Connecting farmers and community to grow year-round sales of local agriculture products

Final Report for CNE08-041

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2008: $9,968.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Kelly Coleman
Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture
Expand All

Project Information

Summary:

This project piloted a new public education and engagement initiative to extend the market for local farm products by encouraging western Massachusetts residents to buy and eat locally year-round. We developed outreach materials for consumers, including electronic, print, and in-person information sources like events and workshops. In addition, we worked with farmers to improve basic marketing skills, understand winter market options, do outreach to consumers about winter products and markets, and assess the barriers to further expansion of winter agricultural sales.

These activities have strengthened the link between farms, communities, and residents of our region, and have encouraged consumers to purchase locally grown products year-round.

Project Objectives:

This project was designed to encourage local residents to purchase and consume locally grown agricultural products throughout the year, by introducing them to the idea of year-round local eating, helping them to understand how to do it, and providing information on availability and sourcing. At the same time, we provided marketing support to farmers and assessed the barriers to further expansion of winter agricultural sales.

Performance targets identified in the grant proposal are listed below, with notes about any changes made during the course of the grant:

1. Creation of an advisory committee for the project.
We used two advisory groups, one made up of marketing/communications professionals and one of farmers.
2. Development of outreach and marketing tip-sheets for farmers.
We offered technical assistance for growers related to general marketing, using a six-session workshop series, one-on-one consulting, and a print manual. Additional funding supported these activities.
3. Development of a community-oriented informational pamphlet (print and web-based) on eating local.
We provided consumer information on year-round local eating through a variety of web, print, and in-person venues.
4. Email newsletters to consumers and farmers providing tips and suggestions on finding local agriculture products in the winter/marketing local agriculture product, respectively.
Email newsletters were used for communication with both consumers and growers.
5. Assessment of long-term barriers to further expanding winter agriculture sales (such as market demand, grower capacity, storage facilities or technological challenges).
Assessment of barriers to further expansion of winter agricultural sales was an important aspect of this project.

Introduction:

Local farmers in Western Massachusetts have benefited from eleven years of consistent outreach to community members through CISA’s Be a Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown® program, which encourages consumers to buy locally grown products throughout the height of the growing season through advertising, labeling, promotion, and events. According to market research CISA performed in 2006, 82% of residents in Hampshire and Franklin Counties in MA recognize the Local Hero brand. More importantly, people who recognize the brand are at least twice as likely to buy local food every week and they shop at farmers’ markets or farmstands twice as often. In the summer, this results in a lot of local sales for local farmers, but in the late fall, winter, and early spring direct farm sales to consumers drop off, even though our farmers could supply some products year-round and consumers are asking for more local products.

Consumer interest in local food and farms is very high. The local and national media report regularly on local agriculture, and concerns about energy, food safety, climate change, and the global economy have all contributed to consumer interest in locally grown food. We receive frequent inquiries from individuals and buyers looking for locally grown products, and a growing number of these are concerned with “off-season” sources, food preservation and storage, and winter markets. Home cooks and those buying for restaurants, retailers, and institutions need information about what products are available in the long winter months, where they can get them, and how they can be used. At the same time, farmers need an accurate understanding of the market potential of winter products, help communicating about these products to customers, and viable winter sales opportunities.

With support from Northeast SARE, CISA has established a new effort to connect farmers and consumers year-round. This outreach program provides information for consumers about year-round local eating, sourcing and using local products available in the winter, and preserving and storing summer products for later use. We have also provided technical assistance on marketing for farmers, and have worked with farmers to identify and begin to address the barriers to further expansion of winter agricultural sales. Both farmers and consumers have responded with great enthusiasm, and the opportunities for winter sales of agricultural products are expanding rapidly. CISA has identified and is pursuing next steps which will help to expand this market even further.

