Today's Paper News Sports Features Business Opinion LEARNS Guide Newsletters Obits Games Archive Notices Core Values

Growers, customers talk turkey

Networking event promotes locally produced foods by Glen Chase | February 4, 2015 at 2:20 a.m.
P. Allen Smith addresses the crowd Tuesday at South on Main, 1304 Main St. in Little Rock, at the second Local Conversations event for farmers, grocery store managers and restaurateurs.

For Yell County farmer Chuck McCool, the biggest problem he and other growers deal with isn't marketing their products, but knowing who to talk to at harvest time.

On Tuesday, McCool and more than 100 other people, including farmers, restaurateurs, institutional buyers and grocery chain managers, met in Little Rock to learn more about how to talk to one another to meet growing consumer demand for Arkansas-grown produce and meats.

The Arkansas Department of Agriculture held its second Local Conversations gathering to help those who produce, buy and sell locally grown foods obtain more information about getting those products to market.

"We're going to be doing what I call speed dating today," said P. Allen Smith, the celebrity gardener and horticulturalist who moderated the event held at the South on Main restaurant.

As home cooks drive the demand, Smith said chefs in settings such as schools, restaurants and hospitals are responding as well, using local foods to differentiate their meals in the marketplace.

"It's important for producers to better understand the needs of their customers," Smith told attendees. He said consumers are demanding locally grown food and want to know where its coming from and who is producing it.

Since the first Local Conversations event a year ago, the number of producers participating in the Agriculture Department's "Arkansas Grown" and "Arkansas Made" programs has more than doubled from about 300 to 650, said Zach Taylor, the department's marketing director.

Even so, Smith said there are gaps in the information exchanged between growers and buyers. "We've got some holes in the local food system that need to be filled," Smith said.

For example, several potential customers in the audience said knowing who to contact is as much of a problem for them as finding the time to see if a producer has the goods they need.

Jeannette Larson, craft director for Ozark Folk Center State Park, said the chefs at state park restaurants are encouraged to buy as much as they can from Arkansas producers.

"But they have trouble making the right connection. I'm here to make that connection," she said during an open discussion.

"Communication is everything," said Capi Peck, owner of Trio's Restaurant in Little Rock.

"I try to buy everything I can locally. The consumers want that. They expect that," Peck said. But, since people at all levels are busy running their small businesses, email and texting about when a particular item might become available becomes key to making a sale.

Even larger buyers need to know what's available for them to meet customer demand for local produce.

Mike Roberts, a produce merchandiser for Springdale-based Harps Foods, said that while the grocery chain has good partnerships with local growers for items that include tomatoes, peaches, corn, green beans and squash, it's always looking for more sources.

"We want our consumers to know where our produce comes from," Roberts said. To find local producers, Harps works with wholesale distributors and individual growers, he said, with store managers having limited power to make some purchases directly.

Several growers noted that larger buyers demand quality certification and require growers to carry insurance, two requirements that smaller operations find difficult to meet.

Farmers who sell directly to restaurants or who sell at farmers markets don't face such hurdles, but they are limited because of the seasonal nature of their crops.

Institutions, such as hospitals and schools, are another potential market for growers.

Ally Mrachek of Fayetteville Public Schools said growers face a different kind of hurdle involving public bidding, liability insurance and pesticide disclosure. That means Fayetteville school buyers typically look for a mid-size grower who can provide more consistent product. In return, the grower is promoted in school cafeterias as part of the district's efforts to teach students about the origins of their food.

Some growers may be hesitant because of concerns over whether schools will pay them enough to cover their costs, or because of the complexity of the process.

"But if they start with one product, it's not as difficult as it might seem," Mrachek said.

After the general discussion, the session gave attendees a chance to network. Samantha Matthews of Matthews Sweet Potato Farm in Wynne introduced herself to Roberts as a potential source.

Matthews, whose family had more than 1,300 acres of sweet potatoes planted last year, sells locally and to several large retail chains. She's familiar with the need for self-promotion.

"You want to make sure everybody knows where you're at," Matthews said. While growers typically need size to sell to large retailers, she said meeting local demand is just as important.

"Farm-to-table. That's what people want," she said.

Business on 02/04/2015

Print Headline: Growers, customers talk turkey


Sponsor Content