Florida citrus. Idaho potatoes. Vermont maple syrup. Virginia’s Finest®. State-sponsored marketing programs have been around since the 1930’s Depression as a way to help farmers recover. Since then, single commodity promotional campaigns have given way to promoting everything from locally sourced tofu, peanuts, dog food, oysters, and hot pepper jelly.
Consumers like these programs. They feel they’re supporting a small business and helping create jobs. “It’s a good way for consumers to feel good about supporting the local economy and build local relationships,” says Karin Taylor, who markets Virginia’s Finest® program for the Virginia Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (VDACS).
In 1989 VDACS launched Virginia’s Finest® program to help create jobs and protect agriculture resources. With agriculture as Virginia’s number one industry, it was just smart business to help showcase what Virginia has to offer. “That’s why we work hard to tell the stories of our producers and share their passions, blood, sweat, and even tears,” Taylor says.
Supporting community values through locally grown and produced foods have gone beyond a mere culture trend. Research shows a move toward local food is more important than other 21st century trends, like organic or Fairtrade. And, in many ways, growing consumer concern for local food represents a social movement in its own right.
“People want to be more connected to the food they’re eating,” says Taylor.
It wasn’t always this way. The early 20th century saw the demise of the family farm and the growth of corporate farms. In the late ’60s and early ’70s with the “back to the land” movement, there were rising numbers of small farms selling a variety of products to local communities. During this time, a slow and steady movement of farmers and consumers building relationships and changing purchasing habits occurred and is still occurring today.
So, although fewer Americans are raised on farms today than 50 years ago, Virginians appreciate the value of agriculture in their daily lives thanks to the 450+ food producers that participate in Virginia’s Finest® program.
One of those producers, Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Crozet, is a small community of 12 Trappist-Cistercian nuns. Beginning in 1990, to support themselves they began making a Dutch-style Gouda cheese in 2-pound wheels on their 500+ acre farm. Today, to meet demand, the nuns start each batch with about 750 gallons of milk from grass-fed cows from a neighboring Mennonite farm. Annually, the nuns sell about 20,000 pounds of cheese.
“We’re a community enterprise,” says Sister Barbara. “We pray together, eat together, work together and sweat together. And we try to be good stewards of our land. Our cheesemaking helps support our life of prayer and service. And people appreciate that commitment to the community by buying local.”
That commitment to community, neighbor helping neighbor, is one of the most significant reasons driving the local movement. Other factors are High standards, perceived as healthier, and better for the environment.
Nothing exemplifies these traits better than the Barboursville Winery, home to Virginia’s most honored cellar, founded in 1976 by a family that has been prominent in Italian viticulture since 1821. In 2013, the family was recognized with Wine Enthusiast’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
The winery is on the grounds of the former James Barbour estate. He was a friend of Thomas Jefferson and Virginia governor during the War of 1812. Jefferson designed the mansion for Barbour that was occupied by his descendants until a fire destroyed it on Christmas Day 1884. The ruins remain and are a draw for picnickers visiting the winery.
“I have been living in Virginia for the past 30 years and I have noticed a gradual growing interest in wholesome local food and wine,” says Luca Paschina, Barbourville Winery general manager/winemaker. “What drives this growth is both a cultural movement and the great availability in our area of such craft-type products.”
“There is also increasing appreciation for regional delicacies,” says Shenandoah Valley Organics Marketing & Events Manager Laura Thompson. “From the down-home comfort foods of the rural areas to the coastal seafood scene to the unique global-fusion and farm-to-table restaurants that are popping up, we have a lot of flavors and styles from which to choose.”
“In addition,” she says. “the growing local arts scene around Virginia draws crowds, so many local restaurants gain new fans each time they travel in for shows. Food is one of the best ways to take in the area culture.”
Shenandoah Valley Organics, which supports generational family farming, raises organic and humanely certified chicken that’s available in more than 500 stores on the east coast. In their Farmer Focus program, they’ve even introduced an innovative coding system that traces each chicken to the farm it grew up on. “Creating this bridge between customers and farmers becomes an important part of what SVO stands for as a company: transparency and traceability,” notes their website.
So whether it’s a glass of Barboursville Viognier Reserve 2017 (named one of Wine Enthusiast’s 100 Best Wines of 2019), a wedge of divinely crafted cheese, or a tasty chicken dinner, all are produced in a climate that’s is uniquely Virginia and people want more!
In 2005, Jessica Prentice coined “locavore” to describe and promote the practice of eating a diet consisting of food produced within a 100-mile radius. And self-described locavores -people who are super passionate about buying local tend to be selective about where they shop and dine. These shoppers want to support their neighbors, local family farmers, local vintners, even local nuns.
