Beef products are being prepared for the Gibson City Meats and Deli cooler by Ron Fisher as Randy (center) and Steve Arends look on. The Arends family opened the business in downtown Gibson City, Ill., a year ago to provide a way for local farmers to sell their products. The business includes a cafe, store and butcher shop for custom or regular cuts.
Beef products are being prepared for the Gibson City Meats and Deli cooler by Ron Fisher as Randy (center) and Steve Arends look on. The Arends family opened the business in downtown Gibson City, Ill., a year ago to provide a way for local farmers to sell their products. The business includes a cafe, store and butcher shop for custom or regular cuts.
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — A state agency looks toward building on last year’s success in promoting Illinois-grown products with an expanded campaign in 2014.

For the second straight year, the Illinois Department of Agriculture was awarded a Specialty Crop Block Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Jennifer Tirey, state bureau chief of the marketing and promotions, said part of the funding from last year’s grant was used to provide free marketing materials through the Illinois Where Fresh Is program for 115 grocery stores and 90 farmers markets.

“They could put these six-foot banners at their market or their grocery store,” she said.

“We were also able to partner with CBS 2 TV in Chicago, and they created three different commercials about the Illinois Where Fresh Is program encouraging consumers to look for strawberries, blueberries, peaches, sweet corn and watermelon.”

An Illinois Where Fresh Is website also was created with maps indicating the locations of the participating grocery stores and farmers markets where products grown in Illinois are available.

“We were really lucky to receive money again this year for phase two which allowed us to get 75 more grocery stores, 25 additional farmers markets and something new in 25 farm stands,” Tirey said.

“We’ve been working the last month or two to recruit new markets, grocery stores and farm stands. They will get the banners like the people got last year to put up at their grocery stores and markets.”

Buy Illinois Challenge

The marketing bureau also wanted to keep those involved in last year’s first phase of the program engaged and provide those same promotional materials.

“So we created the Buy Illinois Fruits and Vegetables Challenge where they will get signage specifically about that, and we’re encouraging consumers to dedicate $10 of their existing grocery store budget to buy fresh fruits and vegetables that are grown in Illinois,” Tirey said.

While the specialty crop grant is for the promotion of fruits and vegetables, these efforts dovetail into meeting the department’s mission to promote all products produced in Illinois.

“If every household in Illinois dedicates just $10, and that’s not new money they just shift their spending, on Illinois-made products that will reinvest $47 million a week into the Illinois economy — over $2.4 billion annually,” Tirey said.

“It is real numbers, and right now we can’t ask people to spend more of their hard-earned money because it continues to dwindle, but to spend what they’re already spending and just look for Illinois-made would be pretty simple.”

Efforts to promote Illinois products began two years ago when Ag Director Bob Flider kicked off the Buy Illinois Challenge and unveiled the department’s newly designed Illinois Product logo.

Effort Pays Off

These series of promotional efforts have been well received and is helping bolster the state’s products.

“We surveyed our participants in the first phase of Where Illinois Fresh Is program, and some of the farmers market vendors and grocery stores saw up to a 50 percent increase in sales,” Tirey said.

“Some of them had a 5 to 10 percent increase, and others were up 50 (percent). They all saw the benefit and the value of it, and honestly it’s going to take a little while to get it off the ground.

“So we’re hoping that not only are we reengaging who we worked with last year, but also adding numbers and also adding the number of places we’re advertising this summer to truly try to cover every pocket of the state and so we’re building momentum.”

The marketing bureau also is working with grocery store chains on not only the Illinois Where Fresh Is programs, but the Illinois Products logo that includes all food processed in Illinois.

“They’re working to get shelf talkers and signage so consumers can easily find those Illinois made products in the stores,” Tirey said.

The efforts have been well received by grocery stores as they see the value in promoting local products.

“They’re always looking for ways to increase. For example, I got an email from a County Market executive who wants to start doing a food demo in their grocery stores to highlight Illinois products. They come to us to help connect with those Illinois food companies that may not be in their store,” Tirey said.

The department hosted a successful two-day Illinois Products Expo in early March at the state fairgrounds.

“Not only did we do a consumer show where the public came in, we also did a buyers’ show before it opened for the public and some of these buyers want to put these items in their stores across the state,” Tirey said.

“So it’s not just what happens over that two-day time period at the expo. It’s happening months after the fact where they’re making connections and getting their products on shelves, and its long-term effects that keeps these businesses growing. That’s what we want to do.”