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November 03. 2012 11:23PM

Food producers need to brush up on marketing, agriculture experts say

GREENLAND - Celeste Gingras swapped a career in social work 20 years ago for a job running a local bakery and caf in Somersworth, and despite the hard work and endless early mornings, she loves it.

"We're really clear about our mission," said Gingras. "We produce good food, using local ingredients and we keep money and business in our community," she said.

Gingras, who also manages the Dover Farmers Market, was one of a small crowd of local farmers, food producers and market managers who spent Wednesday at Portsmouth Country Club in Greenland to hear the latest news and advice about marketing local products from a panel of researchers and experts from the University of New Hampshire's Cooperative Extension's agriculture program.

"Business is going very well for local producers, but marketing is very important for them," said Nada Haddad, an Extension professor and food and agriculture specialist who coordinated the event. "You have to know how and where to sell, and how to remain sustainable."

A panel of experts offered the group a range of different ideas from tapping into farmers markets, local specialty grocers and restaurants to online advertising, branding, value-added products and using the community-supported agriculture model for other products such as fish landed by local fishermen.

Speakers talked about opportunities for different markets that included everything from baked goods to timber, and most had the same encouraging message: Consumers are looking for high-quality local foods that are produced by sustainable practices.

Jewel McKenzie, who shared some of the results of a marketing research study conducted in Southern New Hampshire last year, said trends were clear.

"People want more product diversity, more organic products, they want to buy directly from vendors and they want to support sustainable agriculture," she said.

With the tide in their favor, local producers are now looking for ways to increase their sales to make sure they can continue to produce their products.

Erik Chapman, an Extension assistant professor and fisheries specialist, urged the group to take advantage of the growing consumer interest in sustainability.

"There's a demand out there, and people are willing to pay more for locally caught, sustainable seafood," he said. "Today, people want to know where their food is coming from."

Chapman acknowledged that it isn't always easy for local producers to access new markets directly. In some cases, such as seafood, it involves an additional permit as well as some salesmanship skills that not all local fishermen have the patience to develop.

Chapman suggested that people pool resources, and take different responsibilities and getting products to local markets.

Although timber growers are up against a trend of consolidation of sawmills and large lumber producers, Sarah Smith, a UNH forestry specialist, said that local producers have an advantage of knowing needs of consumers in their communities. And, as Smith explained, the needs might be as simple as stakes for garden tomato plants, which aren't easy to find. And those same locally produced tomato stakes can also be painted with fluorescent tips and used to stake out driveways, another niche product that a local producer would see and understand more readily than a large lumber business.

New Hampshire Farm Service Agency Executive Director Jay Phinizy was also available to talk to local food producers about low-interest Department of Agriculture loans for small growers and new small agricultural ventures.

Phinizy said interest on the loans, which can be for land or equipment, can be as low as 1.5 percent, and there's no size requirements for a venture.

"The requirement is that you have to be recognized as a grower, not just a gardener," he said.

Price can be a hurdle for some local producers since consumers are expected to pay more than what they might at a supermarket. Gingras said consumers need to look at the big picture.

"Instead of eating all those processed foods and products that are sold in large grocery stores that make you miss work because you're not really healthy, local foods can help you save time and money," she said, adding local foods are an investment in health that pays off over and over.

"Consumers need to look at all the issues involved, not just the price of one item," she said.

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Barbara Taormina may be reached at btaormina@newstote.com.

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