And, they are willing to pay more. In fact, Packaged Facts, a research firm, notes nearly half of people surveyed say they are willing to pay up to 10% more for local foods. Almost one in three say they are willing to pay up to 25% more. “Local has become a shorthand descriptor that makes food sound high quality, fresher, more authentic, trustworthy, environmentally friendly, and supportive of the local community,” the research shows.
The proof is in the jelly for Cynthia Morris, Dancing Chicks Jam, of Bedford. She’s been a participant in Virginia’s Finest® program for six years and targets high-end consumer festivals. “Though I’ve been going to the Lynchburg Community Farmer’s Market twice a month for years, it’s at the Homestead and Keswick markets where they come in like a herd of horses and have no problem paying $30 for a fruitcake,” she says.
Morris, who picks all her own berries (usually wild and always local), focuses on handcrafting a variety of jams and jellies: damson preserves, strawberry/rhubarb, elderberry, boysenberry, black raspberry, pear and sour cherry. She even brags about her novel manner of “picking” mulberries. Known for their balance of sweetness and tartness, mulberries are said to be practically impossible to harvest let alone consume all the fruit produced in a season. But Morris with her six freezers and lines of customers craving local jams is always up for the yearly challenge.
“I drive my truck right underneath the tree, put a big tarp in the bed and shake the mulberry tree,” chuckles Morris. But even when harvesting hundreds of pounds of berries, Morris has been known to run out. “You’ve got to come early if you want the most fabulous jams and jellies,” she warns.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture found sales exploded to $1.2 billion in 2007 from $511 million in 1997. And, sales are expected to jump to $20 billion this year, according to Packaged Facts.
Virginia is taking a whopping bite out of that market ranking 9th in the U.S. in local food sales.
That booming market demand for local products also extends to the fur family. “People are looking for local food options for themselves and their families, and dogs and cats are part of the family,” says Laura Clark, vice president, Brand Development, MeatMe Pet Food, in Upperville. “People want to know exactly where their pets’ food and treats are coming from.”
MeatMe Pet Food’s parent company, Ayrshire Farm, has 100% control over every step of the sourcing and manufacturing process. “With all the concerns about pet food in recent years, our customers find comfort in knowing that certified organic and Certified Humane® pet food and treat options are available from a Virginia farm already known for producing premium meat for humans,” she says.
Whether it’s for people or pets, phrases like “Transparency and traceability from farm to bowl” are very appealing to an increasingly educated clientele. Just as the Our Lady of the Angels nuns are devoted stewards of the land, Ayrshire Farm products are traceable from dirt to dinner. “Ayrshire Farm is dedicated to sustainable, regenerative, and humane farming practices that promote the well-being of people, animals, and the earth,” says Clarke.
Interestingly, big-box chains are elbowing their way into the local food scene. Wal-Mart sells $749.6 million of “locally grown” produce annually, says AtKearney, a consulting firm.
“In addition to the local consumer, VDACS connects the local producer with major retailers,” says Taylor. “Recently, we had interest from a supermarket chain wanting ‘hyper-local’ baked goods and deli products. ‘Hyper-local’ could mean wanting products from within a 20-mile radius. We gave them a list of our Virginia’s Finest® producers that met their criteria so they could set up a purchasing relationship,” she says.
Consumers recognize the blue and red “VA checkmark” logo on Virginia specialty food and beverages. They know they’re buying top quality peanuts, ham, honey, grits, jams, pickles, cheese, seafood, baked goods, snacks, chocolates, beverages, and beyond. They know they’re helping a neighboring farm or food producer.
Virginia’s Finest® program, celebrating 30 years, is one of 35 states that have a record for enforcing standards. Taylor reports that only Virginia-produced and processed products that meet or exceed quality standards are eligible for the program. Criteria include:
• Must be headquartered in Virginia.
• Follow industry-specific quality standards.
• Approval by a committee of food safety officials and product marketing specialists.
• Verify that products meet state and federal regulations.
• Valid food safety inspection certificate.
Cindy Morris of Dancing Chick Jams, of Bedford, says it’s much more than stringent standards that set her products apart: “Honey, Smuckers® don’t make jellies like Cindy. My secrets are small batched and lots of love.” Even, Sister Barbara of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery Country Cheese attributes a “higher power” to their cheese. “Our secret ingredients are love and prayer,” she says.
Like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, consumers trust Virginia’s Finest® “checkmark” and recognize that its products have deep roots in environmental stewardship, quality, and integrity.