Promotions bring opportunities for growers

Photo courtesy of Community Alliance with Family Farmers.
The Community Alliance with Family Farmers’ Farm to Institution Connection event in Oakland, Calif., brought together family farmers and institutional food buyers.

Programs encouraging consumers to eat more locally grown foods are spreading throughout the country. While some areas have long enjoyed community support of local agriculture, others are seeing the trend for the first time. This can only be good news for commercial growers seeking to market their products close to home.

What are local eating challenges?

One offshoot of the elevated interest in locally produced food is the challenge event. Local eating challenges are events that highlight the benefits of seeking foods grown and processed in one’s own backyard. Consumers may be asked to make local eating a priority for a period of one week or longer and may be offered prizes based on their success. Groups such as food co-ops, sustainable agriculture organizations, agriculture departments and other related entities are supporting the efforts.

The National Cooperative Grocery Association (NCGA), representing more than 130 co-ops across the country, has dedicated a Web site to its national challenge program (www.eatlocalamerica.coop). NCGA dares consumers to strive for 80 percent local food consumption. Local co-ops sponsor events up to one month long during their community’s prime harvest season. In the western United States, dates vary from June through September.

Making the most of challenges

Growers have several reasons to corner the local markets. The savings in transportation costs alone may make the difference between profit and loss. The public demand makes it easier to be successful locally than in the past. Environmental concerns and community cohesion may be important factors for some growers.

Those who are targeting this market sector can benefit from challenges. It is an opportunity to piggyback on an existing promotion to earn new customers. A challenge can bring media exposure and visits to your operation. To see and be seen as integral to the event can make yours the farm participants remember and seek out in the future.

Since the events occur during harvest time, take advantage of the slower months to contact the organizations promoting local foods in your region. Explore ways to be a big part of the program, with an eye to securing a strong local customer base. You might host a kickoff event at your farm, provide tips and recipes for local produce to participants or offer specials to those taking part in the challenge.

Farm to Table

Challenges aren’t the only method growers have for connecting with local consumers. Of course, farmers’ markets are popular these days and the perfect place to build relationships with who those want to know how their food is grown. Farm to school, farm to table and similar institutional programs are strong in some communities.

The Bay Area Community Services meals program (www.bayareacs.org) in Oakland, Calif., is one organization that has committed significant resources to feeding its 1,200 senior citizen clients with locally produced foods. In mid-2007, it transitioned from contractually produced meals to self-operation. Jenny Huston was brought in to develop a culinary social enterprise. A social enterprise is a business operated by a non-profit organization to help fund its programs. Such groups also seek to serve and support their communities and to provide jobs. Huston says the meals programs are under-funded by more than 50 percent, so the revenue is sorely needed.

Photo by Jenan Jones Benson.
The local foods trend is bringing younger people to farmers’ markets.

“In April 2008, we got our first local potatoes, and now, about 25 percent of our produce is local, “ she adds. “We hope to be buying 85 to 90 percent locally [in the future].”

Huston’s records show that purchasing locally grown food is less expensive for her organization, but labor costs are greater because the enterprise is processing and cooking its own meals. However, those labor expenses translate into new jobs and training for unemployed and disabled persons. The revised menus are well accepted by clients; complaints are down 60 percent.

The Bay Area local food program has been so successful that it now consults with small nonprofit organizations on the farm-to-table program and works with larger institutions that wish to go local. She says growers can help open such sales opportunities by developing strategies for working with institutions such as hospitals and schools that must comply with strict guidelines and governmental regulations. Collaborating with other growers, as well as co-ops and agriculture departments, to tackle problems such as product delivery may result in new sales to large organizations with steady needs.

Collaborating with others

The Bay Area program teams up with the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF, www.caff.org) to bring locally produced meals to its clients. Its Growers’ Collaborative (www.growerscollaborative.org) helps to solve the delivery obstacles by consolidating products from multiple farms for distribution; the group picks up goods from about half of participating farms. This system also allows customers to select products from several suppliers in a single ordering process.

CAFF’s director of institutional outreach, Aliza Wasserman, serves as a problem-solver for both growers and institutions. In addition to assisting growers with delivery, the Growers’ Collaborative maintains a blanket liability insurance policy that covers all its members. Required by many institutional customers, the coverage’s price tag can exclude some growers from competition. Because safety requirements can be problematic for smaller farms, Wasserman is developing alternative guidelines that are more manageable.

On the institutional side, she debunks myths such as the belief that contracts with large food distributors bar the organizations from purchasing from local growers. Wasserman says many may purchase up to 20 percent of their goods from nearby farms without violating contracts. Institutions sold on local food also can lobby with traditional distributors to carry more “hometown” products. She says the groups she works with are highly motivated to make the change but need to realize that farm-fresh produce may look different from what they’re accustomed to seeing. She helps them understand that although coloring and sizing may vary, the quality is higher.

CAFF’s Buy Fresh Buy Local campaign promotes area foods to consumers. Judith Redmond, a partner at Full Belly Farm in Guinda, Calif., sells its organic fruits, nuts and vegetables directly to consumers through its Community Supported Agriculture program and area farmers’ markets. Full Belly also produces artisan wheat flour, an item directly linked to the farm’s close farmer-consumer relationships.

“The efficiencies of entering a market like this are very low at the beginning, “ Redmond says. “For example, we have recently been able to invest in expensive equipment like a seed cleaner in order to clean our beans more efficiently. We would not have done that except that our customers have demonstrated a great interest in purchasing these products from us.”

Other local vehicles

The options for tapping into local markets are limitless. Most state agriculture departments have local marketing promotions, such as “Utah’s Own” and “Go Texan.” These efforts offer marketing tools to growers, retailers and distributors, and create awareness campaigns for consumers.

There’s no cost to list your operation on local food web sites such as www.localharvest.org. Your state agriculture departments may also offer free listings.

Targeting local chefs and restaurants can be fruitful, as many are quite interested in what’s grown in their areas and may be looking for growers of specific items. If restaurants also list your farm on the menu, you may gain new households as customers.

The possibilities for similar partnerships are infinite. As individuals and communities return to an appreciation of the land and its bounty, innovative local foods programs will become more common, a boon for both growers and the public.

Based in Greensboro, N.C., the author writes articles about horticulture, landscaping, agriculture and travel. She has been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for three years.