Baltimore — According to organic dairy farmer Travis Forgues, forging a profitable relationship with farmers is all about authenticity.
“At the end of the day, if you really want to work with farmers, you need to be authentic about it,” Forgues said. “People can smell authenticity, no question about it — and when the farmers feel that, they're going to respond to you and help you prosper.”
This statement was the theme of a seminar held at last month's Natural Products Expo East here aimed at bringing retailers and farmers closer together. In addition to Forgues, who farms 80 cows on 200 acres in Vermont for Organic Valley, the presentation featured Fran McManus, author and founder of Eating Fresh Publications, along with representatives from Horizon Organic and Annie's Naturals.
Given the increasing demand for locally grown food, retailers are looking for ways to establish and improve connections with area farmers. Along with Whole Foods and independent markets across the country that pioneered locally grown merchandising, supermarkets like Sweetbay and K-VA-T have committed to the cause by carrying a variety of local produce and other items.
But it's not enough to simply stock and label locally grown goods, according to McManus. People want to hear the stories behind what they buy, be that through signage, newsletters or in-store events. A company's website is a particularly cost-effective space to link consumers with farmers and their stories, according to the panelists.
“Retailers can really highlight the farms that bring in the variety of food on shelves,” said McManus.
Beyond marketing in the aisles, retailers also need to work behind the scenes, panelists said. Aimee Sands, public relations and community marketing manager for Annie's Naturals, recommended holding meet-and-greets and appreciation events for farmers. Visits to area farms that are part of the supply chain will also display interest and shed some light for retailers on where exactly their food comes from.
Kelly Shea, vice president of industry relations and organic stewardship for Horizon, said that visiting farms and communicating regularly with farmers provides a valuable learning opportunity for both sides.
“We think it's really important, both to our network of farmers and to retailers, that farmers understand where their milk goes, and that retailers understand where their supply of organic milk comes from,” she said.
In addition to regularly visiting farms in its supply chain, Horizon — which relies on more than 400 farms across 22 states — supplies educational materials such as books and periodicals on soil health and industry regulations to its farmers. Solidifying the relationship, Shea said, is a matter of paying top dollar for local and organic goods.
“Organic buyers should be willing to pay more for higher quality,” she explained. “That translates into the final product you offer your customers.”
Taking farmers for granted, panelists said, can compromise the quality of food retailers receive, as well as their reputation in the industry. Farmers are a tight-knit bunch, Forgues explained. They'll frequently talk about the companies they supply, and word can spread fast about the ones they don't respect — and the ones they do.
“We need to make sure that no farmer is ever treated like an input cost,” said Forgues. “And that's unfortunately what's happening throughout agriculture.”