Consumers Enthusiastic About Locally Grown Food

Leopold Center market research looks at food ecolabels. Survey shows consumers will support farmers who produce locally grown food. Rod Swoboda

Published on: Jan 12, 2004

Consumers who participated in a recent marketing survey for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture were enthusiastic about locally grown food and supportive of the farmers who grow it.

"The term locally grown, when combined with family farms, appears to be a powerful marketing message," says the Leopold Center's marketing and food systems coordinator Rich Pirog. "Consumers said that if price and appearance were equal, they would choose products with these features over organic options."

Pirog was one of several speakers at a seminar on the topic last week, which was part of the Practical Farmers of Iowa annual meeting in Des Moines.

Pirog’s observations stem from an Internet study that tested prototypes for food ecolabels – seals or logos indicating that a product has met a certain set of environmental and/or social criteria. The study included survey responses from more than 1,600 consumers in Iowa and seven other Midwestern states and the Boston and Seattle metropolitan areas.

Survey several Midwest states

In the survey, consumers were asked to respond to one of three different sets of ecolabel prototypes for fresh produce (grapes). The labels conveyed information on product origin, distance from farm to point of sale, how it was transported and the environmental impact of its transport measured by the amount of fuel emissions. They also were asked a series of questions about their perceptions of locally-grown/raised products and meats.

Another group of consumers in the survey did not view any ecolabels.

More than 75% of the consumers in both groups chose the products labeled "grown locally by family farmers" as their first choice for produce or meat products. In both groups, consumers were most responsive to labels that connected product freshness with the time (in days) that it took for the product to travel from farm to store.

About 25% of the consumers in both groups said they would pay a premium of 6 to 15% for products with these additional qualities.

Pirog says a similar response came from a second, smaller population sample in the study – managers of food-related businesses such as supermarkets, meat lockers and distributors. "Food business respondents perceived that more than 50% of their customers would be interested in ecolabels," he says. "Although their idea of local was much broader geographically than the one held by consumers, they said that their customers would most often request "grown locally" over other options, with price and appearance being equal."

Ecolabels are effective way to educate consumers

Pirog says the results show that ecolabels can be an effective way to educate consumers about locally grown, sustainably-raised foods. Although they were not rated as highly by consumers in the survey, he noted that a product’s secondary benefits of low environmental costs and support for the local economy and local farmers can be linked to issues such as freshness and quality, which are critically important to consumers.

Pirog worked with the Business Analysis Laboratory at Iowa State University to conduct the research. The lab involves graduate and undergraduate students from the ISU colleges of business, education and engineering who work in teams to solve business and manufacturing problems for companies.

"This pilot project successfully demonstrates that future collaboration between business and agriculture can play a key role in supporting market research and business development in food value chains where the farm production practices are rooted in the principles of sustainable agriculture," notes Pirog.

Marketing products produced by sustainable ag

According to Tom DeCarlo, associate professor of marketing and the Lab’s faculty advisory, the Lab has worked with major corporations including Lockheed Martin and 3M, but this was their first experience in sustainable agriculture. He said the students have enjoyed contributing to the Leopold Center’s efforts to help sustainable ag producers become more profitable.

Pirog noted that conclusions drawn from this Internet study, although commonly used in product marketing research, cannot be applied to a general population. Consumer respondents did not represent a statistically random sample of the three geographical areas but were selected randomly from e-mail address lists owned by a survey administrator.

Pirog is working with the lab to refine the ecolabel concept. The work is part of the Leopold Center’s marketing and food systems initiative, which includes a number of projects directed by Center staff and researchers from ISU and other Iowa organizations. This market research also has looked at "food miles," the distance that produce travels from the farm to point of purchase in both local and conventional marketing systems.

The report is available on the Leopold Center’s Web site, http://www.leopold.iastate.edu (look under Papers and Information). Or contact the Center at (515) 294-3711. Through its research and education programs, the Leopold Center supports the development of profitable farming systems that conserve natural resources. Center funding comes from state appropriations and from fees on nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides, as established by the 1987 Iowa Groundwater Protection Act.