Today’s blogpost is another great one from Kristy Levings, Project Director with Harvest Hub Yolo (our Sacramento Valley regional lead!). Read on to learn about their recent Marketplace Exchange event, another example of the matching/”dating” model that’s so effective at bringing buyers and sellers of local food together. Here, it’s applied to Farm to School – Enjoy!
In our Farm to School world, we inevitably hear from school food service that they don’t know where to find farmers. While at the same time we also hear from farmers that they don’t know how to connect with School Food Service buyers. Oy Vey! What are we to do with two groups who seem to want to find each other but can’t?
To us, that sounds like the perfect setup – a setup for a “date!”
In the middle of November, the Yolo County Agriculture Department did just that, hosting its first Farms & Schools Marketplace Exchange, a “speed-dating”-type model of economic matchmaking that pairs buyers with sellers.
But it wasn’t as simple as that: getting any two groups of people together is hard, but these two groups are especially hard to schedule. What made the difference in getting them to the table was their desire to be there and/or the relationships they had with the organizers. Relationship building was a key aspect of this event from start to finish.
With about 45 people in the room, nearly equally split between farmers and school food buyers, tables were organized with farmers on one side and school buyers on the other. Only the buyers moved; the farmers stayed stationary.
Additionally, and crucially, every attendee was given a personalized packet upon entry. The packets contained copies of their particular profile containing details about their operation: contact information, location, # of acreage or students, etc. During the speed-dating portion of the event, participants exchanged their profiles with one another in addition to their 5 minute conversation.
A reception afterward allowed buyers and sellers plenty of time to build on those 5 minute starter conversations. Survey data results indicated that about 27% of attendees made a sale while at the event with 87% intending to make a sale after the event. A great success, or so we thought!
And then, something interesting happened. When we checked in with our attendees 2 weeks after the event, we discovered that many of the buyers and sellers had stopped seeking contact. After the first week, zero farmers reached out to school food buyers. And likewise, only a few school food buyers followed up with farmers.
Huh. Isn’t that something? For two groups who couldn’t wait to get into the room together, the connection wasn’t as strong just a few weeks after the event.
So here’s what we realized: while direct sales are always possible, mediated sales were and are more comfortable for both parties. The buyers in the room were accustomed to ordering with a third party present, such as a distributor. Direct sales were much less familiar territory for them. Also, when talking with farms, it because clear that they were still intimidated by selling to schools, afraid that they didn’t have the right products, the right quantity, the right packing procedures, and so on.
What we also discovered is that even a small nudge from the event organizers was often all that was needed to prompt sales after the event. Although they may have been used to mediated sales with a distributor, they could and would do direct sales if they had a reminder, or a follow-up connection.
It is said that the course of true love ne’er did run smooth – this is also proving to be true of getting the farm to the school. But with a little help from some matchmakers, farms and schools can be a match made in kitchen heaven.