Winter 2007-2008
By Merry Hall

At a “Word of Mouth” conference convened by Heart of Maine to help local farmers optimize marketing, a 12-person focus group was asked why they buy from local farmers. The consumers responded:

•    Freshness!
•    It supports the local economy … The money stays here.
•    Flavor!
•    Convenience
•    The food isn’t coated with pesticides.
•    It’s not genetically altered.
•    People that I know grew it.
•    I know these farmers got out there and broke their backs producing it.  I want to thank them.
•    Samples help. I get to try new foods before I buy.
•    Yeah, recipes and advice help too.

They were also asked what made them return to a specific farmer’s stand:

•    If you get to taste what you’re buying.
•    I only go back if it’s clean and organized.
•    If they’re friendly to your family. One place, they have their dog out there and my kids love that.
•    This one place had all the animals there and the John Deere tractor. That’s cool!
•    I go back one place where they really gave me a lot of information. It was personal. I came away thinking, ‘Wow, I never learned so much before.’
•    Yeah. I got a recipe card for how to use something I would never have bought without that.
•    Loyalty. They gave you a reason to feel that way…like the Red Sox!

Asked what would prevent them from buying at a farm stand or farmers’ market, they responded:

•    If it’s too expensive, I don’t buy it.
•    I don’t have the ability with little kids to go from farm to farm or pay more.
•    If the place looks dirty or disorganized.
•    If the stuff doesn’t look fresh.
•    Sometimes I don’t have the time or fuel to go out to a farm.
•    If the food is strange to me and I don’t know how to store it or cook it.

What these representative consumers did not know about the food industry was disconcerting.  Asked what “organic” meant to them, they responded:

•    Expensive!
•    Not genetically altered
•    It’s hazy – unspecific …
•    More natural
•    Less chemicals—not chemical free, but less
•    Nobody’s monitoring it, so anyone can claim to be “organic.”
•    Fish on the side of the road scares me.

One woman told an interesting story about an organic diet, but it obviously hadn’t affected her buying habits:

My mom was out in Colorado staying with my sister for a while. She ate only organic while she was there.  When she came home off the plane, she was looking great. Healthy! Now she’s staying with me again, eating anything.  You know, ice cream … chocolate. And her health has gone way down hill.

Asked about the difference between local produce from small farms and produce from corporate farming, no understanding of corporate farming emerged. Two participants thought we were asking about several local farmers incorporating as a marketing group, which seemed okay to them.

A question about CSAs drew blank stares. When told that such farms have you pay in the spring to help cover costs, and then customers pick up bags of produce as it ripens, one panelist said:

Oh yeah! My mom gets something like that through her assisted living housing unit. The older people love when the bags of fresh produce arrive. It would be nice if something like that were available to the general public.

Yes! Those of us involved with marketing organic food locally offer so much flavor, nutrition, health, human contact and community building to some consumers, like those at the Common Ground Country Fair, who already know the benefits of this food. We appear to be guilty of “preaching to the choir.”  Virtually everyone I interviewed for my upcoming Mainely Organic book has read or is reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but I bet no focus group panelist has. Clearly, some consumers are ready to be engaged but need more information. Panelists all said they would travel extra miles to a year-round outlet where they could buy all local, seasonal foods in one place. Such an outlet, perhaps owned by a co-operative of farmers, would be a good place to post and distribute educational materials.

This focus group made the following suggestions for reaching them more effectively:

•    Coupons
•    “Thursday Weekly” newspaper inserts
•    A local Web site or phone number with listings of what is in season and where it’s available
•    Informational panels at farmers’ markets and farm stands
•    Informational labels on packaging
•    A weekly spot on NPR

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