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RETAIL VIEW: 'Speed dating' comes to produce

Quick, you have 10 minutes to make your pitch and then move on to the next potential candidate, with someone else following you to the seat you are currently occupying.

Speed-dating has become a common way for single people to meet a mate. But the aforementioned scenario is not about dating, but rather buying produce in one New England state.

The Vermont Agency of Agriculture adapted the concept to create a match- maker event to connect buyers and sellers of locally produced products. On Oct. 29, more than 40 buyers and 70 producers came together for five hours of match-making. Each of the buyers, which represented supermarkets, restaurants, roadside stands, foodservice operations and government entities, had 18 10-minute time slots open for sellers. The 70 producers signed up for those various slots in advance, and then the courtship began.

One of those buyers was Wendy Ward of Hannaford Bros., a supermarket chain based in Portland, ME, with dozens of stores scattered throughout each of the New England states, including Vermont.

"Our time slots were the first that filled up, so we actually set up another table and I believe we talked to everyone who wanted to talk to us," she said. "During the course of the day, we saw 40 to 50 different producers, and yes, we did make some matches."

Helen Labun Jordan, market development coordinator for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, said that the day-long event grew out of a similar non-agriculture event held earlier in the year that brought together government purchasing agents with potential suppliers. That effort was successful, and the idea to bring together buyers and sellers of agricultural products took root.

Ms. Jordan said that Vermont is home to many producers of a long list of products ranging from fruits and vegetables to dairy and meat, and, of course, maple syrup. This match-maker event invited them all to come share their stories with potential buyers.

"It was very successful," Ms. Jordan said. "We heard a lot of positive comments and many people told us to count them in for next year." Ms. Jordan said that the event was timed to coincide with the end of the local marketing year and the beginning of the planning season for next season. She said that producers can make deals now so that they can adjust their production volume for 2009.

Ms. Ward said that the Hannaford team did make contacts that should result in sales. "I brought some produce managers with me who were looking for specific product, and they found it."

The Hannaford executive said that the chain's local food movement is about three years old, which mirrors her time with the company. With the title of close to home coordinator, Ms. Ward puts together producers with individual Hannaford stores. She said that the chain is committed to the concept of promoting locally grown food, which it defines as being in the same state as the store itself. For this program, each produce manager is empowered to work his or her own deals with local producers. She said that the local produce manager is in the best position to know the local growers and to get suggestions from his or her own customers about good sources for locally produced product.

Ms. Ward said that the Vermont matchmaker event was the perfect opportunity to advance that concept.

Doug Davis, foodservice director for the Burlington School District, was another buyer who participated in the event. His school district has 10 schools and serves 3,600 children. Although it might be considered small by national standards, Mr. Davis said that it is the largest school district in Vermont. "For five years, we have had a very successful farm-to-school program," he said.

The program is designed to bring locally grown product into the school. Because much of Vermont's agricultural output takes place during the summer months when school is not in session, Burlington processes much of the fresh product it buys from local farmers.

"For example, during the summer we buy 1,000 pounds of zucchini from a local grower and make zucchini bread, then we freeze it and serve it during the school year for breakfast," said Mr. Davis, who added that cooks in the school district also bake and freeze products made from locally grown carrots, apples and berries.

During the matchmaker event, this local foodservice director did make a connection with a grower with whom he might do business as well as a diversified farmer that had meat, dairy and vegetables to sell. "My goal was to find more opportunities that allow us to pull locally, and I'd say the event was successful."

One of the sellers who attended was Sam Lincoln of Lincoln AgriSource in Randolph Center, VT. At one point in his career as a producer, Mr. Lincoln produced a wide variety of crops and sold them through many different wholesalers. Today, he has a roadside stand and tries to sell most of his production through his own retail outlet rather than through wholesale operators.

However, Mr. Lincoln said that it would also be advantageous if he had another outlet for his vegetable crops. "I thought maybe I could find a local school foodservice operation that I could do business with, and I did. I made a connection with Vermont Technical College, which is just five miles up the road. I think we will do business."

Like any speed-dating event, Ms. Jordan said that the focus was on making an introduction, not signing a binding contract. The feedback was positive, and one might expect heavy flirting to follow.