Growers looking for marketing options are in luck. The specialty foods sector is going nuts, or even chestnuts, which was one of the products on display Oct. 24 at Oregon State University’s Food Innovation Center in Portland.

Consumers are looking for natural, locally-produced food that has a story to go with it, preferably a family farm tale, panel members said during a seminar. Although chiefly discussing emerging beverages, panelists said specialty foods of all kinds have done well even in a weak economy. About 60 people attended the event, many of them looking to break into or make a bigger dent in the retail market.

Ron Tanner, a vice president of the New York-based Specialty Foods Association, said sales of specialty food products grew 22 percent nationally from 2010 to 2012, while all products grew 4 percent. Specialty foods – loosely defined as national brands need not apply – is an $86 billion annual industry and now accounts for 10 percent of retail food sales, Tanner said.

Shoppers at stores such as WholeFoods and New Seasons are willing to pay more for “purity,” he said.

“The less you can process it, the better,” Tanner said. “And consumers do love to hear the story for the product. Let them know about the people behind the product.”

Examples of that were on display at the seminar. On a table outside the meeting room were bags of chestnuts branded as “Oregon Colossals” and packages of stevia leaves, grown in California and Oregon. The herb is an alternative sweetner.

Other displays included packages of “Popped Wheat Berries” made by Wheat Springs Bakery in Condon, Ore. The bakery is side business of the Bates family wheat farm on the Columbia plateau.

Such snack products are among the hottest specialty foods, Tanner said. Others include bakery goods, chocolate items, convenience meals and processed fish, meat and eggs, he said. Among specialty beverages, the top selling are alcoholic drinks such as beer, wine and spirits, hot beverages, juice drinks, ready-to-drink coffees and teas, and bottled water, Tanner said.

The specialty beverage sector holds considerable growth potential, Tanner said. While 60 percent of refrigerated dips and salads are specialty foods, they make up only 3 percent of beverages sold.