Johnny Morgan, Westra, John | 7/7/2015 6:15:53 PM
NEW ORLEANS – The LSU AgCenter’s MarketReady training program is preparing small farmers and ranchers to develop supplier relationships with restaurants, grocery stores, wholesalers and foodservice buyers.
Demand has been growing in the marketplace for local products for a number of years, yet many producers are hesitant or unprepared to engage in those markets, according to LSU AgCenter economist John Westra.
At recent training sessions in New Orleans and Hammond, participants heard from food buyers, who explained what’s required in order to market to a new set of customers that even include farm-to- school marketing, Westra said.
“The training covers topics ranging from communication and relationship building to packaging to quality assurance,” he said.
The New Orleans event included a cooking demonstration by Chef Travis Johnson, district executive chef with Sodexo New Orleans.
Johnson, along with others on the buyers panel agreed that the biggest challenge they face while dealing with small producers is food safety.
Providing products that meet the specifications can be quite involved, Johnson said. But that’s not a reason for small producers to feel left out because there are no size limitations for producers to do business with his company.
Patrick Morris, the produce director for Rouses Supermarkets is in charge of buying for 44 grocery stores, and he welcomes small producers with quality products.
“Food safety is the biggest problem that we encounter,” Morris said. “The liability factor on a major company is huge because people see it and say ‘hey, they’ve got money.’”
Morris feels that communication is key to working with small producers. “A big part of my job is building relationships because there are many farmers that we don’t even know, and they may feel they are too small to do business with us.”
The MarketReady program was designed and developed by the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service as a program to give producers training on the best practices they should be using in order to sell directly to restaurants, produce buyers at grocery stores and other foodservice institutions, Westra said.
The program brings together a wide variety of producers, many with traditional products like fruits and vegetables, but others like John Odell of New Orleans, who is a mushroom forager.
Odell, who works for Jazzfest during the offseason, forages for mushrooms to sell to local restaurants during the summer months.
“I’m just getting started in the business, so when I heard about the program, I decided to come and learn how to market my product,” he said.
Simone Reggie, with Good Eggs, said her company is an online forum for local farmers and food makers to sell their products directly to the consumer.
“We work with about 200 producers, which are about 85 percent local,” Reggie said. “When you shop with us, the produce is picked and delivered to you the same day.”
The one-day program is divided into modules of best practices identified by industry people to explain how small producers can be successful in marketing their products to the food industry, Westra said.
“Over the next couple of years we’ll be looking for funding to expand this training to involve almost all producers, including beef cattle and seafood,” he said.
Three training sessions have been held in south Louisiana, with eight planned for other areas in the state this year.
The MarketReady program is funded through a specialty crop grant provided by the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry.
For more information on the program contact, Westra at 225-578-2721 or an LSU AgCenter office.