Food producers, processors, buyers and distributors gathered in Billings on Monday to talk about how to put more sustainably produced, locally grown food on the plates of consumers.
They heard from a couple of marketing specialists but also from one another, swapping stories, contacts and advice. There was even a “speed dating” event in which participants quickly discussed products and sales, trying to make as many connections in as short a time as possible.
About 40 people attended the Local Foods Commerce Day in the Mansfield Health Education Center. The gathering was sponsored by the Western Sustainability Exchange, a nonprofit organization based in Livingston that promotes sound stewardship practices in pursuit of a healthy environment, culture and economy in the rural West.
Leesa Nopper, a marketing consultant with the Montana Department of Commerce, told her audience that a key trend favoring local producers is that skeptical, educated consumers will soon have most of the power over what they buy.
From the 1940s to the 1990s, manufacturers had all the power, dictating to retailers what they would sell to consumers. Then, thanks largely to Wal-Mart, the power passed to the retailers. But in the future, she said, consumers relying on social media will make buying decisions based on what they hear from their friends, not companies.
That means producers have to differentiate their products from other goods on the market through branding, taglines and marketing. She said a brand is an expectation or a promise, and “the more precise you can be, the better you’ll be.” But she warned that you have to live up to your brand by always delivering what you promise.
“Whatever wins your customer is what will lose your customer,” she said.
Another important trend, she said, is that shoppers now tend to buy some cheap products at big-box stores, then use the money they save to buy certain high-end products. That’s putting the squeeze on midlevel retailers, she said, but it works to the benefit of farmers and ranchers who can produce high-quality food.
And even though everyone loves to hate the middlemen, Nopper said they are essential because they perform so many time-consuming chores, including selling, paying producers, invoicing, keeping financial records, bundling complementary products and delivering.
Tracy Lenhardt, with Sysco Montana, said the giant food distributor is interested in helping local producers get their food to consumers, though it is difficult to deliver very small quantities from individual producers. She said one idea is to have centralized pickup points that Sysco could deliver to, then have the food taken to stores and restaurants by smaller, local distributors.
One of those distributors, Randy Lindberg of Quality Foods Distributing in Bozeman, told producers that limited supply, sometimes seen as a disadvantage, could be an opportunity if people associate it with rarity and value.
There was much talk of promoting local producers, having their photos on the walls of restaurants and inviting them in for local-food days.
Eric Trager, chef at the Bridge Creek Backcountry Kitchen and Wine Bar in Red Lodge, said his menu has featured a farmer or rancher every month, and Dirk Frikel, chef at the Owl Café in Laurel, said he used to do that, too, and will bring the tradition back this spring.
“It’s all about the consumer feeling connected to their food,” Nopper said.
Martha Young, owner of Café Regis in Red Lodge, talked about her close connection Rocky Mountain Organic Meats, located between Cody and Powell, Wyo. Sometimes the owner of that business makes deliveries by UPS, she said, but other times he’ll drive up to Red Lodge for breakfast at the Regis, deliver the meat and take Young’s used glass to Cody for recycling.
Perry McNeese, general manager of the Good Earth Market in Billings, said it’s a major burden to deal with 92 local food suppliers, but worth it.
“One of the most rewarding things I get to do every day is work with local producers,” he said.
Contact Ed Kemmick at email@example.com or 657-1293.