CISA: Matching Locavores and Local Farms

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Br a Local Hero. By Locally GrownIn the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts (where I happen to live), you’ll find a whole lot of farms with signage calling them “Local Heroes.” You’ll also see similar signs in grocery stores, supermarkets, farmers markets, plant nurseries, and even cafes and restaurants. And you’ll see bumper stickers all over the region that say, “Be a Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown®.”

Where did these signs come from, and what do they mean?

They came from an organization called Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, or CISA. And they signify that these farms are active partners in the local economy. People who want local foods seek them out, and buy from them. And these farms willingly sell to a market that cuts out several of the middlemen and allows them to command a premium price. In an era when farms are facing huge challenges economically, the CISA member farms tend to be doing well.

Consumers get fresh foods (often picked that day)—and the knowledge that they’re building the local economy. The money they spend with these farmers and their retailers comes back to the community in a myriad of ways: from support for sports teams and community causes to preserving open space for farmland as urban sprawl tries to encroach.

And farmers get ready markets—both wholesale and retail—of locals committed to the local economy, and of stores or food service establishments willing to facilitate that commitment by making the products available. Interestingly, some of the stores and restaurants that participate are not themselves locally based; a couple of very large chains are participating, selling local produce to local buyers even while they themselves are headquartered far away.

CISA was founded in 1993 as the Pioneer Valley Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture , and rebranded as an incorporated charitable organization in 1999, under its current name. Local Hero launched the same year. It offers many support resources and programs to local farmers, in addition to the Local Hero campaign: a farm share program for elders…market development among large institutions such as schools and hospitals…filling infrastructure needs such as processing centers…technical assistance to new farmers…workshops and instructional materials on marketing, grant writing, organic farming, and more…financing options…

But its public face is very much associated with the wildly popular Local Hero program. And through that program, a lot of dollars have shifted to local sources. In fact, according to Devon Whitney-Deal, CISA’s Local Hero Member Services Coordinator and one of nine employees, when the organization started tracking in 2003, there were only nine farmers markets in the Pioneer Valley—but now there are at least 40 seasonal markets plus four winter markets (a more than 400 percent increase in eight years). CISA has 199 member farmers, 50 retailers, 32 restaurants, and a total membership of 312. And in its three-county service area, reversing the farm-loss trend elsewhere, more acreage is actually in farmland now than when the group was founded.

In other words, through a massive branding campaign, this organization actually created a consciousness about buying local. People who in the past had not thought much about where their food comes from have made a conscious shift to buying some portion of their food supply from local sources—and that, in turn, has helped the farm economy to stay solvent.

The buy-local strategy, according to CISA’s website, offers these five benefits (quoting):
•       Keeps money in the local economy
•       Preserves family farms
•       Reduces oil-dependent transportation costs
•       Protects our local landscapes
•       Ensures that fresh, healthy food stays available and affordable to all

You won’t find CISA on the web at cisa.com, .org, or .net; you have to look at http://buylocalfood.org/ (and what a great URL). I’m rather surprised that the organization hasn’t started a franchise-like model on the website, like Craig’s List. You’d kind of expect that by now there might be, for example, sydney.buylocalfood.org or kualalumpur. buylocalfood.org.

Whether the program uses a franchise model or not, I would think many communities around the world would be eagerly replicating this very successful program.

Marketing consultant, Green And Profitable syndicated columnist, and copywriter Shel Horowitz shows you how to “reach Green, socially conscious consumers with marketing that has THEM calling YOU.” He specializes in Green and ethical marketing strategies and materials for businesses and organizations. The primary author of Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green: Winning Strategies to Improve Your Profits and Your Planet (John Wiley & Sons, 2010), Shel writes the monthly columns Green And Profitable and Green And Practical. His website is http://greenandprofitable.com.

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