By EMMA HOPKINS
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — For the second year in a row, the Indiana State Department of Agriculture’s (ISDA) Indiana Grown program has made an appearance at the Indiana State Fair – and is successfully selling products even in the absence of former partner Marsh Supermarkets.
Indiana Grown, which provides marketing and exposure to farms that grow and sell their products in the state, opened a marketplace in the Horticulture Building on the Indiana State Fairgrounds. The venue carries 300 Indiana-produced products from cheese to popcorn to soap, that fairgoers may purchase at any time.
ISDA Director Ted McKinney said the program has been growing rapidly, averaging about one new member per day. “When the ISDA revived the program, it was on life support,” he said. “And here we are two years later, almost a couple hundred members, and it’s giving new and old farmers alike, young and long-established farmers, hightech and low-tech farmers, processers and others, the opportunity to put an Indiana Grown stamp on their product or products, and maybe make a little more money. In that sense, it has fulfilled our wildest dreams.”
Unlike last year when the marketplace was managed largely by Marsh, this year it was organized and managed entirely by the ISDA. With the closing of Marsh stores earlier this year and the end of the company, Indiana Grown lost a major partner, but that didn’t stop ISDA from ensuring the program has exposure at the fair.
“This is important because it adds one more opportunity at Indiana’s biggest food and ag showcase, which is what the state fair is, for all these members to put their stuff up for sale,” McKinney explained. “This is not a show and tell, though we have these kiosks out here where people are giving out samples – that’s a good thing – but the store behind me says, ‘come, buy,’ and if we can expose consumers to one or 20 new Indiana grown products, we’ll have done our job, and we’re thrilled.”
For the first week of the fair, the marketplace saw a steady flow of customers with a spike in attendance the first Saturday and a lull last Thursday, according to Erika McKee, an intern for the Indiana Grown program this year. She said speaking to customers about the origins of certain brands has been enlightening.
“The last customer who was just there goes ‘Red Gold; that’s an Indiana Grown company?’ and yes, Indiana is second in tomato production in the country,” McKee said. “It surprises people. But they really enjoy it, all these companies are here, local – so they’re okay with taking a look and buying a bunch of different items and saying, ‘Look, these are all grown in Indiana.’”
Red Gold products were popular throughout the week because the marketplace is selling products of the company’s not usually seen in stores. She said Bonz Barbeque sauce has also been a favorite.
Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch was also present at the market’s opening. McKinney noted that it was she who made sure the program received additional funding this year.
“The program needed a shot in the arm to get it from ‘getting good’ to ‘really great,’” he said. “And so to her credit, the Lieutenant Governor, new at the time but knowing the ways of the legislature, really took charge and led the effort to push this opportunity for some additional funding across the goal line. So for that, we’re very grateful.”
“I am so proud of this mission and what it is doing to showcase Indiana-produced agricultural products,” said Crouch, who also serves as Indiana’s commissioner of agriculture.
In terms of progress getting Indianaproduced products into groceries in the state, McKinney said it is an ongoing effort with some progress, despite the loss of Marsh. “We have continued to connect with all the retailers. We’ll always be grateful to Marsh, because it was the first to support us. Kroger was second, Marketplace was third, Fresh Thyme was up there, and now Martin’s up north and Blooming Foods, down in Bloomington.”
The program is in the process of appealing to grocers such as Meijer and Walmart, who may join the program eventually, McKinney said. For now, Indiana Grown seems to be on a good path.
“Our members are telling us that they’re still seeing their sales steady or increasing,” he noted. “I think there may have been a blip with one or two with the loss of Marsh, but we keep going.”