy. Also, with help from additional grants, the group has been able to hire a contract employee with a strong background in agriculture, facilitating contact with growers who need direct marketing assistance. County ag statistics show there are about 150 small, local growers who rely almost entirely on direct marketing; the group hopes to reach them all in 2007. Additionally, the group plans to expand outlets for locally grown products and restaurants and grocery stores.
Given the cost of monthly ads featuring member farmers, the group opted instead to seek free advertising opportunities. They did this by staging a media event to launch the campaign in February 2006, which resulted in interviews with two major television networks, a major radio station and large and small county print media. Thanks to outreach efforts, the county board of supervisors adopted a “resolution of support” praising the Central Coast Ag Network for its efforts to market Central Coast Grown products. A few months later, the board awarded the network a $10,000 grant, which resulted in addition publicity and offers by local newspapers for members to author educational pieces in support of the campaign.
Additional activities carried out by the project include:
• A PowerPoint presentation, featuring member growers and their operations, was developed to explain the campaign and how it works
• In lieu of paid ads, the group purchased a large quantity of totes, with the logo, and a booth and banner for events, set up one or two times a month.
• Producers receive a disk with both logos, which can be reproduced for their marketing needs, and new producers receive a colorful logo sticker than can be placed in car or store windows.
• Instead of producing hard copies of the “Local Food Guide,” the group developed a more elaborate website than had been planned, with a variety of guides to local food. The strategy provides more “bang for the buck” in both time and money.
Since its meeting in July 2005, the found board has developed bylaws, supervised the logo design, developed member criteria, solicited $15,000 in additional funding, hired a consultant for member development, provided public relations during the first nine months of 2006 and approved and adopted a business plan. In September 2006, a permanent board of directors was seated that includes an unusual mix of members. For example, county Farm Bureau and cattle producer association members sits with members of several environmental groups, including The Nature Conservancy.
The Central Coast Grown campaign appears to have raised the awareness of both producers and consumers. One successful member grower featured in a local news article, Bob Blanchard, states that marketing locally grown underpins the salvation of family farms. While no hard research has been done, the project team said it believes that the Central Coast Grown campaign is becoming widely acclaimed and the common sense benefits of buying locally grown widely understood. This, in turn will help member products become better recognized, with the result that they can sustain their farming and ranching operations.
In addition, Central Coast Ag Network is increasingly being recognized as a “player” in county policies that affect agriculture. The network has been asked to provide input on the county’s General Plan Ag and Open Space Element and to participate in a countywide Obesity Task Force.
REACTIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Central Coast Ag Network has received feedback from growers, consumers, retailers and institutions that an important next step is to coordinate information on product availability, perhaps even to develop a distribution system for local products for retail and institutional destinations. As a way to address this next critical step, the network has identified the following:
• Increase the number of growers using the brand
• Enlist growers to help educate each other about how to market using the logo
• Develop a product availability system that allows for larger retailers or institutions to log onto a site showing availability of Central Coast Grown products and producer contact information
• Study the feasibility of a Central Coast Grown distribution system, requested by many member growers who find marketing their products to be a challenge
• Expand consumer education efforts aimed at increasing demand, forcing retailers to work harder to acquire locally grown products
• Acquire community partners to sponsor implementation of the above-mentioned next steps.
Funding is critical to the success of this next phase. The Central Coast Ag Network used a conservative projection of the work needed to create a self-sustaining, ongoing marketing and promotion entity. The numbers show they have achieved a standalone program in just three years, reason to be excited about future prospects.