Research

Materials and methods:

Planning and Evaluation
CISA worked with two advisory committees on this project, a group of marketing and communication professionals and a group of farmers. In addition, the project was motivated by the regular input we receive from farmers and consumers. We survey our Local Hero member farms annually, using formal surveys and organized interviews conducted by CISA board and staff. In addition, we talk to a wide cross-section of members during workshops, farm visits, networking sessions, and other events and activities throughout the year. Consumers regularly call or email our office with requests for information, and we noted an increase in requests related to food preservation and winter crop availability and use. In addition, we surveyed readers of our electronic newsletter in fall 2008 and attendees at our annual meeting in winter 2009 about information and activities they would like to see provided by CISA. In both cases, a request for information about year-round local eating was prominently represented among the responses. We conducted post-workshop evaluations on all workshops related to this project.

Communication with Consumers
We provided information to consumers about year-round local eating through a variety of venues: web-based information through CISA’s new website, including resource pages and product availability information in our searchable Farm Products Guide; printed information in our annual print Farm Products Guide; articles in our electronic newsletter; workshops; and market and educational activities related to the Greenfield Winter Fare, a collaborative effort which CISA supported.

Technical Assistance for Growers
Technical assistance for growers was provided through a workshop series and three independent workshops, follow-up one-on-one consulting services, and a manual available for download from our website.

Gathering Information from Growers
As noted above, we receive input from growers in a variety of formal and informal ways throughout the year. We interviewed growers about their winter marketing plans and practices and their need for winter storage facilities for this project. We also presented two workshops on winter marketing options for farmers, and asked for input from farmers on their needs for additional information and resources at those workshops. In addition, we surveyed farm vendors in the 2009 Greenfield Winter Fare market to learn whether the market was successful for them and receive their input on future improvements.

Market Research
Using additional funding, we are now conducting market research with retail outlets in order to assess their demand for crops available year-round in our region. This research is being done through a combination of paper and phone surveying.

Research results and discussion:

1. Creation of an advisory committee for the project: CISA had two advisory groups working with us on this project: a website/communications/marketing committee and a farmer committee. These committees advised program staff and provided overall direction.

2. Development of outreach/e-marketing tip-sheets for farmers: Due to the final configuration of CISA grant funding for 2009, the development of marketing materials for farmers was funded by another grant. CISA’s “Marketing 101 Manual” is in the final stages of editing. It includes the following sections: Introduction to Best Marketing Practices, Paid Advertising Options, Simple Strategies for Free Advertising, A Website for Your Farm, Press Releases, and Merchandising and On-site Marketing. This manual was developed in conjunction with a Marketing 101 workshop series, which included 6 workshops and follow-up one-on-one consulting, and many of the materials and techniques in the manual were presented to and tested by workshop participants during the winter of 2009-2010. Response from participants has been very favorable. The manual will be available on CISA website by the end of September 2009.

CISA provided additional technical assistance to growers focused on winter marketing through three workshops, two during the grant period and one shortly after the grant was completed.

(1) In November 2008, CISA presented a “Creative CSA Practices” workshop which included a presentation on winter CSAs conducted by Dan Kaplan at Brookfield Farm in Amherst, MA. Sixteen growers attended the workshop, and their evaluations were positive.

(2) In January, 2009, CISA staff presented at the Northeast Organic Farming Association/Massachusetts (NOFA/Mass.) Winter Conference. Approximately 25 farmers attended that meeting, during which we presented a variety of marketing options drawing on our experience organizing the Greenfield Winter Fare and our knowledge of the marketing options selected by local farms. In addition, we asked for and received input on farmers’ needs for additional information related to winter marketing. In particular, we noted that many farmers felt that it would be useful to have recipes and information on preparing and storing winter crops which they could give to their customers through handouts, newsletters, or websites.

(3) In August 2009, CISA staff gave a workshop at the NOFA Summer Conference. Approximately fifteen people attended the workshop, which focused on methods for increasing direct sales during the winter months. We focused on the Greenfield Winter Fare and models that local farms have implemented to increase their on-farm sales opportunities.

