Whatever part of the industry you're from, you are affected by the workings of a farm. We all must eat, so, unless you grow everything yourself, you are connected to the farm.
That's why every spring and fall for the past several years, I have led the farm tours at Natural Products Expo East and West. These tours are a way to further our connection to the people growing the food that nourishes our bodies, our hearts and our land. Even though I've been on hundreds of farms throughout the country, I never tire of seeing the light go on when tour participants taste fresh-picked spinach or a succulent strawberry plucked from the vine, or inhale the pleasant, earthy smell of cropland.
Farmers, retailers, processors and dietitians from as far away as Kenya and as near as the next town participate in the tour. They ask questions from the obvious to the complicated, about such things as maintaining soil fertility, the difference in composting systems, how cover cropping works, difficulties in product distribution and how organic pest management is accomplished. The farmers, with the patience of preschool teachers and the bluntness of truck drivers, answer each and every question.
Getting to this point of having Q&A sessions in the fields starts as many as five months earlier. The first step to making these tours a reality is finding a farm, and there are many considerations in the process. First, it must be an organic farm or one that is transitioning to become organic. It must have a farmer who is comfortable having 100 people on the farm for the afternoon and can speak in front of a group. The farm must also be within an hour and a half of the convention center—a challenge when you consider the Expos are held in Anaheim, Calif., and Washington, D.C.—not exactly rural areas.
Then, the behind-the-scenes Expo people must work their magic and secure comfortable buses and excellent lunches to make sure we are well fed and arrive in good condition.
The final consideration is arranging the time of the tour. We have the tour Saturday afternoon to allow participants to attend other tours offered Thursday morning. This also allows attendees to spend ample time on the show floor, take in the educational seminars and still enjoy an afternoon visit to the farm.
That's when the fun begins. Registration starts at noon and the buses leave promptly at 12:30 so we can have our tour group back by 5 p.m. You never know whom you will meet on the bus and how networking with them can benefit your business. During the drive I move around the bus and engage people in discussions of hot topics, such as the new organic standards rule or how best to educate customers about the benefits of organic growing. If there are any baseball fans on the bus I'll gladly discuss the latest standings, hot streaks or trades. There's opportunity for everyone to join in the dialogue. Then, before we know it, we are at the farm.
The farm experience can vary from a market garden that serves only its own community-supported agriculture customers, to a large farm that grows on a commodity scale and ships worldwide. On past tours we've learned how to eat a kumquat, tasted freshly squeezed apple cider, been treated to local chefs' sautéed artichokes and chocolate-dipped strawberries, shopped the farm stand, dipped our hands in a warm compost pile, inhaled the intoxicating fragrance of a blossoming lemon grove and eaten avocados under a tarp during an unseasonable downpour. We've even reviewed the latest innovations in organic farming techniques.
Every tour is unique unto itself. This year will be no exception. So if you've never been to an organic farm, do yourself a favor and take in the experience. If you're one of the tour regulars, I look forward to catching up with you and sharing another day with you and some remarkable farm folks on their remarkable land. To sign up for the farm tour, visit www.expoeast.com. See you soon. n
Mark Mulcahy runs an organic education and produce consulting firm. He can be reached at 707.939.8355 or by e-mail at [email protected].
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 8/p. 20