Farm Tours Popular at Portland Co-op

PORTLAND, Ore. Running field trips to local farms allows Food Front Cooperative Grocery here to fulfill two of its missions: To help create community and educate its members. But they also create store loyalty, boost sales and give staff insight into the origin of the food they are selling, said Tom Mattox, community outreach and marketing director. We try to connect our customers a little more closely

PORTLAND, Ore. — Running field trips to local farms allows Food Front Cooperative Grocery here to fulfill two of its missions: To help create community and educate its members.

But they also create store loyalty, boost sales and give staff insight into the origin of the food they are selling, said Tom Mattox, community outreach and marketing director.

“We try to connect our customers a little more closely with the people who grow the food they eat,” he said. “People are looking to put a face and a personality on where their food comes from, and they're also interested in meeting other people and have lots of questions for farmers.”

Last month, the co-op ran its third farm tour — and the first it has handled on its own. The two previous tours, which were held in June and September 2009, were operated in conjunction with other Portland co-ops.

“It's a wonderful experience to walk through their fields and see what the farmers are growing,” said Mattox. And even the fact that it rained the day of the tour was beneficial, he pointed out. “It gave us a good insight on what it's like to work on a farm.”

Attendees experience a full day. The latest excursion was to Gathering Together Farm in Philomath, two hours from Portland, which grows more than 100 varieties of 40 vegetables. An old biodiesel-fueled school bus was used for transport and the co-op hired a guest speaker from Food Hub — a new service that connects grocery stores and their customers — to chat to participants on the bus ride there. A raffle was held on the return journey.

The farmer, John Eveland, gave a full tour, explaining the science of farming, including weather and soil. He talked about composting, gave a hayride and provided lunch in his on-site cafe.

After the farm, the tour continued to a local winery, Evesham Wood. “That gave people a different experience, and wine is an important part of Oregon agriculture,” said Mattox.

He was pleased with the mix of the farm tour's 38 attendees, who were evenly split between co-op employees / board members and customers. “When you get people together outside the workplace, you get to know them on a different level, and our staff get to interact with the customers. Our mission is about creating community, not just about selling food, so this is creating community outside the store.”

Attending the farm tour cost $39 and customers could simply ring that price up with their groceries. It was some work to set up for the cashiers, said Mattox, but the same logistics are now used for every farm tour. Store employees who joined the farm tour were subsidized by the co-op.

Food Front plans to run at least one farm tour per year, in conjunction with two other local co-ops, said Mattox, and run another one of its own whenever time permits. The store breaks even on the tours and they are a lot of work to organize, he said, which is the limiting factor.

Farm tours are a great way to build loyalty, said Frank Dell, president and chief executive officer of Dellmart & Company, Stamford, Conn.

“When you show you care, that means people tend to come back and shop with you.”