The Windy City is about to roll out a new local food label designed to support the city’s burgeoning urban farming movement. “Chicago Grown” will soon appear on signs around the city and on stickers on fruit, veggies, herbs, and honey, and eventually on processed items in which they’re included, such as salsa, jams, and even kombucha.
Backers believe Chicago Grown will be the first label issued by a major city specifically to promote its urban ag culture. “We really want the label to both increase demand for foods grown through urban agriculture and celebrate that so many people are growing food within Chicago,” says Megan Klein with the Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council (CFPAC), who is spearheading the effort with input from growers around the city. “We want people to be able to identify who is growing the food around them and to let them know where they can get it.”
Chicago Grown and efforts like it are a natural next step for the “buy local” campaigns started in the ’90s. The early movement helped usher in the era of farmers markets, launch community supported agriculture operations (CSAs), and convince the nation’s gonzo chain grocery stores to stock their shelves with “local” products — but the definition of “local” varies. Now, a flurry of branding and rebranding efforts around the country is giving the eating public an easy way to tell exactly where its food comes from and who grew it.
These local branding efforts are “reweaving a community tapestry undone by industrial America,” says Phil Korman, executive director of the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Community Involved in Sustainable Agriculture (CISA), which in 1999 founded the groundbreaking “Local Hero” marketing campaign, with the trademarked “Be A Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown” label. “We are giving back respect to farmers and changing the culture of where we are as people.”
Proof is in the (locally made) pudding. Korman says that internal studies show that over 82 percent of residents recognize the Local Hero logo — and those who recognize it are twice as likely to to shop at their local farm stand or farmers market or to choose local products at their grocery store. In the 2002-2007 USDA Census of Agriculture, farmers in the three-county Local Hero region reported that they doubled the amount of products — everything from wood to flowers to food — sold to local customers, increasing sales from about $4.5 million to almost $9 million. Acreage of land being farmed also increased, the number of farmers markets grew from 10 to 49 between 2002 and 2013, and just in the years 2006 to 2013, the number of CSAs grew from 12 to 55, now selling 10,000 farm shares annually that feed 40,000 people.
While local food still only makes up between 10 and 15 percent of the food consumed in the region, Korman says his organization has set out to double the amount of local food in local diets over the next 20 years.
Founded in 1998, Berkshire County’s Berkshire Grown marketing organization has helped attract a new wave of farmers, says Executive Director Barbara Zheutlin. The county has seen a drop in the number of acres being farmed, but there’s been an increase in the establishment of smaller farms. “By launching Berkshire Grown, the purpose was to keep farmers farming and to grow the local food economy,” Zheutlin explains. “We’ve now created a market and the demand is going up to where we have more demand than product.”
A similar effort sprouted in Nantucket in the early aughts as a way to keep farms on the island during a time when land value was skyrocketing. In 2000, seeing growers selling off their land, local residents created the nonprofit Sustainable Nantucket. They started a farmers and artisans market that in turn created a demand for local products. In 2007, they launched a local marketing effort called Nantucket Grown.
As a result, the number of farms has increased from three to seven, and several small “pocket farms” have grown as well, says Michelle Whelan, Sustainable Nantucket’s executive director. Through a partnership with local landowners, Whelan anticipates the numbers will increase further. Restaurants are spurring on the trend, she says, by sourcing more food grown on Nantucket.
In 2007, in an effort to support local ag and assist the many small tobacco farmers transitioning to fruit and vegetable operations, the Ashville, N.C.-based nonprofit Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) unveiled Appalachian Grown, promoting farm products produced within a 100-mile radius of the city. Sales soared as restaurants and grocers began carrying more locally labeled produce. Today, there’s even a distillery that makes moonshine from Appalachian-grown heirloom corn.
Maggie Kramer, ASAP’s communication manager, says the group supplies certified farmers with everything from labels to twist ties and produce boxes, all with the Appalachian Grown logo. The movement, she adds, has also spread to “tailgate” farms — farmers selling their fruit and vegetables roadside. “Now if you ask someone on the street what locally grown means they will answer ‘Appalachian Grown’ — they are that specific,” she says. “They want to be assured that it comes from our region and that’s different than what ‘local’ meant 10 years ago.”
And the list of local food labels continues to grow. Last weekend, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback unveiled the new From the Land of Kansas trademark, promoting ag services from “farm to fork.” The state will launch a website next month allowing residents to locate everything from restaurants to farms within a 30-mile radius of their homes. Brownback says the initiative empowers the consumer to define what local means to them.
In Chicago, backers of the Chicago Grown project hope that the new label will not only help build a market for locally grown foods, but also, in turn, create the need for more farms and farmers. As the label gains momentum, CFPAC will add a website in which the public can read about urban farms, their products, and the farmers themselves, as well as businesses that use locally grown ingredients.
Nathan Wyse, owner of a small, Chicago-based kombucha manufacturer called Arize that uses locally grown herbs such as mint, says the label will help make an “ethical connection” between grower and consumer.
“Think community gardens, victory gardens,” says Erika Allen, head of CFPAC and national projects director for the Milwaukee-based group Growing Power. “The goal is to support urban ag, and attract more farmers, giving the farmers another tool they can have in their arsenal for their business.”
Over time, CFPAC believes, the label will become as familiar to Chicagoans as, say, the logos of its two sparring baseball teams. With any luck, Chicago Grown will have more success rounding to that “home plate” than the Cubs have of late.