Grower-Buyer Network Development through Culinary Collaboration

Final report for ONC20-073

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2020: $25,838.00
Projected End Date: 10/01/2022
Grant Recipient: Sprout MN
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


This proposal seeks to determine the effectiveness of personal, intentional, and collaborative culinary events, developed by producer-chef duos, as creative marketing tactics to increase food sales of small family farms. We will also assess impact differences of on-farm versus in-kitchen culinary events. Our Central Minnesota region has high quotients in animal production and agriculture, producing a variety of commodities (poultry/eggs, cattle/cow milk, turkeys, grains (i.e. oats, wheat and wild rice)) and over 70 varieties of vegetables. While the average size of farms in our region was 227 acres in 2012, most farms are small, 1 family-owned farms of 40 acres or less, and include several Amish farming families, farms owned and operated by women, and beginning farmers (less than 10 years). Biodiversity is a common thread among these small farms, making it difficult to meet buyer demand of single commodities without the aggregation, distribution, and market development assistance of the food hub. Similarly, our small farmers face barriers to harnessing the marketing power needed to compete in the commercial grocery market, which has co-opted the term “local.” We propose to conduct a marketing and engagement campaign that personalizes local food, and study the impacts over 23 months.

Project Objectives:
  1. Pair 6 local producers with partnering chefs to create a new buyer relationship.
  2. Plan, implement, and evaluate 6 in-kitchen demos and 3 on-farm demos per year (18 demos over 23 months).
  3. Establish baseline data including product sales, social media presence, and product offerings. Track changes prior to and after each activity.
  4. Develop an evaluation matrix for assessing the “grower-buyer network impact” including the identification of different buyer types and their potential purchase power.
  5. Observe the collaborative planning process and make improvements based on producer and chef feedback. 
  6. Create a final report summarizing findings with case studies and marketing samples.


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Materials and methods:

Sprout MN proposed to develop an innovative marketing and engagement campaign that paired local farmers with local chefs in a series of “in-kitchen” and “on-farm” cooking demonstrations. This campaign was to be accompanied by marketing content on the featured farmers, sharing their stories to personalize the people behind the product and differentiate it from commercial grocery inventory. We believe that focusing on agricultural commodities does not create enough product diversification for buyers (chefs, consumers, food service, etc.). For local food, the product is the farmer, and fostering the relationship to even a few local growers can create empathy in the buyer to hold more weighted value on local food because they can visualize the person behind it.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic we decided to put a hold on in person cooking demonstrations, but we still wanted to meet the demand for local food and transparency in the food system. We started by having a conversation with our partners and pivoted to a virtual format. In July of 2020 we paired two farmers with two chefs to create a farmer forward recipe kit that could be distributed to an interested audience. Each farmer filmed an introduction video to give more information about themselves, their farm, and their ingredients that were featured in the meal kits. This was paired with a video of each chef filming a cooking demonstration of the recipe for participants to prepare on their own at home.

Sprout secured product from our partner farmers and worked with our partner chefs to put the meal kits together. Each chef prepared one course and prepped their own ingredients, including the locally procured product. We combined their kits together and distributed the kits to two distribution points for participants to pick up. We edited the video content and provided information on all of the partners involved. Videos and recipes can be found at

Research results and discussion:

Sprout sold 37 meal kits. After the event we sent out a survey to participants and partners to assess the success of our goal to better connect individuals to local food through social engagement:

It was the first online class for the majority of participants. All participants rated their expectations matched experience at a 4-5.

After participating, one individual engaged with one of the chefs to produce a similar event for their work staff of 40.

One participant called for Chengwatana farm phone number to order a whole cow.

Beyond social media, there wasn’t a clear way to connect growers to consumers for future purchases. Without a virtual marketplace or in person market, it was difficult to understand consumer engagement with farmers after the event. The event took place in a very busy season for farmers and thus direct measurement of this event on their sales was difficult to measure.

38.5% of respondents said that they are more likely to seek out local purchases.

Sprout is using the qualitative and quantitative data collected from this event to better design future programming.

Participation Summary
6 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

9 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
6 On-farm demonstrations
3 Online trainings
3 Published press articles, newsletters
5 Tours
10 Webinars / talks / presentations
3 Other educational activities: Virtual Cooking Demonstration
Two cooking videos with chef grower posted to youtube

Participation Summary:

18 Farmers participated
Education/outreach description:

We were able to pilot a virtual meal experience during a global pandemic.  37 meal kits were sold to individuals to cook at their own pace in their own homes, following the cooking instructions from local chefs and learning about local production. 

This event was promoted through radio announcements, press releases, social media, and Sprout’s newsletters leading up to the event.

2021 Update

Sprout has continued to stay focused on the goal of this project to determine the effectiveness of personal, intentional, and collaborative culinary events, developed by producer-chef duos, as creative marketing tactics to increase food sales of small family farms. 

