Buy California or ‘Bye, California’

Agriculture leaders plan statewide program promoting California produce

HOME GROWN <br>Mac Poueu, produce manager at the Albertson’s supermarket on East Avenue in Chico, says customers are curious about where their fruit and vegetables come from. A proposed marketing program would help identify California commodities in stores.

Mac Poueu, produce manager at the Albertson’s supermarket on East Avenue in Chico, says customers are curious about where their fruit and vegetables come from. A proposed marketing program would help identify California commodities in stores.

Photo by Tom Angel

Top crops: The commodities generating the most dollars in California are, in order: milk products, grapes, nursery plants, cattle, tomatoes, lettuce, strawberries, flowers and foliage, hay and almonds.

Are those grapes from California or Chile? Or maybe Mexico?

State agricultural leaders believe the choice is an important one, and, according to a survey commissioned by the California Department of Agriculture, so do 80 percent of customers. If given the option, they’d buy produce grown in California over anywhere else.

Knowing that, and staring at a farming crisis due to a surplus of crops and overseas competition, government and industry leaders have proposed a marketing program that would urge shoppers—via ads in media and in supermarkets—to “Buy California.”

“It might shine the light on California,” said Steve Lyle, director of public relations for the California Department of Agriculture. The survey, he said, “showed us that ‘if you build it, they will come,’ to overuse the cliché from Field of Dreams.”

The hope is that the marketing program will up demand for and sales of California products and in turn help individual growers and the overall economy. “It’s one tool in the toolbox, for sure,” Lyle said. “We just wanted to make California commodities more competitive in California. California is truly the breadbasket of the world. Let’s tell our own people.”

Tod Kimmelshue, vice president of the Butte County Farm Bureau, is also intrigued by the program. “I think that’s a great idea,” he said. “Californians are loyal to products that are grown in their state, and if they’re labeled that way and marketed that way, they’re going to buy it. We all know that California products are superior to anything grown in the world.”

Gov. Gray Davis has asked the state Legislature to approve kicking in $5 million. And Rep. Gary Condit, D-Modesto, is sponsoring an addition to a 2001 farm bill that would allow $12 million for Buy California.

Christine Robbins, Condit’s legislative assistant on ag issues, explained that other states are getting a share of federal money to launch similar programs. “The states get block grants, basically,” she said. Condit believes the bill is important, Robbins related, because of all the things that are working against farmers’ survival. “European subsidies are the biggest hurt for our farmers,” she said. “It’s cheaper to grow foods in other countries where they don’t have environmental and labor regulations.”

The government entities are expecting that industry groups will step in and match the money. It would be a voluntary marketing agreement, Lyle said, but those commodities would be featured in Buy California campaigns. “We hope the program is going to be so successful that other commodities are going to be pounding on our door wanting in—and we’ll let them in,” he said.

The California Table Grape Commission, for one, plans to sign on. Kathleen Nave, president of the organization, said it has already committed to pay into the program, in which commodity groups would be voluntarily assessed on a sliding scale based on how much revenue that crop generates.

“We consider this to be a target market promotion,” Nave said, comparing Buy California to “the top layer of the cake” in marketing. “Each individual commodity has to continue to promote its own product, not only in California but all over the rest of the country and world.”

California grapes go up against grapes from Mexico, Chile, South Africa and even Italy, Nave said. She visualizes signs in produce sections, sampling programs, joint advertising and other ventures that require retailers to be on board, which they are. “We have a really rare opportunity to create a program with the state and industry and with the retailers. We can make a difference in the economy of the state,” she said.

Although the Almond Board of California has yet to decide if it’s in, spokesperson Stacey Kollmeyer said, “It would be to our benefit to review the program.” She said that last year’s referendum of members—which validates the board’s own marketing program—passed with a 94-percent vote and grower support.

Even representatives at Cal-Almond, which sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1990s because it considered forced assessments unfair, barely remembered having a beef with statewide marketing programs and declined to comment.

Because the program is not yet funded, it hasn’t been fully developed. The state would hire a powerhouse PR firm and base its ads in part on which commodity groups buy in. “What we have now is an idea. A lot of the details remain to be worked out,” Lyle said.

He said the program would probably mimic those like “Got milk?” and “It’s the cheese” that have proven successful for the dairy industry.

Other states have publicly funded campaigns, such as “JerseyFresh” and “Fresh from Florida.” Instead of “look for the union label,” the message would be something like, “Look for the California label.”

“It’s difficult for many in agriculture to make a living, and some will tell you it’s more difficult that it ever has been,” Lyle said. The Buy California campaign could also be good for growers’ morale.

Meanwhile, other bills are being considered, like one that would require such state-run institutions as prisons and hospitals to buy California produce if the bids were close.

Their toughest competition is from cheap, out-of-the-country produce, not their neighbors in the United States.

But Lyle said supermarket aisles won’t see shouting matches between loyal California buyers and those who prefer produce from beyond.

“I don’t think we want to get into ‘our oranges are better than Florida oranges,'" he said.