Hydroponic growers should be promoting locally-grown produce

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Whether or not hydroponic growers are using organic practices to produce edible crops, consumers are more likely to be interested in whether the produce is locally grown.

There has been much discussion over whether controlled environment hydroponic food production should be allowed to be certified organic. Regardless of where you stand on the topic, Michigan State University horticulture marketing professor Bridget Behe said CEA hydroponic growers might be valued more by consumers if they promote their crops as being locally grown.

“Hydroponic growers should accentuate the local dimension until market researchers can determine if and how much consumers value the hydroponic dimension,” Behe said.” In a 2011 online study over 800 consumers were shown ornamental, vegetable and herb transplants that were labeled organic, sustainably-produced or local. The study participants were told how the plants were grown, but weren’t given definitions for organic, local or sustainable. Our hypothesis was that there was a dimension of the market that wanted organic. We didn’t distinguish whether the transplants were certified organic or not.

“We were surprised by the study results that found local was the big winner in terms of consumer willingness to pay and likelihood to buy. It went local first, sustainably-produced second and organic was third. It doesn’t mean that organic was valued. It just meant that locally-grown meant more to more people.”

Michigan State University horticulture marketing professor Bridget Behe said hydroponic growers should promote their crops as locally grown, which has big appeal with consumers.
Photo courtesy of Bridget Behe, Mich. St. Univ.

Researchers concluded that when it comes to whether transplants are organic, it is not as important as transplants that are locally grown. The study results indicated “one of the main reasons consumers purchase local products is to support the local economy and local farmers. Both local food products and local plants can achieve the same objective.”

The definition of local can mean different things to different consumers.
“Depending on the population density, local in the Northeast is a vastly different mileage than local out West,” Behe said. “In places like Colorado and South Dakota, the mileage is going to be longer for local compared to a more densely populated state like Connecticut.”

Consumer perceptions of local, organic

In 2014 an online survey of over 2,500 people was conducted that included both American and Canadian participants. The survey asked participants to explain what local and organic meant to them. The survey referred to organic without the term “certified”.

“We started the survey by asking what is local and what is organic and what did those terms mean to the participants,” Behe said. “After they gave their free-form answers we asked them which terms or characteristics were associated with either local or organic. Some could correctly be associated with these words and some were incorrect association. Based on the responses received, 96 percent of the survey respondents had heard of the term local and 97 percent had heard of the term organic.”

Survey respondents had both accurate and inaccurate perceptions of local and organic. Sixty-seven percent of the participants correctly perceived local to mean decreased miles to transport. Sixty-seven percent also indicated that organic was produced with no synthetic pesticides.

In regards to respondent inaccuracies, 23 percent of participants perceived local as being grown organically. Another 17 percent thought local produce was grown without synthetic pesticides.

A hydroponic grower’s perspective

Tim Gehman, co-owner of Bux-Mont Hydroponics LLC in Telford, Pa., began growing hydroponically in 2005. He operates over 28,000 square feet of greenhouses equipped with nutrient film technique (NFT) and deep water culture production systems to grow lettuce and basil. His crops, which are USDA GAP-certified, are sold with the roots attached. Bux-Mont’s customers include grocery stores and several food distributors in the Philadelphia area. Most customers are within a 50-mile radius of the production facility.

“Our grocery store customers are more interested in locally-grown than in certified-organic,” Gehman said. “Some stores promote the locally-grown products that they offer. That is a big help for growers like me who are selling to those markets. Most average consumers don’t really understand what is involved with organics. Some think that organic produce is never sprayed and that’s not the case.”

Tim Gehman, co-owner of Bux-Mont Hydroponics, said his retail customers are more interested in locally-grown than in certified-organic produce.
Photo courtesy of Bux-Mont Hydroponics LLC

Gehman said GAP certification is a requirement of his customers. Being able to supply GAP-certified lettuce and basil, Gehman is very aware of having to grow, harvest and pack clean, healthy produce.

“GAP-certification isn’t voluntary,” he said. “Our retail customers wanted us to be GAP certified. We are dealing with a large supermarket chain and several independent grocery companies that have several stores. Some of these are smaller co-ops that operate local grocery stores. We also sell to some farm market stores.”

Food safety issues

Behe said GAP-certified produce is sort of an invisible certification to the general public.

“The whole food safety issue is more product-centric,” she said. “Consumers perceive sprouts as being very risky. Fruit like melon, unless it’s cut, is lower on the public’s risk scale. Consumers have heard about recalls for crops like leafy greens. They’ve heard about E. coli and about people getting sick. They associate these problems more with the crop than they do with a production method. This would be a good question to ask consumers. Would you be as likely to have E. coli on greenhouse-grown, hydroponic lettuce vs. field-grown, certified-organic lettuce?”

Behe said even though the consumer’s mindset is likely suspect of many sprouts, some lettuce and leafy greens, the good news is that consumers have a very short memory.

“Even though there have been numerous issues with spinach, people went back to eating it within a short period of time,” she said. “I expect the same was true with the recent Romaine lettuce scare. If they like the lettuce they are going to go back to eating it.

“I’m not sure where consumers are going to fall on food safety. My hypothesis is it is going to be very crop-based. With leafy greens and lettuce, it is all going to be perceived equally regardless of how it was grown. I don’t have that evidence, it’s a hypothesis.”

Interchangeable word usage

Behe said in people’s minds they have different motivations for wanting to buy produce that is locally-, sustainably- or organically-grown.

“Consumers may want to buy local because they want to support a local business, but they may also want to buy local because they can buy organic produce and know the farmer,” she said. “These words are being used interchangeably. It’s not clearly a distinct perception as to what local is and what organic is. Certified organic has a specific standard. But I don’t see most consumers making differentiations between these words. It’s kind of morphed into this philosophy of wanting to do something good for me and wanting to do something good for the environment. So they choose local, which is probably fresher which may taste better which is more likely to be organic.”

Bridget Behe said the words locally-grown, organic and sustainable have morphed into a philosophy of wanting to do something good for the consumer and something good for the environment.

Behe said hydroponic growers should play up the local and sustainable because practices that move consumers toward organic are seen more favorably than practices that move consumers toward more conventional production methods. The closer a crop is grown to where it is marketed the more favorable the product is seen by consumers.

“We can still identify consumer segments and the one that has the biggest appeal and to me the greatest market potential if it continues to be is local product,” she said. “That is the one that growers need to promote more often.”

For more: Bridget K. Behe, Michigan State University, Department of Horticulture, East Lansing, MI 48824; (517) 353-0346; behe@msu.edu; https://www.canr.msu.edu/people/dr_bridget_behe; http://connect-2-consumer.com.

This article is property of Urban Ag News and was written by David Kuack, a freelance technical writer from Fort Worth, TX.

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