“Home Grown.”

Those words can be valuable marketing tools.

“Home Grown.”

Those words can be valuable marketing tools. At Central Market in Lancaster, produce that sits behind handwritten signs proclaiming “Home Grown” draws special attention from shoppers such as husband and wife Peter Fields and Edie Gallagher of Lancaster.

“If we have the choice, we always go for the local produce,” Fields said as a merchant bagged a dozen homegrown tomatoes. “When we moved to Lancaster, we were looking for a place like this.”

For Gallagher, the homegrown produce is a primary reason to go to Central Market; and when it isn’t available, she’s less likely to shop at there.

“In winter, I actually tend to come here less,” she said.

Bringing together Pennsylvania producers and consumers is the goal of PA Preferred, a program of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. PA Preferred encompasses fresh produce, processed foods, restaurants and many other components of the food business.

Frank Jurbala, director of the agency’s Bureau of Market Development, said the program has more than 2,000 members, up from just 174 in 2004.

“It continues to grow on a daily basis,” Jurbala said. “It’s taken off on both the producer and the consumer end.”

One reason PA Preferred is succeeding is consumers’ preference for Pennsylvania products. The Department of Food Marketing at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia conducted research and found that 93 percent of Pennsylvania consumers would prefer to purchase foods produced in Pennsylvania, Jurbala said. Now, they can look for the PA Preferred logo and know what they’re getting.

Another initiative that promotes locally grown food is Buy Fresh, Buy Local, a program of FoodRoutes Network, based in Tioga County.

FoodRoutes, which advocates buying and eating locally grown food, has studied the connection between buying local and helping the local economy. It found that Lancaster County’s economy would gain $45 million annually if every household in the county spent just 5 percent more of its food budget on locally grown foods.

Linda Aleci is a member of the steering committee of the Lancaster chapter of FoodRoutes.

“Our present food system is really hurting rural America,” Aleci said. “Local foods are good for the local economy.”

She said food travels an average of 1,500 to 2,500 miles from grower to consumer, and moving that food burns huge amounts of fuel.

“If every American would eat just one meal of entirely local foods every week, it would save 1.1 million barrels of fuel every week,” Aleci said.

The cost of transporting food is a major reason why supermarket chains are increasing their purchases of local products. One major chain purchases $40 million worth of Pennsylvania products annually, Jurbala said. He did not identify the chain.

Distribution is one reason why large chains have contracts with distant growers, Jurbala said. A huge grower in California or Florida can guarantee a year-round supply, but fuel costs and tastes are improving the market for Pennsylvania products.

Taste is the top selling point for Tom Culton, who operates Culton Organics on Marietta Pike in West Hempfield Township, Lancaster County. His niche is heirloom vegetables and melons. He said he has developed such a rapport with his customers that they feel comfortable knocking on his door if an item that they want is not at his stand.

“The customers come back,” he said. “They come for the taste.”

They get that taste from items that they won’t find in a supermarket, Culton said. He grows 55 varieties of tomatoes, in colors ranging from red to pink to black to white. He grows a watermelon called Moon and Stars for its colorful shell. He grows a small melon called Sakata Sweet. Its fragrance can fill an entire room, he said.

Culton sells at his farm, and he plans to open a stand at Lancaster Central Market in August. He also operates at Headhouse Market in Philadelphia on Sundays, and to guarantee his heirlooms are fresh, he rises early and picks in the dark.

Heirlooms are nature’s original plants, while hybrids are the result of genetic breeding. Hybrid plants have many commercial advantages, such as higher yields, predictable maturity dates and the ability to travel well. Heirlooms lack those characteristics, so growers must sell them close to home.

Sean Cavanaugh, chef at the John J. Jeffries Restaurant in the new Lancaster Arts Hotel, is a customer of Culton. Cavanaugh prepares a menu that changes daily and uses only items produced within 25 miles of the restaurant. The sole exception, by necessity, is seafood.

“We think of it as fine dining with a conscience.” Cavanaugh said. “We’ve been very fortunate. We found a really cool location. We’ve met the farmers. Their pricing is fair, and everything is so fresh.”

For Bruce Emswiler of Lancaster, the calendar breaks down to the four months when he can get local tomatoes and to the other eight months of the year. The tomato lover said fresh tomatoes are his summer staple, and his favorite supplier is The Tomato Barn in Washington Boro.

“On Saturday, I bought two $5 boxes, about 20 pounds total,” Emswiler said. “On Tuesday, I bought two more $5 boxes. Steve (the owner) said that this is the best year ever for tomatoes.”

When winter brings an end to Lancaster’s tomato season, Emswiler stops eating them. “I never buy those things that they ship in,” he said. “When I can’t get homegrown tomatoes, once in a while, I’ll use canned ones.”

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