By Katy Giombolini, RARE participant at Cascade Pacific Resource and Development and Local Food Connection 2013 organizer
On February 4th, the seventh annual 2013 Local Food Connection conference in Eugene, OR, brought together more than 250 food buyers, producers, processors, and food advocates for a day of networking, workshops and information exchange. The primary goal of the event is to help growers find buyers for their products, and for buyers (from restaurants, grocery stores, institutions, and food processing businesses) to locate new local products.
Taking a scan around the room during the morning networking session, one could see people making new business connections, saying hi to old friends, and just having a good time. Much of the importance of this annual event lies in simply providing a venue for face-to-face business connections to happen; after all, it is these interpersonal relationships that form the fabric of our local food system.
Hosting grower-buyer networking events like the Local Food Connection- that combine formal and informal networking with informational workshops- can be a great tool for community organizations who seek to strengthen the economic connectivity between food and farm businesses. Jessica Brothers from First Alternative Natural Foods Cooperative commented, “The event is overall one of the most productive events for me and my cohorts. It is an amazing opportunity to meet your farmers and growers and connect with so many small producers!”
Interested in creating a connecting event in your community? We’ve outlined a few ‘Best Practices’ based on our experience managing the Local Food Connection:
- Do targeted outreach. One of the biggest challenges is getting food buyers and sellers to the event—especially the buyers! Get on the phone and give a call to food buyers you’d like to see at the event. Don’t be afraid to be politely persistent- sometimes it will take several calls and messages. Once you get them on the phone, let them know that their attendance is important to you (“We would really love to see your restaurant represented at this event”). Another way to get people there is to invite them to share their expertise by serving as a presenter in one of the workshops.
- Collaborate with community partners to bring more people to the event. Each year we convene a Planning Committee for the Local Food Connection, comprised of 8-10 representatives from farms, food businesses, restaurants, institutions, and food advocacy non-profits in the area. This not only allows for broader outreach, but also better event planning because of the range of knowledge and experience brought to the table.
- Choose a theme that speaks to people. The theme of our conference this year was ‘Values Added: Celebrating the Values of Our Local Food System.’ Studies show that when consumers buy local products they do so because of a relationship with the stories behind the product—where and how the food was grown, who the people were that created the product, and the experience of consuming ‘place-based’ foods. This concept can inform how businesses emphasize the values and stories their products represent.
- Find a keynote speaker that can convey the theme. Past keynote speakers at our event have ranged from large companies, to small local businesses, distributors, and government agencies. The key is to find someone who can connect to the audience and offer real world advice and perspective. Our keynote speaker this year was Jock Gibson, President of Lochmead Dairy. Jock’s experience running a family-owned business, and his strong connections to the land and local community made him a fantastic keynote speaker for this year’s theme. As one participant commented, “Jock Gibson was very down to earth, real and believable in the values and experience he shared.”
- Offer a variety of ways for people to connect at the event. We offer both formal and informal opportunities for people to connect: a facilitated networking session with ‘brokers’ to introduce buyers and sellers, workshops featuring local experts addressing food issues, a vendor tradeshow, and luncheon.
- Present an array of workshops that speak to different audiences. This year we had workshops ranging from ‘Brewsheds: A New Perspective on Local’ (exploring the emerging market for locally grown hops and barley) to ‘Identifying Certifications that Expand Your Market Potential” (helping participants identify what food certification programs may be a good investment for their food business). Remember to think about your diverse audiences when drafting workshop topics- are you offering something that will compel chefs to come? Farmers? Distributors? School food buyers? Fishermen?
- Have a delicious local food luncheon! Everyone at our event is connected by one thing: local food! We are incredibly lucky to have the Lane Community College Culinary Arts Department as a partner in our conference: each year, faculty chefs and students prepare an amazing spread of dishes using food donated by local producers and processors. Dishes are labeled with the name of the producer who donated the item, allowing event attendees to sample diverse products and learn ‘who’s growing what’. Donations this year included everything from chocolate rose sauce to squash, Vermont cranberry beans and lamb. We are proud to work with LCC to create what many participants agree is “the best lunch of the year!”
- Don’t forget the thank yous. Without the generous support of sponsors, food donors, planning committee members, panelists, moderators, and volunteers, the Local Food Connection would not be possible. In that spirit, we’d like to say a huge thanks to our Founding Sponsors, who have supported this event since the beginning: the Eugene Water & Electric Board, Oregon Tilth, and Lane Community College.
Questions about the Local Food Connection? Visit us at www.localfoodconnection.org.