Natural Foods Merchandiser

Customers crave connection between the farmer and the food

When Jennifer Abbasi of New York visited Boulder, Colo., on vacation, she toured the Haystack Goat Cheese farm, where she talked to some of the goat farmers and cheese makers and sampled the finished product.

Now back at home, she takes the subway almost an hour from her home in Brooklyn to shop at one of a handful of gourmet stores in Manhattan that carry Haystack's cheese.

"It was fascinating to hear the farmers talk about the process that goes into making such a great product," Abbasi says. "Now when I buy goat cheese, I feel a connection to the place it came from, which makes it worth the trip."

Curtis SmithAbbasi isn't alone in her quest to connect with the people who produce the food she eats. With an increasing awareness of "food miles" and the impact food transportation has on the environment, more naturals shoppers than ever are asking not only for organic food, but locally produced items, too. And even more motivation for buying that local produce—and remaining loyal to a particular farmer's brand—is meeting the farmers themselves.

Perhaps that's why research commissioned by The Natural Foods Merchandiser found that more than 60 percent of naturals shoppers said they sometimes buy food directly from farmers at farmers' markets, and 20 percent said they occasionally buy directly from a farm. Good news for naturals retailers: Nearly 70 percent of survey respondents said their preferred source for organic, natural and health products when they don't buy directly from a farm is a natural foods store—something retailers like April Snow, general manager for Hockessin, Del.-based Harvest Market, are capitalizing on. Snow says she's seen a big trend in customers wanting to get to know their local farmers, and it has inspired Harvest Market to focus on bringing them together. In fact, the naturals retailer asks farmers to come to the store and speak to customers.

"Our shoppers get very excited when local farmers come in and talk to [them]," Snow says. "Normally, food is shipped from miles away and you never get to know where it comes from. When customers get to see what's behind the produce, it's more exciting—and it's another bonus of shopping at our store that makes them want to come back."

What's the driving force behind shoppers' growing desire to know who grows their food? Snow chalks it up to more educated consumers than ever before. "They don't just want to get something in a box and microwave it," she says. "And part of the reason for that is stores like ours doing a better job putting out literature about the benefits of organic, explaining the difference between local and organic, featuring more local products and having staff really talk to the customers."

John Hoffland, produce manager for Helena, Mont.-based Real Food Market and Deli, agrees. "I think there's probably 30 to 40 percent of our customers who say the local aspect is important to them, for both economic and environmental reasons," he says. "And we're trying to further educate our customers. If [buying local] is something they don't care a lot about, we want to give them reason to care."

For Hoffland, whose store is nearly 150 miles away from the closest organic growers, it can be a challenge to stock locally produced food. But that hasn't stopped the naturals store from trying. "We get a shipment once a week from western Montana growers, and we highlight it in our newsletter," he says. Another helpful marketing tactic that boosts sales, says Hoffland: Placing photos of the local farmers on display next to their food.

"That old adage about a picture being worth a thousand words is very true, I think," he says. "Pictures have a powerful effect—more than me just yakking to people about it."

Walter Robb, co-president and co-chief operating officer of Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market, alluded to this in his keynote speech at the Organic Summit, held in Boulder, Colo., in June.

"I say we start a campaign called Who's Your Farmer?" said Robb. "In the southern part of the country, we actually created baseball cards with all the farmers that we have. We've got to make the farmers heroes. These are the heroes. And it's hard work out there."

That visual of the people who produce the food we consume is also part of the appeal of talking to farmers—instead of salespeople—about food, says Abbasi. "I get so annoyed by pushy salespeople who don't really know what they're talking about," she says. "And when you talk to farmers, you don't get that at all. They seem to let what they produce speak for itself, and it makes a shopping experience so much better."

Ideal Organic Farm

Preferred sources

Where consumers meet farmers

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 9/p. 81-82

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