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Willy Street Co-op Presents

This year, the 18th Annual Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference (UMOFC) was held at the La Crosse Center in La Crosse on February 22-24th. The UMOFC is the largest organic farming conference in the U.S. and is considered the leading networking and educational event in the organic farming community. This year’s conference consisted of movies, workshops, vendor booths, and art exhibits. Anything you could think of that has to do with organic farming you can find at the UMOFC. (And, I do mean anything—you could attend a workshop on organic hog production and follow it up with yoga for farmers!)

It has been ten years since I attended my first conference. This year, I had the opportunity to represent the Co-op as a workshop presenter. Historically, workshops at the conference have been geared directly towards farmers. In 2006, they offered a “How to Buy Directly From Farmers” workshop for those of us in the retail capacity. This year’s conference added “Selling Produce to Retailers,” and, along with Minneapolis’s Wedge Co-op’s Dean Schladweiler, I was invited to present the two workshops. Combined, Dean and I have 30 years of experience in the industry. And, like Willy Street Co-op, the Wedge puts a great deal of emphasis on local production, working with over a dozen local farms surrounding the Minneapolis/St. Paul area.

Recognizing that working together on each workshop could be a challenge—busy schedules, a couple hundred miles and what not—we decided to split it up: Dean would head up “How to Buy Directly from Farmers,” and I would lead “Selling Produce to Retailers.” We were each responsible for putting together an hour-and-a-half workshop, including handouts and Powerpoint presentations, and getting them to the event organizers by their deadlines. This seemed easy enough. Yeah, right!

Providing farmers with the tools

So, I came up with a goal for my workshop—to provide farmers with tools and information to help them better market their products to retailers. We would look at what was needed to establish relations and how to maintain those relations. First, we would talk about boxes, counts, labels, UPCs, lot numbers, pack sizes, bunch sizes, invoices, credits, refrigeration, communication systems. You name it, I’d cover it. Then we’d move into how to go about marketing your product to the retailers—from the “Mom and Pop” rural grocery store, to the mainstream conventional chain mega-stores and everything in between. We would cover who to contact, when to make the call, how to present your business, and more! I would follow that up with how to maintain those relationships, because as a farmer you simply aren’t going to be able to meet all your obligations. I planned all of this for an hour presentation. The remaining half hour would be a question/answer discussion. No problem!

Well, things didn’t go exactly as planned. We experienced some technical difficulties with the Powerpoint presentations that would move the presentations along and keep us on track. But, despite that, both workshops were great! We had about one hundred plus attendees at our workshops—a few familiar faces and a lot of new connections!
Creating sustainable relations

As a workshop presenter, it is inspiring see all the enthusiasm in local production, and to help both farmer and retailers work together to create these sustainable relations. I applaud the event organizers for adding these workshops to the conference. As members of the Willy Street Co-op we can see and feel the benefits of supporting local production: a strong, healthy community, a sustainable local economy, positive environmental impacts, and the best food around! We all understand the importance of supporting local production. I hope my efforts at the UMOFC gave retailers and farmers with the know-how to provide it!