3. Development of a community-oriented informational pamphlet (print and web-based) on eating local: CISA has used a variety of outreach tools to provide information about year-round local eating to the public, including web-based materials, electronic newsletter articles (see below), a printed farm products guide with a focus on year-round seasonal eating, and events and workshops providing information and inspiration related to year-round local eating. Specific activities include:
a. 2008 and 2009 Farm Products Guides (50,000 copies printed) with a section on year-round local eating, and an on-line searchable farm products guide which highlights in-season products throughout the year;
b. Web pages providing resources for storing and preserving locally-grown food for winter eating;
c. Development of a food preservation workshop and accompanying resources, presented once to date, with a second workshop upcoming;
d. Information for consumers about sources of locally-grown food during late fall, winter, and spring, including CSA shares, retail outlets, farmstands, and winter markets;
e. Support for the creation and maintenance of Winter Fare, a winter farmer’s market and week of related events, including workshops, films, and potluck meals. The 2009 Winter Fare included 30 vendors selling a wide array of locally grown, edible products and attracted approximately 1000 participants. Local restaurants served prepared soup made from local ingredients, giving consumers a chance to sample prepared products as well as to eat together at the market. Vendors were extremely enthusiastic in their responses to a post-market survey, with one experienced grower noting that it was the most successful one-day sales venue he had ever attended. CISA provided staff time to this volunteer-run, community event, which helped to ensure regular planning meetings and tracking and completion of planning steps.

6. Email newsletters to consumers and farmers providing tips and suggestions on finding local agriculture products in the winter/marketing local agriculture products, respectively. CISA sent out seven staff-written articles and announcements on eating local year-round, including articles on storing winter crops (for consumers), preserving food, and winter markets. We used our farmer electronic newsletter to solicit input from growers, inform them about winter market opportunities, and alert them to upcoming workshops. We also surveyed readers of our electronic newsletter to garner their input on the kinds of information we provide through our website, and were pleased to receive 500 responses. Many respondents included year-round seasonal eating in the list of topics about which they would like more information.

7. Assessment of long-term barriers to further expanding winter agriculture sales (such as market demand, grower capacity, storage facilities or technological challenges). Assessment of additional obstacles to expanded year-round sales was an important part of this project. To date, we have identified the following barriers:
a. Storage and growing facilities: many farms need to upgrade or build new facilities for winter production or storage in order to enter this market.
b. Energy costs of operating production or storage facilities.
c. Lack of information about production practices for season extension, overwintered crops, variety selection, harvest, and storage for late fall, winter and spring production and sales.
d. Lack of sufficient, and sufficiently robust, market outlets.
e. Uninformed consumer base: while interest in year-round local eating is growing, many consumers need more information about storing and preparing many of the crops which can be grown and stored for winter sales.
f. Farm family, labor, and business considerations related to year-round production and sales.
g. Low price of some winter crops, in combination with costs of storage facilities, energy, and labor.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Copies of the following publications are available on CISA’s website:

•Locally Grown: CISA’s 2009 Farm Products Guide
•Marketing 101 Manual (available by September 30, 2009)
•CISA’s electronic newsletter archive

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

This grant project served as a very valuable launching pad for an expansion of CISA’s agricultural promotion, technical assistance, and market-building work to include year-round sales of agricultural products, especially food. Like our Be a Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown® marketing and public education campaign, now finishing its 11th season, this new focus on year-round local eating will require a long-term commitment in order to create a significant new income stream for farmers during the winter months and to encourage lasting and meaningful behavior change among consumers.

