You could sell produce into a CSA, or you could support it as a sponsor by providing marketing exposure or acting as a produce pick-up location.
Photo: Istock

When it comes to marketing your produce, business and brand, there can be serious benefits to making community connections. Interacting with your local community gives you a chance to build meaningful relationships with your existing and potential customers. It also helps you tap into potential niche sale opportunities with local businesses and restaurants. Community outreach can even be a good recruiting tool. However, community marketing will differ for every operation and location — you’ll first need to get to know your community a little better before you can put those connections to best use.

The first step in planning your approach to community involvement is to review your company mission statement and branding message. There’s no sense in involving yourself with community organizations or activities that don’t align with your brand and products. Look for organizations that share a value system with your company. Authenticity is crucial for meaningful community involvement.

There are some natural co-marketing fits for produce growers in most communities, such as school gardens, food banks and CSAs. School gardens or school education programs that revolve around food can help you tap into your community’s decision makers. Parents, teachers and business owners who also support the school are valuable connections.

School garden projects are often very high-profile in the community. Teaching kids the importance of healthy eating and how their food is grown is generally the central theme of such gardens. Who better to help them out than a produce grower? Most often, these gardens are looking for supplies, plants and volunteer labor to help them keep the gardens growing. Sponsoring such gardens could entail you simply providing cash for overhead needs, or it may come in the form of plant donations or company volunteer work days at the garden. You might even set up some educational programs with them. Be authentic in your support, but make sure to publicize your activities across your marketing channels.

School lunches could also use your help. Farm-to-school activities are becoming much more popular and can include field trips to your operation and getting your produce into local school-served lunches. Building such a one-on-one relationship with a local school is not only valuable for you from a marketing standpoint, but exponentially valuable for the school and the kids.

Photo: Istock

Fresh produce is also often what’s missing at the local food bank. Consider providing a monthly or seasonal donation of requested produce, as a fresh food sponsor.

Do you have a CSA in your community? Consider becoming a produce partner. CSAs, or community supported agriculture, involve members purchasing a seasonal share of produce from a local farmer — or group of local farmers. You could sell produce into the CSA, or you could support it as a sponsor by providing marketing exposure or acting as a produce pick-up location.

Demand for locally grown produce at restaurants remains very high. Chefs want access to a wide variety of local produce, but they also want steady availability and steady prices. This can be a challenge for them. If local chefs don’t know about you, they could be missing out on the best ingredients, and you, a great customer. Sponsoring local food festivals, wine tastings, restaurant weeks and the like is a great way to get your brand in front of restaurant owners and chefs. It’s also a great way to garner brand recognition from diners. Keep in mind, there are a lot of people growing leafy greens in urban environments these days. If you can offer up a wider variety of produce beyond greens, you can grow your value on the restaurant scene.

Sponsoring local charity events can also be a good way to connect with community. But I’ll caution you to be very selective about which charities you choose to support. Make sure there is a relevant connection between them and your brand. Otherwise, your support won’t seem authentic. Plus, once you start supporting charity events, you’ll start getting requests from every organization in town. It’s tempting to feel obligated to help everyone, but you can make a bigger impact by making a clear connection to one organization with a deeper investment.

Finally, it’s no secret we’re all looking for good help in this industry. If recruiting is a pain point for you, then target your local high schools and community colleges. Consider supporting these institutions by offering internships, training programs and even scholarships. Such programs are an excellent way to solidify your place in the community and garner continuous brand exposure. Not only that, but they can create a workforce pipeline for your company.

Don’t treat community marketing like paid advertising. It’s tempting to expect a direct one-to-one ROI from such outreach, but the payoff isn’t always simple to measure. It’s organic, and it takes time and consistency. Long-term brand recognition, relevancy and relationships are what you’re growing.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies.