Thirteen years ago blackberry grower Wayne Shumate got himself out of a jam by, well, making jam.
When the 12 acres of briars on his WindStone Farms in Paris began producing more fruit than his local buyers could sell, Shumate turned to making jam.
“I had all these extra berries,” says Shumate, “so I called my friend Charlie Barton and asked him, ‘Can you make jam from blackberries?'”
The answer was, of course, yes, and Shumate set to work preparing and packaging his WindStone Farms Kentucky Gourmet Blackberry Jam for sale in the holiday season.
The jam caught on. Gradually, all of Shumate’s berries began going to jam production, saving him from worries about finding enough summertime berry buyers.
Those struggles and others–including the logistics of berry shipping and maintaining fruit freshness during a whirlwind four-week harvest season–were what got Shumate out of the fresh berry business altogether, despite its profitability. Content with his jam’s success, Shumate wasn’t necessarily looking to tackle the challenges of the fresh fruit market again.
But an offer came along that was too sweet to pass up: a guaranteed buyer with a predictable demand large enough to handle the 50,000 pounds of berries Shumate produces each year.
That buyer was Wal-Mart, the volume-buying experts.
Mike Salisbury, a London-based regional buyer for the store, met with Shumate and his business partner, Billy Gatton Jones, last June and had WindStone berries on Wal-Mart shelves by July.
This year Wal-Mart will sell Shumate’s blackberries in all Kentucky SuperCenters as well as stores in West Virginia, Virginia, Indiana, and Tennessee. While berries in past years had been imported from Chile, the ones in southeastern Wal-Mart shopping carts this summer will come fresh from Paris, Kentucky.
That’s the kind of success story the Kentucky Department of Agriculture (KDA) hopes will become common under its Kentucky Fresh marketing campaign.
Launched last July, Kentucky Fresh began as the result of a 2001 marketing survey of Kentucky consumers. When asked what most motivated their purchase of foods, the majority of the 8,000 respondents ranked “freshness” number one.
The ad campaign’s slogan, “Taste Kentucky Fresh. Nothing Else is Close,” developed by CJ Advertising in Lexington, reinforces the message that buying local means buying fresh.
“Consumers are already quality- and safety-conscious, particularly after September 11,” says Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Billy Ray Smith. “Now, it makes sense to have that shift into a consciousness of where their food is coming from, too.”
Shumate, who served on the program’s Consumer Advisory Committee, says, “The point of Kentucky Fresh is to show Kentuckians that a product is made here. I believe Kentuckians will buy these products if they know it’s a Kentucky product.”
To differentiate Kentucky products from others on the shelf, the state’s recharged promotion efforts include a new logo, created by Kirby Stephens Design in Somerset, which features a cardinal, the state bird, and the words “Kentucky Fresh.”
While previous marketing campaigns involved multiple logos for wine production, Christmas trees, fresh produce, aquaculture, and other items, Kentucky Fresh uses one logo for all products grown or processed in Kentucky.
Jim Mansfield, director of the KDA Division of Horticulture/Aquaculture, says, “While we had about 800 Kentucky growers involved in past logo programs, I think we’ll have an even better participation in this one, since it’s more unified.”
The KDA worked to phase out its older logos throughout the end of last year, so the real rollout of the new Kentucky Fresh logo will happen this year, says Mansfield.
But consumers can already see the new logo on about 50 Kentucky products, such as WindStone Farms’ blackberry jam and Purchase Area Aquaculture Cooperative’s frozen catfish.
This month, growers who participated in previous logo programs will begin receiving applications in the mail to register for Kentucky Fresh. New participants can access applications on the KDA Web site at www.kyagr.com.
Participants will be eligible to buy, at cost, promotional materials bearing the Kentucky Fresh logo, including stickers, bags, chalkboards, and signs.
Last summer, the program’s launch was heralded through a statewide print, radio, and TV advertising campaign, funded by a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The ads will be run again this summer, if funds allow.
It’s all an attempt to bolster the market for Kentucky growers, many of whom are struggling to diversify as tobacco prices continue to plummet.
“There will be no one silver bullet to replace tobacco,” Smith says. “But through a combination of things–aquaculture, value-added products, etc.–we can find new means of self-sufficiency.”
Smith describes the Kentucky Fresh program as multi-focused, working to promote Kentucky products sold directly by the growers at farmers’ markets, in grocery stores, and in restaurants.
A related program, the KDA’s Kentucky Restaurant Rewards program, offers advertising rebates to encourage caterers, restaurant owners, and chefs to use Kentucky-grown products.
“If a restaurant lists ‘catfish produced and processed in Kentucky’ on its menu, the KDA will share in the cost of printing the menus,” says Smith.
Rob Ramsey, owner of five Ramsey’s restaurants in Lex-ington and chair of the Consumer Advisory Committee that oversaw the development of the Kentucky Fresh campaign, has used locally grown vegetables in his business for 10 years.
“In cutting out the middle man, I’m able to get fresher produce a bit more cheaply and pay the grower a bit more than they might otherwise get,” he says.
Though he applied for and received reimbursement for printing Kentucky Fresh banners last summer, Ramsey says he would have promoted the campaign even without the advertising incentives.
So far only four restaurants have filed for a Restaurant Rewards rebate, says Tess Caudill, KDA marketing specialist. The KDA hopes that will change as more restaurants learn about the program.
“We know there are a lot of restaurants that are buying local products across the state who, for whatever reason, aren’t participating in the program yet,” says Caudill.
Ultimately, though, she says, “The important thing is just that they buy local produce, even though they may not feel they need to be reimbursed.”
Many in the business seem to agree with Wal-Mart regional buyer Mike Salisbury, who says buying local products whenever possible is “just the right thing to do.”
With 41 Wal-Mart SuperCenters and 94 Kroger stores across the state participating in the Kentucky Fresh program, representatives at both chains say they’re committed to stocking their shelves with local produce during Kentucky’s growing season–as long as it meets their stringent quality standards.
Other chains have expressed interest in joining the program in the coming year. But for now, consumers can find local products at Wal-Mart under signs marked “Grown in Kentucky.” Kroger bills their local produce as “Home Grown”– a name in keeping with the fact that some of their products come from southern Indiana, says Frank Polion, a Louisville-based assistant produce merchandiser at Kroger.
While Kroger has been actively buying local produce since the mid-1990s, participating in the Kentucky Fresh program “gives us a way to get more information out to our customers about the types of Kentucky products that are available,” Polion says. Last summer, many Kroger stores in the state displayed signs listing when different Kentucky products would be in season and providing recipes for using them.
Wal-Mart had also worked with local growers prior to the launch of the Kentucky Fresh campaign, though their purchase of Kentucky-grown products soared last year under Mike Salisbury’s enthusiastic participation. Wal-Mart now buys from around 40 independent growers throughout the state.
“We saw a 21 to 50 percent increase over the previous year in terms of amount of local produce purchased for various vegetables,” says Salisbury.
The significance of those numbers isn’t lost on folks like Winchester grower Don Perkins or Nancy native Tim Tarter, who are directly affected.
Last season, in his first collaboration with Wal-Mart, Perkins sold some 55,000 tomatoes to stores in Berea, Mt. Sterling, Richmond, and Winchester.
Next season, Tarter, who already sells fresh herbs to Wal-Mart, will supply four new products–daikon (a type of Japanese radish), bok choy, Swiss chard, and parsnips–to 160-170 Wal-Mart stores in Kentucky, Illinois, and Tennessee.
The new crops are a welcome supplement to Tarter’s declining tobacco income. Plus, he likes the fact that they let him get full use of his $150,000 greenhouse complex, which had previously been sitting dormant all but the three months needed to grow his tobacco seedlings.
“These new crops have never been grown in Kentucky before; they had typically come from California,” Tarter says. “But we set out a test plot last year to prove we could deliver the quantity and quality Wal-Mart needed, and they were very well-satisfied with the pictures and samples we provided.”
Eventually, Smith would like to see the state’s meat, dairy, and poultry producers mimic the corporate marketing success of fruit and vegetable producers like Tarter and Shumate. As the program grows and matures, Smith sees no limit to the types of products that could be labeled “Kentucky Fresh.”
In the meantime, he encourages everyone to “be more curious about where your food comes from. If it’s not labeled, ask if it was grown in Kentucky.”
Kentucky Fresh Info
For more about the Kentucky Fresh program, go to www.kyagr.com/kyfresh/index.htm.
For an application for the Kentucky Fresh program, go to www.kyagr.com/kyfresh/PDF/kyfreshproud.pdf.
To download guidelines for participating in the Kentucky Restaurant Rewards program, go to www.kyagr.com/mkt_promo/LPF/Livestock/meatmarketing/restaurant%20rewards.htm.