From climate change to soil erosion to record-setting droughts, these pages can sometimes seem like an inventory of challenges facing local farmers. “Community Barn,” a farmer networking event organized by Foodlink Waterloo Region, is setting its sights on one particular challenge that for once has nothing to do with the weather gods.
“We have such a range of farmers in our neck of the woods – all the way from Old Order Mennonites who wouldn’t be using a lot of the modern tools like the Internet and social media. For them, I think one of the primary challenges would be getting the word out about their products and services,” said Anna Contini, manager of Foodlink Waterloo Region.
“Our local farmers are always in competition with the grocery stores, the bigger chains that are charging very little,” Contini added. “It’s hard to compete with that.”
Strong marketing is as important to a successful farm as any other factor. Contini explained, “We have lots of producers here, and then we have the middlemen – chefs and stores – saying, ‘Yes we want more local produce,’ but it’s getting them there that is the problem. Not a whole lot of chefs and store owners can go out and do weekly shopping at the farm.”
The Community Barn event will include discussion about the local food business from successful farmers in the region.
“On the other end of the spectrum, we have larger farms that are very marketing savvy, and have Twitter campaigns and the whole gamut,” said Contini.
Melissa Baer, of Baer’s Vibrant Farms, will deliver a speech on how to deliver an effective marketing campaign. Other speakers will include Cindy Gerber of Oakridge Acres, Sean Zister of Seven Shores Café and Dale Stevanus of Stevanus Family Farms.
The organization hopes the Community Barn event will offer a chance to consult one-on-one with farmers about which marketing practices are working today, and which aren’t. Better marketing plays into Foodlink’s modus operandi of extending awareness of local food products throughout the Waterloo Region – their “Buy Local! Buy Fresh!” map is a widely-cited aggregate of 71 food producers in the area.
“One of the things that we try to do is educate consumers about the benefits of buying local, and why sometimes paying a little bit more is worth it,” said Contini. “There’s everything from the environmental arguments, to supporting the local economy, and being able to pose questions to the local producers about how the food was grown.
“We’re more about local than anything – local trumps all. So we are promoting a whole range of farms, from small, family-owned organic to slightly more conventional, larger farms.”
Foodlink’s free Community Barn will take place Feb. 12 at Trinity United Church in Elmira at 1 p.m. Interested food producers will need to register with Contini by Feb. 7.