Meet the Buyers Program Plants Seeds of Partnership
“It’s like speed dating,” says Cynthia Haskins of Meet the Buyers, the Illinois Farm Bureau’s (IFB) innovative effort to connect farmers with buyers including retailers, restaurants and distributors. Romance aside, the potential partners this program brings together share a passion for local food.
“It’s about opening up a dialogue between farmer and buyer,” says Haskins, who coordinates Meet the Buyers events.
IFB launched the initiative back in 2011 around the time “local” became a buzzword.
“Everybody was trying to figure out how to get local products into grocery stores, restaurants and schools,” Haskins says. “At the time, we had more questions than answers.”
One answer came in the form of the Meet the Buyers program where supply and demand sit at the same table.
A typical Meet the Buyers event gathers farmers with buyers on the hunt for a variety of products: meat, fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, candies, popcorn and more – “anything local and regional,” Haskins says.
Buyers representing grocery stores and chains, food-service distributors, health food stores and restaurants provide a brief overview of their organization and its needs and expectations.
“Whenever there’s a Meet the Buyers event in our area, we try to go – they are very informative,” says Ryan Benz, manager of perishables for the Hy-Vee grocery store in Sycamore, just west of Chicago. “We like to buy as much as we can locally and keep money in the community.”
At the events, farmers receive a ticket for each buyer with whom they wish to talk. One by one, they meet briefly to find out if they make a good match.
Fruit growers Michelle and Wayne Sirles drove as long as seven hours to attend every event in 2013, armed with polished informational packets about their farm, Rendleman Orchards. Their 800-acre family farm in Alto Pass in southern Illinois has grown peaches, apples, nectarines and vegetables for Midwest wholesale markets since 1873.
“We’re always looking for new niche markets in schools and other institutions,” Sirles says. “The Farm Bureau does all of the legwork to help local farmers – our job is to take it from there and educate buyers on the advantages of buying from us.”
And that process can take some time. Most interested buyers will want to visit the farm, and they also must navigate matters of food safety, product liability insurance and other logistical issues.
“It takes a lot to get in with a buyer,” Sirles says. Their persistence and patience paid off with a half-dozen new customers for Rendleman Orchards in 2014 – partnerships made possible by the Meet the Buyers program.
“It’s a fantastic program,” Sirles says. “It helps the family farm and the whole economy.”
Now in its fourth year, IFB has hosted 16 Meet the Buyers events. In total, the program touched some 300 Illinois farmers, 60 buyers and countless consumers with a taste for local food.
“Local food is certainly a growing category in the store – every year we sell more,” Benz says. “I can order produce the night before, and the farmers will have it to the store by the next morning – it’s so fresh.”
The Hy-Vee store displays highlight local farms and “miles to market” so customers know how far produce travels from farm to plate. The store also uses fresh local products in cooking demos and catering, including a variety of veggies grown at Wiltse Farm, located west of Chicago in Maple Park.
Best known for its sweet corn, Wiltse Farm recently added a crop of purple asparagus based on feedback from Hy-Vee.
“Meet the Buyers is a great resource,” says Patty Marco of Wiltse Farm. “This program can really open up different products and possibilities.”
Those possibilities left Marco brimming with excitement after she met a Chicago food processor at a Kane County Meet the Buyers event in 2013.
“When I walked away, my wheels were turning so fast I’m sure smoke was coming out of my ears,” she remembers.
Marco also took note during Meet the Buyers educational presentations on packaging and marketing.
“I don’t go to the supermarket all summer – you lose touch with what consumers want,” Marco says. She notes that though farmers typically work with larger quantities of bulk product, “you’re more likely to move smaller quantities of packaged product – it’s not as overwhelming to the consumer.”
And thanks to Meet the Buyers, the growing demand for local food seems less overwhelming to growers and buyers alike.
“We’ve never seen interest like this before in local food,” Haskins says. “There is a very large population of farmers trying to figure out if this is something they want to do – and local foods are new to the industry, too.”
By bringing farmers closer to the consumer, Meet the Buyers helps family farms flourish.
As Marco, a fourth-generation farmer, says: “It makes us more aware of what we have to do to continue doing what we love.”