The Tour de Farms and the Farmer Appreciation Dinner were cornerstones of Ozark Natural Food’s relationships with their customers and producers before they ever joined P6. Upon launching P6 in fall 2014, the ONF staff re-envisioned these events with a P6 perspective. The new P6 Tour de Farms is bigger and more inclusive, bringing ONF members to breweries and coffee roasters as well as farms, and the P6 Appreciation Dinner is open to all 120 P6 producers who make or grow products for the co-op. Here’s reports from ONF’s Pauline Thiessen about these exciting events.
P6 Tour de Farms
This past October Ozark Natural Foods hosted its second annual P6 Tour de Farms where owners and guests could tour over 20 participating Principle 6 farms, breweries, coffee roaster shops, a soap business, and one winery and vineyard. Following the precedent set in its first year, Tour de Farms continues to be the most popular event in terms of owner participation, with over 300 registrants in 2015! Originally borrowed from New Leaf Market, ONF organized the first set of tours in 2014 as a way for its ownership to connect directly with regional farmers who grow food to sell through the coop. After the launch of P6, the event grew to include area P6 businesses who sell their value added products through the store.
Up from 8 stops to 21 stops in its second year, the event was organized into 6 different teams, or suggested routes. The stops were clustered in Fayetteville, AR where the co-op is located, and around neighboring towns that ranged from 10-70 miles away from the store with average driving time at 1 hour to locations in surrounding counties. One route went to the neighboring sister city, Springdale; another south of Fayetteville; 2 routes spread out east around rural Huntsville and the historic city of Eureka Springs; and the furthest one away took attendees to a different growing region outside of the Ozark hills that is referred to as the River Valley. The closing event was held at the educational farm to school garden in the lot adjacent to the coop with tours of both Ozark Natural Foods and our organic chicken and livestock feedstore, Ozark Natural Feeds.
On the tour, farms promote two-hour tour windows, while businesses arranged for group tours at specific times so each team could easily organize in terms of a suggested driving route. Registrants receive a “passport” containing all of this information, as well as addresses and maps, prior to the start of the tour weekend. This year folks could start signing up a month before the event and come back to the store to pick up their passports two weeks early. People who visited 9 or more of the 21 stops could return their stamped passports to the store and be entered to win one of 2 shopping sprees or a Farm and Garden giveaway valued at $100. Each stop has fun things including organized tours, prepared samples of food from the farm, refreshments provided from the coop, various demonstrations like How to Build a Cold Frame or No-Till Farming, and farms and businesses are encouraged to have their product available for purchase.
The event is free, open to the public, and paid for by ONF’s Farmer Committee with a budget under the store’s Marketing and Outreach department. ONF started the Farmer Committee over 7 years ago with the aim of providing additional support to farmers actively growing produce for the coop. The Farmer Committee is a volunteer group of owners, farmers, and staff of ONF dedicated to educating and supporting local farmers and encouraging the transition to organic farming practices by offering resources and assistance. The committee also envisions a vibrant network of local organic food producers that increases the availability of organic food for the Northwest Arkansas community.
After just one year, the tour became popular enough that both farmers and owners were already looking forward to 2015. ONF is planning to continue the annual tour in 2016. Last year we averaged over 40 attendees per stop and this year, with more stops, the average was in the mid-twenties. Based on feedback from our first year, we added the suggested routes and posted directions on the website for some of the harder-to-find stops.
The New Leaf farm tour has grown to over 1,400 participants with over 40 stops and offered workshops. We are excited to see our P6 Tour de Farms grow as a regional event that connects people with the farmers who grow their food at their community coop. P6 events like the tour have already created positive results. We had owners come back to the store just to buy Spence’s chicken because they got to go to Across the Creek farm and understand just how much effort it takes an Iraq war vet to raise pasture poultry on non-GMO feed on a land trust in south Fayetteville, and our community wants to support family farms like that. You can see that understanding and awareness grow in a tangible way when folks can share food from the farm with the farmer who grew it, right after a personal farm tour. To me, that is P6 in action, that is the importance of the cooperative business model.
