Connecticut’s Northeast is well known for its rural character. A part of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor, these towns feature picturesque landscapes marked by their agricultural roots. While these scenic farmlands are historical, they also continue to be active, growing and selling a variety of products. However, too often local consumers pass right by the region’s many farms and farmers’ markets without stopping to enjoy the fresh products these agricultural treasures offer.
UConn Extension and its community collaborators are embarking on a project aimed at growing sales among farms that sell directly to customers in Northeastern Connecticut. Extension Educator Jiff Martin received $500,000 in funding from the USDA to deliver community presentations, organize outreach activities, conduct market research and launch new marketing tools and trainings to improve consumer awareness and increase product sales across twenty-three towns in Windham and Tolland Counties.
Martin is coordinating the project through UConn Extension’s existing Heart CT Grown initiative. She manages a number of adjacent programs through UConn Extension aimed at strengthening Connecticut’s food system, such as promoting farm to school pathways and training new farmers.
The three-year project in Northeastern Connecticut targets over ninety food producers. The project aims to raise direct sales from farmers to consumers by 15 percent and grow the customer base by 20 percent, substantially increasing the consumption of locally grown food. Based on research conducted by a professional marketing firm earlier this year, the project seeks to leverage values that residents in the region share, such as community, relationships, freshness, and flavor.
“COVID-19 is having a dynamic impact on both consumers and farmers,” says Martin. “It is heightening the value of local food in the marketplace while forcing farm businesses to pivot their sales model to replace lost wholesale accounts with new direct-to-consumer accounts, which sometimes includes new online sales.”
The UConn Extension team is working with numerous collaborators, including The Last Green Valley, the Connecticut Department of Agriculture and Connecticut Resource Conservation and Development. An eleven-member Farmer Advisory Committee of local growers is also providing strategic input on the direction of the project. The project team includes Communications Coordinator Becca Toms, Program Assistant MacKenzie White, and student intern Alyssa Benoit, a rising senior in Allied Health Sciences.
At the beginning of July, Heart CT Grown released a guide to help consumers easily locate local food producers in the state’s Quiet Corner. A Guide to Farm Fresh Food in Northeastern Connecticut includes a directory of farm stands, farmers’ markets and pick-your-own operations in the region. Organized alphabetically by town, the guide shares location and contact information, hours of operation and forms of payment accepted at locations. It also features a farm product key to let consumers know the types of foods available, including fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, dairy and eggs as well as other products, such as flowers and herbs. It also tells customers which farms sell products that are certified organic by the USDA.
The farm product key in the guide lets customers know if locations offer curbside pickup or delivery. Additionally, farms that offer CSA, a pre-purchased share of seasonal crops or products directly from farmers, are indicated in the listings.
While the guide is currently only available digitally, there are plans to make print copies available to communities at farmers’ markets, food co-ops, libraries and municipal buildings, among other locations. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant the team needed to postpone many of its planned in-person activities.
“COVID-19 changed so many things,” says Becca Toms. “We were initially going to focus on in-person meetings and tabling events to talk to residents, but we had to put those on the back burner. With public gatherings limited, the digital guide became the priority and gives the community up-to-date and easy access to information to support farmers.”
Toms also says branding and marketing initiatives specific to the Northeast community and its farms are underway, but the inability to easily converse with residents to gather feedback has slowed their progress.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s exciting. The guide has started to create a sense among farmers in the region that something is happening. It’s improving a sense of community, increasing awareness and visibility of the different operations in the region, and now the work continues to have more residents participate in buying food from these local producers,” says Toms.
For now, work is continuing electronically. The team will be surveying farmers included in the guide to collect information about sales and consumer behavior. This knowledge will help other aspects of the initiative, such as informing customers about the impact their purchasing habits can have on farmers, the local economy and their community. As conditions change, the team with focus on community presentations and outreach activities to inform residents about how and where to buy local products.
Toms has recently redesigned the Heart CT Grown website to add information for other areas of the state about where residents and visitors can find locally grown products.
During a time with increased disruption to food supply chains and heightened anxiety about shopping at grocery stores amid the COVID-19 pandemic, local farms offer a variety of options.
“Earlier this spring, we wondered if COVID-19 might render our project irrelevant,” says Martin. “In fact, we’re realizing that our goal of helping residents develop a buying relationship with local farms very timely given the rise in interest in fresh, local food through contact-less sales channels.”