By Melissa White Pillsbury
Maine’s natural food stores and co-ops, among the pioneers in the local organic foods movement, have been buying food from Maine farms for decades. In April MOFGA met with buyers and managers from these establishments to explore ways to expand their marketing and sourcing of local organic foods. Representatives came from Royal River Natural Foods in Freeport, Blue Hill Co-op, Belfast Co-op, Rising Tide Co-op in Damariscotta, Local Sprouts Co-op in Portland, Savory Maine Dining in Damariscotta, Local Roots Market in Liberty and Waterville-based online retailer My Fresh Maine.
Participants shared a lot of good information about challenges and opportunities in marketing and sourcing local organic foods. We also discussed ideas for improving education and awareness among farmers, buyers and customers about the value of the certified organic brand and the importance of proper labeling and handling.
Sourcing from Farmers
Retailers at this event generally want to source more local organic products. The size and number of businesses emphasizing local organic foods is growing, as is their need for product from farms.
The million-dollar question new farmers ask is, “What products have an unmet demand?” Of course the answer is always changing and depends on lots of variables, but some specific products that these buyers say are in short supply from local organic sources are asparagus, berries, winter greens and goat cheese.
A farmer who has only the regular “peak season” products will have a tough time getting a foot in the retailer’s door. The greatest opportunities are with products of season extension and others that are not already available in great supply, such as those listed above. If you see particular items at farmers’ markets selling out weekly, chances are good that the supply of that item to local foods retailers is also short.
Several buyers desire opportunities to buy from as many farmers as possible, yet feel overwhelmed by the number of farms that might like to sell to them. Veterans in the room said that a buying policy helps ensure consistency in dealing with different farmers and lays out important parameters for establishing successful relationships. Typically these relationships develop over time, so buyers should start small with new suppliers. Also, buyers and farmers should meet in winter to plan for the coming season.
The Value of Certified Organic
Buyers voiced some difficulty in dealing with farmers who are self-identifying as organic but are not certified. The National Organic Program law requires compliance with its regulations to call a product organic, and farmers grossing more than $5,000 a year from products they market as organic must be certified.
Retailers should know and follow this law and should encourage farmers they work with to do the same. For buyers, organic certification assures that a farmer calling a product organic knows and follows organic rules. Retailers might incentivize organic certification for local producers by offering a price premium for certified organic products. Retailers might also survey customers to see how much more they would pay for certified organic.
Another benefit of sourcing food from a certified organic farm is that the system of checks and balances that certification requires addresses many safety concerns that may arise from buying food directly from a farm. Organic farmers and processors must keep production and harvest records that allow products to be traced through every step from seed to store shelf. Organic farmers must also document use of manure and compost on the farm and meet requirements for their safe use in producing crops.
In the words of certified organic processor (and MOFGA’s organic marketing consultant) Cheryl Wixson, “If a farmer complains about the paperwork required for certification, that means he doesn’t want to keep the records, and I don’t want to be buying from them anyway because I don’t have any way of knowing that what they’re growing for me is safe.”
At least one retailer voiced difficulty in sorting out how to label non-organic foods from local farms. Marketing claims on products from farms that are neither certified organic nor qualify for the under-$5,000 exemption, and that use the word organic, such as “organically grown” or “grown according to organic standards,” are in violation of the NOP rule. Retailers experience tension between wanting to be fair to the local farm by differentiating its product from conventional produce shipped from “away,” and not wanting to further confuse customers with more labels and claims that have no commonly understood definition and are verified only through trust among the parties involved.
Ultimately retailers decide what other terms they might allow farmers to use, or use themselves, to market local products, but they should not take this labeling exercise lightly. In her January 12, 2012, TEDxManhattan talk, “From Fables to Labels” (https://tedxmanhattan.org/2012talks/), Urvashi Rangan of Consumer Reports notes the three T’s of labels: truth, transparency and trust. She says the lack of these three elements in most market labels creates a huge problem.
Any retailer who allows labels such as “ecological,” “sustainable,” “authentic” or even “local” on products should consider whether the three T’s are being met. Does everyone involved understand and agree on the definition of the term? How do you know that the claim is truthful? As an aside, Maine does have a legal definition of “local” produce: It must be grown in Maine! (“Farm produce sold or offered for sale within the State may not be labeled or advertised as ‘native,’ ‘native-grown,’ ‘locally grown’ or by a similar designation, unless that product was actually grown in the State.” Maine Revised Statutes, Title 7, 443-A, www.mainelegislature.org/legis/statutes/7/title7sec443-A.html)
Retailers observe that more and more customers want to know which products contain genetically engineered ingredients, but manufacturers needn’t disclose this information. Retailers can emphasize to these customers that genetic engineering is an excluded method in certified organic production.
Communicating to customers the concept of fair pricing is difficult for retailers in economically depressed communities. Summer tourists may see prices as cheap, but stores need to serve their year-round customers. Educational materials highlighting the value of local organic products could benefit retailers trying to convey this message to customers.
Several retailers said they regularly take a lower margin on locally sourced foods to keep the price attractive to customers. They might let customers know about this commitment so that they understand the value of local products.
Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association – publications, event information, calendar, directories and more. www.mofga.org
MOFGA’s online community – forums/classified ads, farm and business profiles. www.mofga.net
MOFGA Certification Services – www.mofgacertification.org
MOFGA Certified Farm/Producer Directory – www.mainefoods.net/ mofga/certstart.php
Environmental Working Group, “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce” – www.ewg.org/foodnews/
Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices Eco-Label database – www.greenerchoices.org/eco-labels/
Animal Welfare Approved Guide to Food Labels – www.animalwelfare approved.org/farmers/labeling/label-guide/