P6 Appreciation Dinner
This past December, Ozark Natural Foods celebrated and took a chance to say thanks to all of the store’s P6 producers at our 6th Annual P6 Appreciation Dinner in Fayetteville, AR. Invitations were given to all 120 P6 farms and businesses that work to produce and add value to food for the co-op. Over 90 producers were able to make it to the dinner held at the Garden Room on Thursday, December 3rd.
The dinner started at 5pm with appetizers and donated beer from P6 producer Core Brewing Company. The guests enjoyed the food trays and lager while a slide show played with pictures of every P6 producer the dinner formally began. The dinner is emceed each year by me, Pauline Thiessen, Fresh Foods Manager and the store’s fresh foods P6 Liaison. I opened with greeting everyone to much applause and introduced the other staff presenters for the evening. Representatives from throughout our store’s P6 program spoke about their experiences working with producers. The store’s prepared foods department catered the event and served made from scratch food like Roasted Lamb & Chicken, Savory Winter Squash Stuffing, Mashed Sweet Potatoes, Roasted Roots, a Fresh Winter Salad, and Maple Spice Cake, all featuring local ingredients from P6 producers.
We organize the dinner a little differently every year with a different focal point for the event. We’ve had presenters who’ve created food hubs in their area and other sustainable food systems advocates, we’ve premiered a documentary we produced, we’ve done an awards dinner, and this year we wanted to have a discussion with our producers about competition planning. Between March of 2015 and March of 2016, both Natural Grocers and Whole Foods will have opened their doors less than 3 miles from the co-op. With direct competitions and other traditional stores stepping up their game on the organic and local foods, our store, like many other co-ops across the country, is noticing the impact. We’ve spent years now doing competition prep planning, had board and owner visioning, staff input, and talked to other coops, and thought we should get some feedback from our producers. We saw this year’s dinner as an opportunity to have a conversation with our producers about their ideas for thriving in the face of competition and specifically how P6 and the direct vendor relationship can help strengthen our store as well as their businesses.
The competition discussion was led by Mike after short presentations about how P6 works in the different departments and a P6 year review and farmer committee report. Since this was our first full year of being a P6 coop, we really wanted to have staff members talk about the program in action in their different departments, to give the producers an idea of what the staff are doing with P6, its impact, and new aspects of the program that we’ve developed this past year. Debbie spoke about how the cashiers use P6 to engage customers and the store’s New Leaf program, a way that customers can round up their purchases and donate the amount towards a specific need or project from the store’s P6 producers. Zee talked about it from her perspective during nights and weekends and what she was doing to source and promote P6 beer & wine. Mee talked about the tools she developed for tracking crop agreements, shopping P6 in packaged products, and her new liaison position before I presented.
I was excited to review our first full year of P6. We’re doing a lot more P6 events now and I wanted everyone to know how our collective involvement with the national trade movement was impacting our local store. I thanked everyone from the host room and servers to ONF staff and board, and then of course, the producers. Part of the intention of the dinner is to help our producers develop a sense of being a distinct group within our community. We had some really fun things to report, like Mee’s new liaison position, sales data from events like our P6 Shindigs, and the things everyone waits for in the farmer committee report: who our top producer was (Sycamore Bend Farm) and the total dollar amount of fresh foods purchased over the past year. In 2014 we purchased over $167,000 of local fresh fruits and veggies. This year we sourced over $201,000 of P6 produce and plants!
I think this is due to two things: our new approach with fresh foods and increased participation with P6. I was completely amazed and so thrilled that the number had increased so much and despite a slump in overall store sales. I think it’s an healthy indication of the resilience of our producers and ours store, and like I told them, it almost brought a tear to my eye. It’s great to know and be able to share this information. People can get down after years like this one where torrential rains caused 50-75% crop losses for 3 of our top producers and people are waiting to compare us to Whole Foods. Things like the dinner just lift everyone’s spirits for an evening and remind us all of the bigger picture. Our producers look forward to ‘the dinner’ every year and it’s had a tangibly positive impact on vendor relations, something I view as a core part of P6. With 2015 coming to a close we’re all looking forward to 2016 with crop planning, new tools for P6 vendors created by the staff, and of course, to next year’s dinner.