Customer education usually conjures images of store classrooms and descriptive shelf-talkers, but at Sunflower Farmers Market, it means getting a little dirt under your fingernails.
This spring, local customers will be invited to the natural food store chainâs new farm in Longmont, Colo., to not only see how the store is growing its own produce, but engage firsthand in the farming community and locavore movement.
âWe understand how important it is for our customers to see how the food grows through their own eyes,â says Sunflower founder and CEO Mike Gilliland. âWeâve found that our better-educated customers are our best customers. As people learn about the issues [surrounding farming and organics], it makes them more engaged in the store.â
Sunflowerâs rural classroom began last year when Gilliland purchased 40 acres and planted primarily salad greens on two of the acres. By fall, four Colorado stores were selling a small amount of the farmâs crops, resulting in roughly 1 percent to 2 percent of produce sales in those stores.
âOur main motivation wasnât to necessarily produce sales [from the farm], but to provide education for our customers,â Gilliland says.
Taking education on a field trip
In addition to farmer-led tours the farm will host in the summer, where visitors will learn about organic farming through crop lessons and agriculture classes, Sunflower will also bring its farmers to stores to give organic farming demonstrations, explain how an organic farm works and answer questions.
âWe have this farmer named Will who is this classic overall-wearing guy who stands on a haystack,â Gilliland says. âAt this open house [in a store], he had a crowd around him of 20 people because heâs got this demeanor that shows he knows everything about every type of farming.â
The farm has plans to plant additional crops, including arugula, bok choy, cabbage, peppers, squash and turnips, this year on 12 acres, as well as build a greenhouse, bring in animals for visitors to interact with, conduct classes on organic farming and start a community-supported agriculture program where people can pick up their Sunflower Farm produce at the store. Gilliland is also thinking about conducting weekly organic farm dinners, growing barley to make Sunflower-branded beer and hosting tractor hay rides for kids.
âThe real intent of the farm was to gather a little bit of everything and be able to teach folks the aspects of it all,â he says.
A locavoreâs dream
Although the farm is not likely to produce enough crops cost-effectively for all the stores to sell, the opportunity to teach customers more about the concept of âlocalâ is a beneficial marketing tool.
âOur customers have shown they want to know what they are eating and where it comes from. With the farm, we can now show them firsthand,â Gilliland says.
âWhen I talk to the staff in the [nearby] store, they tell me that they are very excited because they feel like there is a connection there. They tell me every day people are asking where the Sunflower Farm stuff is.â
Sunflower Farm signage will be posted throughout various stores, Gilliland says. The company also has plans to set up a separate farm website to strengthen the connection between the store and the farm.
âAnything stores can do to establish that connection is important,â Gilliland says. âAnything you can do to match a face to a product I think is powerful.â
Learning at a cost
Farms might be a no-brainer addition to customer education efforts, but they donât come cheap, Gilliland says. âItâs fun to see the farm develop, but it takes a lot of money. I had to put a large infrastructure in place, which means tractors, staffing farmers, irrigation and other up-front costs. It is extremely tough, and I would recommend [smaller stores] start with a much more modest farm than our working two acres.â
One option is to purchase an already working farm. The Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis bought Gardens of Eagan, a well-known and much loved organic farm in the Twin Cities, in 2007. The Wedge now sells the farmâs produce at its store and other co-ops around the community.
Gilliland also recommends stores simply make more of an effort to connect their products to people, whether that be hosting a manufacturer or profiling a local farmerâeducating the customer in new ways that bring personalities into the store is beneficial for sales, he says.
âPeople get a kick out of knowing that the stuff they bought was grown by people theyâve met,â Gilliland says. âPeople are fascinated by farming.â
Tim Shisler is a multimedia journalist based in Boulder, Colo. Additional reporting by Morgan Bast.