Regional grain sales were not always a part of the Northeast economy. However, thanks to people like June Russell and Amber Lampke, that is no longer the case.
Speaking about marketing value-added grains for local and regional food systems, Russell and Lampke shared their experiences about the start of the movement and then delved deeper into the ways the movement has grown, along with some practical tips for those wanting to enter the grain production/selling space.
Russell is the director of Regional Food Programs at the nonprofit Glynwood Center for Regional Food and Farming. She began her work in 2004 when bakers were becoming more supportive of regional agriculture. One of the goals was to make it feasible to obtain all flours regionally.
“The original intent was to develop food culture in tandem with our farming systems and the markets we needed to develop to support those systems,” Russell said.
The desire was to create a value chain, which is more impactful than a supply chain. She defined the difference using a quote from the Wallace Center: “Values-based food supply chains are mission-oriented business propositions, combining a desire to affect social or environmental change with a desire to create viable businesses.”
This, Russell noted, is opposed to standard supply chains whose basic goal is to get a product from one area to another as quickly and cheaply as possible.
In 2009, a handful of collaborators created a policy that required Green Market Bakers to use 15% regional grain and flour, which led to the use of 65,000 lbs. of local flour a month and over 300 acres of wheat annually.
But they needed more partners in the movement. Over the next few years, they conducted field training with Cornell and Penn State by doing quality evaluations of wheat for baking and ran sensory evaluations by trained panels.
What resulted was the development of educational materials for growers, “helping them to understand what they could grow and what they could grow well,” said Russell. They also provided guidance on what areas of marketing growers could focus on.
Another way of marketing the grains was getting more consumers handling and working with them. They utilized a network of greenmarkets which allowed them to set up a grain stand to continue doing outreach and educating consumers. “One of the results was the ability to introduce 57 new crops and 20 regionally adapted wheat varieties,” Russell said.
“The Northeast has half a dozen good bread flours, which is a big achievement. There are three James Beard Award nominees this year that are working with local grains,” she added. Russell considers this a huge win because bakers were skeptical of Northeast flours.
She suggested rye as a great starter crop because “it’s forgiving and it’s very ‘scrappy’ … Rye does well in our marginal conditions here in the Northeast and there is a growing demand for including it in a variety of products and baked goods,” she said.
“Broader crops that reach our biodiversity goals are small but there are growing markets for emmer farro and hull-less barley,” she added. “We want to keep nurturing these crops for farmers to use in their farming systems because the more we use them, the healthier our system can be.”
Lampke, director of the Center for Regional Food and Farming in Cold Springs, NY, is also the founder and CEO of Maine Grains Inc., which is carried by specialty food stores and used by bakeries, breweries and chefs throughout the Northeast.
When it comes to marketing, start by deciding what your messaging is going to be. Having a story to share regarding the evolution of your products “can ultimately impact the entire system and flow of your sales and your customer base,” Lampke said, adding that product packaging is another part of how you tell your story.
Another thing to consider before beginning production is deciding if you want to do bulk or retail sales and if you’ll be working with distributors. “Whomever you use, they must bring added value to your product, whether that is value of reach, Salesforce or customer service,” Lampke said.
She learned a lot about effective messaging from a TED Talk from Simon Sinek on the “Power of Why.” Sinek spoke about the adoption of innovation curve. “It has been very impactful for how to take my products to market and how to conduct my business. Sinek spoke on how effective messaging should lead with an understanding of why you’re doing what you are doing, and to care for your product,” Lampke said.
Understanding the Diffusion of Innovation Theory was also a huge help. “This theory is based on the idea that innovators – the first ones to buy your product along with early adopters – are the ones who wished your product existed before it existed and will be the authorities and critical thinkers that are going to help tell the rest of the world about your product,” Lampke explained.
These early adopters fall into three categories:
- Early majority – An everyday flour user hears about a new kind of flour that could be interchanged with the one they are presently using.
- Late majority – An individual who won’t change the kind of flour they use until the above have successfully used your product.
- Laggards – The type to say “No way, not going to spend extra money, not going to try it. Won’t touch until everyone else has.”
A “laggard” is a potential customer who tells Lampke they already have a foolproof recipe for their best-selling baking product and have no need to change anything. In this situation, Lampke won’t try to change their mind. This is a customer she puts on the back burner with a plan to return to once her products have become more well-known.
Part of marketing includes networking. Lampke connected with a local prison through her attendance at a farm-to-institution conference. The top priority of the prison was affordability. They needed flour that could be used to create anything from hamburger buns to ciabatta bread. For this, Lampke used the flour that came off their millstone – it’s still food grade flour, it just has variable particle size, she explained. “We were able to match a commodity flour price to what would otherwise have been a wasted byproduct for them and sell it to the jail.”
When you’re ready to have your products placed on grocery store shelves, Lampke emphasized the need to understand FDA health claims criteria and food labeling laws. These include listing all ingredients and alerts around allergens (whether you process wheat or any other allergen in your facility).
“We are in a package refresh and it’s scary that we are still finding we have to clean out errant soybeans that come to us because farms are managing soil health by growing grains and soy … very close to each other,” Lampke said, “so now we add language as to the possibility that our product contains trace amounts of wheat or soy.”
by Jessica Bern