Noteworthy accomplishments of this project include:
• Regular communication to consumers about year-round local eating, with information about food preservation and storage, winter sources of locally grown food, and ways to use crops which may be unfamiliar or uncommon. As noted above, consumers in our region have clearly conveyed their desire for more information on this topic, and we will continue to provide printed, electronic, and in-person information through workshops and events.
• Strengthening of winter market outlets. The number of winter market outlets is growing, and includes wholesale accounts such as retailers and institutions, winter CSAs, and winter farmer’s markets. The success of the Greenfield Winter Fare, a collaborative event supported by CISA, stands out among these markets. After just two annual events, local residents see the Winter Fare as an important part of community life, and growers are eager to add additional market dates and locations. At the same time, CISA has supported the development of other winter markets through outreach and publicity to consumers. Winter Fare benefits from significant publicity created by a dedicated group of volunteer organizers, and other markets need to create similar “buzz” in order to attract enough consumers. CISA has also helped to promote the individual marketing efforts of local farms, including a winter CSA and a fall holiday farm store.
• Assessment of the barriers to increased winter sales and creation of a plan for addressing those barriers, outlined under “future recommendations,” below.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

Building successful off-season markets for farmers in New England requires production of crops that can be marketed during the late fall, winter, and spring; demand from a public eager to eat locally year-round and familiar with available products; and a variety of convenient and strong markets where consumers can find products and farmers receive adequate returns. Addressing all of these factors at once requires a collaborative process, and benefits from the skills and contributions of a variety of participants. In order to create and sustain robust, successful year-round marketing opportunities for farmers in our region, this project made use of the expertise of:

•Farmers, who have intimate knowledge of all parts of the equation: production, harvest, storage, marketing, and customer relations;

•A non-profit organization with expertise in marketing, promotion, and communication to consumers;

•Extension personnel with knowledge of production, harvest, and storage requirements;

•A volunteer community group that organizes a successful one-day winter farmer’s market and week of community events which draws a large and enthusiastic crowd of buyers and receives significant media attention.

Through the efforts of these varied participants, we have begun to create the cultural change necessary to support year-round local eating and expand the community of individuals and wholesale buyers demanding a year-round supply of local products.

Future Recommendations

Assessment of the barriers to increased winter agricultural sales was an important part of this project. We have identified the following next steps to address these barriers. CISA is working directly to accomplish some of these next steps, while cooperating with other organizations to pursue others.

1. Information for growers
a. Storage Facilities: Provide information to growers about options for developing facilities for winter storage. CISA is working to create case studies that describe the costs of building and operating a variety of options for on-farm storage of crops for sale during the winter months. We will assess both simple and more complicated designs with an eye to minimizing energy use, and will provide sample designs for growers.
b. Energy: Information on storage options should consider energy costs, and growers need information on resources for designing and funding energy conservation and renewable energy options for farm businesses (in Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Farm Energy Project provides significant support in accessing federal resources).
c. Improved production and storage systems for fall storage crops, overwintered crops, and crops produced using season extension tools such as row covers, low- or no-heat greenhouses, and similar technologies. Field research, gathering of information from experienced growers, and outreach to growers with information about variety selection, production and storage practices are all necessary in order to expand production of these crops to meet the growing community demand.
d. Tools and information to support business and family decision-making related to year-round production and sales.

2. Information for consumers
Continue to provide detailed information to consumers about what crops are available throughout the year, where they can be purchased in different seasons, how they can be stored or preserved, and how to prepare them. We’ve learned from our experience with the Be a Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown® education and marketing campaign that consistent, on-going messaging is important; as more and more consumers begin to consider and then to expand their year-round local eating, the resources they need will be available. This information should be available in several formats, including options for growers to provide it directly to their customers through handouts, newsletters, and their own websites.

3. Market Development
Building on the successful Greenfield Winter Fare, CISA will expand Winter Fare to a second date and location in the winter of 2010. This market will serve as a viable sales outlet for local farmers and as a source of local food and education for local consumers. We will create a resource for other communities and nonprofits based on our experiences with both markets, and we will encourage and support other local efforts. In addition, we will continue to provide information to consumers about the full range of winter market outlets, and will provide publicity for these market venues through our website, newsletters, and events.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.