How commercial buyers can help tell the story of your farm

How often have we all been encouraged to buy local?

A decade ago this sentiment was a new concept in promoting food products; today it’s only a starting point for conversations that explore the origins of the food we eat each day. Those conversations aren’t confined to the farmstand or farmers’ market booth. Across the board, commercial buyers are moving beyond the basic tenets of local sourcing to tell the story of the farms behind those local products.

City Market co-op label.

Customer demand has helped shape the evolving approach to “buy local” in grocery stores, restaurants, cafeterias and other indirect outlets. In some places that customer interest has grown hand-in-hand with the growth of direct sales markets. “We’re really lucky in Burlington that most of our farmers [supplying the co-op] are in the downtown farmers’ market,” explains Meg Klepack, the outreach and local foods manager at the City Market, Onion River Co-op in Burlington, Vt. Customers are used to looking for the name of familiar farms, so the co-op often plays the role of helping shoppers find the farms they already know.

City Market:

Hannaford Supermarket – Close to Home Program:

Pride of New York Program:

Sodexo USA – Better Tomorrow Plan:

Vermont Fresh Network:

Pride of New York display.

Customers’ interest in details of where their food comes from doesn’t always begin with a direct connection to a local farm. Michelle Desautels is with Sysco, a distributor, and finds that the local interest she hears from wholesale buyers is partly a marketing trend, but also goes beyond that. “It’s a recognition that our system went too far into overproduction, too far away from taste, that we need economic support for our local communities.” For Sodexo, a company that provides food and facility management services, the emphasis on local is part of what could be described as a complete makeover for food services. For example, if you haven’t eaten on a college campus recently, you probably have no idea what students experience today. Christy Cook, a senior manager for sustainability deployment, explains, “Dining halls today aren’t the long tray line filled with hot wells bellowing steam … [they’re] innovative mini restaurants featuring recipes with local, seasonal ingredients.”

An important result of the growing sophistication behind local foods marketing is that growers who no longer speak directly with the people eating their food still have an opportunity to make their farm exceptional in those consumers’ minds. There are many ways to work with commercial buyers toward this goal, and they all start with a good personal relationship. A buyer needs to really believe a farm’s product is a great product from a great place; everything else is a variation on that theme.

Perhaps the most literal example of the importance of personal relationships is Vermont’s annual Local Foods Matchmaker. Yes, it is exactly what it sounds like – speed dating for buyers and sellers of Vermont products. Participants range from country stores to Wal-Mart. The Vermont Fresh Network has managed this event for the past several years. Their executive director, Meghan Sheradin, explains that the crucial insight behind the Matchmaker was to stop worrying about the logistical challenges of the local food system and think just about the relationships. “This event is about the farmers solidifying a commitment, face-to-face, creating an ‘ah ha’ moment when the buyer really appreciates what the grower is all about … all the logistics of supplying that buyer is what happens during the rest of the year,” she says.

City Market co-op display.

There are two fundamental parts of a good relationship that growers should build from the start. The first is an acknowledged shared commitment to a high-quality product. If a grower needs to convince a buyer of this commitment, it’s the wrong buyer. Wendy Ward summarized this starting point for Hannaford supermarkets, where she sources northeastern products. “We’re known for having some of the best produce available … whether it’s local or not it has to be first- class; being known for produce is a key part of our strategy, it’s not an afterthought – it’s front and center.”

The second fundamental is an enthusiasm for how the grower’s product is unique in some way. Marketing local food is not only about a customer choosing to buy local lettuce, it’s about a customer choosing to buy local lettuce from a particular farm with a person and a story behind it. Buyers need to know what makes a farm different from all the other farms in their region.

With these elements in place, a grower and buyer are ready to translate their shared enthusiasm to the final customer.

One practical matter in communicating with the final customer is to ensure a farm’s product is clearly identified through the entire supply chain. For growers, that might be as basic as remembering to label boxes clearly and not reuse packing crates that carry another farm’s label. With warehouses, distributors and larger customers, keeping track of specific places of origin can be trickier. When Sysco was faced with this problem in their Syracuse office, they went to the Pride of New York program at the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. Working together, they set up Sysco’s computer system so that a marketing associate meeting with clients could easily pull up details on which farms were currently supplying any New York-sourced product.

Farm identification through the supply chain ends with designation at the point of purchase. The look of this signage will depend on the existing look of the outlet. The amount of detail will also vary. Growers can help by providing a brief information sheet with origin, growing practices and any other notable features.

City Market, Onion River Co-op is like most food cooperatives in the information they provide on their shelf signs, which includes farm names; color codes for local, organic and conventional produce; and information on special growing practices such as IPM. There are some exceptions. Shelf labels for Scott Farm’s heirloom apples devote an entire paragraph to explaining the origin and unique taste of each variety. Meg Klepack notes that the heirloom apples are a special case. “Zeke’s [the grower] passion for these apples is legendary, he’ll get a buyer on the phone and half an hour later he’s still talking apples, and next thing you know he gets a paragraph of information on the floor.”

Restaurants might describe the food and its farm in the text of a menu, provide a list of the supplying farms’ names, highlight farms on a chalkboard, train their servers in sharing what farms are being featured or another variation, depending on their overall style.

Some of the more creative presentation happens in the larger display areas.

“Not to be a cliché, but a picture’s worth a thousand words,” says Tim Pezzolesi of Pride of New York, which provides both technical assistance and small grants for in-store advertisements. Often these promotions include giant posters or banners decked with farm pictures. Those pictures provide a lot more real estate than a simple label. Christy Cook points to entire “farm walls” in Sodexo dining locations. Sodexo food services at the University of Vermont didn’t even stop at the wall; they have a whole Sustainability Gallery in the new Davis Student Center. Growers can mirror this strategy through photographs to illustrate their own materials or online sites.

Frequent updates also generate interest in displays. City Market greets customers with a large display of local produce at the front door that changes to highlight different items throughout the year. Growers with unusual products should make sure buyers know when to expect peak season so they can plan a prominent place at that time. The same is true for growers who are doing season extension and offer common products at unexpected times.

Finally, growers should be aware of all the different ways buyers go beyond signage and displays to market not just a local product but also a local farm. There are in-store samples, farmer-led demos, farmer events when many producers come together to meet with customers, recipe cards, cooking classes, organized farm tours, special events at the farm, farms featured in company newsletters or through social media, rotating farm pictures on the cashier screens at checkout – City Market has even organized Crop Mobs for their producers, which bring together a group of volunteers for a day of work at a host farm.

In short, local foods marketing isn’t what it used to be. With a little work, no matter where a grower sells their product, they can be sure that the story of their farm always travels with it.

Helen Labun Jordan is based out of Montpelier, Vt.