Business

Want to buy local this harvest? This program connects you with Idaho farms, producers

As farmers and farmworkers work overtime to get crops out of the field and to consumers this harvest season, a state-sponsored program is helping shoppers locate items that are truly “Idaho-made.”

Idaho Preferred, a program managed by the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, focuses on promoting Idaho food and agricultural products. It’s not affiliated with Buy Idaho, a separate nonprofit organization, that promotes all Idaho products, not just agriculture.

The program launched in 2003 with just a few members. Now, about 300 farmers, producers, wineries, food processors and farmers markets bear the “Idaho Preferred” label on their products.

As the program grows, Idaho Preferred program staff see more and more shoppers are interested in knowing where the food comes from — even in the increasingly urban Treasure Valley.

“It seems like more and more, there is this intense interest in buying locally,” said Skylar Jett, the program manager of Idaho Preferred.

How Idaho Preferred works

When Bob Wagner and his wife, Cari, started making and selling their homemade mustard eight years ago, they almost immediately joined the Idaho Preferred program. Wagner Idaho Foods was basically a startup, Wagner said, and they didn’t have a lot of money or resources to get their products in the right places.

Vogel Farms Country Market in Kuna was the first store to start stocking its shelves, but having the Idaho Preferred label on their food began to have an impact across the state.

“People buy your product when they see that logo,” Wagner told the Statesman. “They have such a big brand recognition.”

Producers and businesses who want to join the Idaho Preferred program have to meet different requirements, depending on the product category. Membership fees are low — $50 a year for growers and $100 a year for food processors — and help the agency cover the cost of marketing, retail outreach and creating websites for producers.

As a general rule, products need be grown in Idaho or processed in Idaho to qualify. That means at least 20% of processed foods and drinks must rely on Idaho products, while 100% of produce must be grown in Idaho. Wagner, for example, buys his mustard seeds exclusively from Idaho farmers, mostly from the American Falls area.

A membership survey conducted by Idaho Preferred program staff estimated members saw a 25 percent increase in sales because they were members of the program.

By selecting the month of the year on the Idaho Preferred website, visitors can find a list of products in season, and where to find them in Idaho. In September, the choices include everything from a deer farm in McCall that sells venison year-round, to the apples in season at Henggeler Packing Company in Fruitland and Northview Orchard in Buhl.

“(Consumers) want to know where their food is grown,” Jett said. “They want to have that connection to the farmer. I think that’s really neat.”

‘You work with Walmart?’

September is also Idaho Preferred month, when program staff will travel to grocery stores across the state as part of a “retail road show.” Local farmers and producers bring in their crops and food to stores like Stokes, Broulim’s, Ridleys and Albertsons — one farmer was parking his potato truck outside the front of the store for shoppers to see, Jett said — so shoppers and staff can meet the farmers whose food stock their shelves. Some stores, like the Nampa Walmart on Franklin Road, have huge displays showcasing their Idaho Preferred products during the entire month.

“Really, now the retailers are coming to us and saying we want to source local products and Idaho products in our store,”’ Jett said. “Versus us having to bang on the doors and saying ‘Hey, we have these great Idaho products. Why are you selling Washington apples when we have Idaho apples?’”

Wagner said he definitely notices a bump in sales from Idaho Preferred marketing efforts. But nothing compares to the impact of being able to sell not just through local word-of mouth or at farmers markets, but also through large retail stores.

Through Idaho Preferred, Wagner was able to get his mustard into the two new Albertsons Market Street groceries in Boise and Meridian. He likely wouldn’t have made those connections without the Idaho Preferred program, he told the Statesman, which helps Idaho Preferred members pitch their products to anything from the Boise Co-Op to the Treasure Valley Walmarts.

“Just getting into these two new Albertsons has changed our business so dramatically — and that I directly attribute to Idaho Preferred,” Wagner said. “If anyone has any kind of ag-based product that they want to sell, they have to join.”

Jett, who recently returned from a swing through Rexburg, Driggs, Twin Falls and Ketchum for a series of retail road shows, said one of the biggest supporters of the movement to support local agriculture may be surprising — Walmart.

“A lot of people will say ‘You work with Walmart?’ and we’ll say, ‘Absolutely,’” Jett said. “Walmart sells a lot of product, and they are so supportive of the program. They really want to support local and Idaho and they have been a great partner.”

Tory Nichols, Walmart’s market manager for the Treasure Valley, told the Statesman that all Walmarts in Idaho are set up to receive local Idaho products year-round. But during the months of September and October, his team makes an extra effort to stock and supply their stores with Idaho crops as they’re harvested.

“Our Idaho communities produce some great agricultural goods and our customers benefit from them,” Nichols said.

Nichols said not only do local Walmart staff take pride in supporting their own farm community, but sourcing locally is ultimately beneficial to retailers, too.

“Idahoans like buying Idaho products,” Nichols said. “We get a lot of satisfaction from helping each other out. I think it’s mostly driven behind being proud to be in Idaho. There’s always a significant benefit, from sales, whenever we can feature Idaho products because customers are loyal to Idaho products.”

Click here to apply to the Idaho Preferred program.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

We're diving deep into Idaho agriculture

Reporter Nicole Foy is helping the Idaho Statesman expand coverage of agriculture, farming and food across Idaho. Agriculture and food production has long been an important part of Idaho’s economy, with dairies, international agribusinesses and food processors among the state’s top employers. Many Idahoans have close ties to agriculture, even as houses continue to replace farmland, especially in Boise and throughout the Treasure Valley.

If you have agriculture-related story ideas, contact Nicole at 208-377-6347 or nfoy@idahostatesman.com. You can also take our survey.

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Investigative reporter Nicole Foy covers Latinos, agriculture and government accountability issues. She graduated from Biola University and previously worked for the Idaho Press and the Orange County Register. Her Hispanic affairs beat reporting won first place in the 2018 Associated Press regional awards. Ella habla español.
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