In the past year, we have adapted our project to fit the reality of the time while continuing our commitment to showing the story behind the food and showcasing the relationships that build out the robust network of our food system. We have continued our marketing and engagement campaign through a few different initiatives: 

  • In December of 2020 we worked with school service chef Meta Mandich and a deep winter greenhouse farmer Louise Johnson to develop a few different dishes and break down barriers for farm to school opportunities. These were developed collaboratively by the farmer and the chef, based on what was available and the creativity that came out of this relationship. These recipes were captured on video and on written down, and included the bios of both partners. These recipes were taste tested  by students, adjusted accordingly, and published in conjunction with other farm to school recipes for the broader farm to school community in January of 2022. This process enabled shared perspective from on the ground and in the school to collaboratively develop recipes that were possible in this setting. Making the school kitchen and local foods more compatible. 
  • In September of 2021 we worked with farmer Brenda Rudolph and chef Tomas Zimmerman to make a community meal and timeless recipe for booyah. This initiative highlighted the bridge between food, art, and culture. We collaborated with a traveling theater group, Sod House Theater, and community groups to host live theater and provide a sample of locally made and sourced booyah. The play and the booyah highlighted the importance of local foods and gave community members a chance to learn more about where their food comes from in an engaging way. We handed out flyers reciting the story of the farmer and the chef with each sample. Both parties reported having the experience cited in future engagements they were involved in. 
  • Also in September of 2021, we elevated the work of farmer Erik Heimark and artist Jay Rigdon on their farm in Aikin, Minnesota. They are not the traditional farmer and chef pair, but they are working on building more opportunities for farmers and access to local food for consumers in their rural  area. We were able to capture their efforts to bring a mobile grocery store to life and aggregate from a variety of growers and makers in their area. We collaborated with them to share their story and make a recipe together that highlighted a number of farms they are working with. These materials enable more insight into the food system, and empower both farmers and consumers with more options and opportunities. Our goal is to elevate these happenings and strengthen the food system by supporting the understanding that there are many happenings out there and this can be done.

2022 Update

  • March 2022 - Worked with three female growers (one nine year old egg producer) to create meals to distribute to neighbors in need in collaboration with three local chefs.  These meals were distributed through local nonprofits to homeless, transitional living, and food insecure individuals in the community.  
  • June 2022 - Worked with two small family farms and two local chefs to produce meals to distribute to the area's high population of Veterans, who are either low income or without transportation.  These events were published in the local newspaper.
  • July 2022 - Worked with a newly founded local nonprofit Raising A Farmer, who is also a blogger.  She is a member of the Little Falls Farmers market and has transitioned her farm from dairy to heritage hogs.  Brenda Rudolph did a cooking demonstration at the farmers market and published her demonstration on her Facebook, which is 2.1K followers.
  • July 2022 - Worked with Robyn Brakstad of Brakstad Farm and new to the area chef, Skyler Scarborough to do a cooking demonstration in partnership with Sustainable Farming Association at an event widely publicized as Farm to Family Legends.  Attendance was judged to be approximately 100 persons and was in part financially sponsored by Sprout, Sustainable Farming Association, and Central Lakes College.
  • September 2022 - In partnership with SodHouse Theatre, sponsored Table, a play based on the stories we well around our tables.  Event was hosted by Sprout and included two local chefs utilizing 100% local product.  
  • September 2022 - Worked with Cora and Michael Dahlquist and hosted a "Cream" class with 12 children ages 8-12.  Students learned all the phases of cream including whipped cream, butter and buttermilk.  Students made pancakes with local grain utilizing the buttermilk and topped them with their whipped cream.  
  • September 2022 - Again working with Little Falls Farmers Market, a cooking demonstration was videoed and all cooking demonstration ingredients were sourced from the LF Market the day of the demonstration. Providing the demonstrations at market with local ingredients gives shoppers the ability and the opportunity to create farm to table meals in their homes. During the demonstration Videography Sarah was present capturing images. Recipe cards of all demonstrations done throughout the season are available to all at no cost to attendees. Recipes are focused around the growing season enforcing what ingredients are in season in Minnesota.  Once the video is complete, it will be posted on Sprout's youtube channel.  
  • September 2022 - Farm to Fork Event in partnership with Matt Annand of The Woods and chefs from B.Merri and Gather on 3.  Sprout staff were on hand to speak to guests about the work of local procurement, Sprout's work in building networks for growers and buyers, and value of direct to consumer as it also supports small family farms.  
  • September 2022 - In a collaboration with Central Lakes College and its food shelf, distributed 25 boxes of ingredients accompanied by videos on utilization of food shelf staple products and local foods/raw agricultural products in an effort to teach college aged students the value of nutrition and how to incorporate fruits and vegetables into staple products found in food shelves (and also food rescued).  While this may not seem like a grower buyer connection, students were given handouts on where to shop for local produce (farmers markets) and restaurants that work to build the local food value chain in this Central MN region.  


Learning Outcomes

18 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation

Project Outcomes

3 Grants received that built upon this project
2 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

This project is intended to better connect consumers to farmers and means of food production. We are elevating the stories of farmers using regenerative farming practices. Growing their market opportunity for their products and encouraging the continuation of regenerative processes.




Success stories:

In August of 2022, Sprout was informed that it had received a USDA/NIFA Community Food Projects Grant to continue to develop the collaborative work between Sprout, a food cooperative and a farmers market in Little Falls, in partnership with the city, other nonprofits and local units of government.  These relationships have largely been established through research and education of the SARE grant.  This grant allowed Sprout to not only educate farmers/ranchers and buyers, but due to the vast amount of media received in these smaller projects, and the diligence of the community members in Little Falls who have established the local foods collaborative, we now have funding to advance the initiatives of two community driven visioning sessions which include building out a new food cooperative in a food desert, establishing a permanent infrastructure for the farmers market (including refrigeration and freezer capacity for growers), and the continued utilization of Sprout's shared use licensed kitchens to educate the community on not only the social, cultural, economic and environmental benefits for farmers, but how we can continue to work towards healthier lifestyles, healthier communities and vibrant local food systems.   

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.