Northeast Connecticut

Local Food and Agriculture

Connecting Farmers and Consumers in the Northeast Corner

Local food and agriculture took a spotlight in 2020 as residents avoided grocery stores and sought out contactless and close to home food options during the unfolding of COVID-19. Coincidentally, just months earlier, UConn Extension launched a new federally funded project to increase direct-to-consumer sales for farm businesses in Northeast Connecticut.

woman reading sign at farmers marketWorking with farms across 23 towns in the region (see map), the project aims to increase direct-to-consumer farm sales by 15%, increase customers by 20%, and expand market opportunities for at least 70 producers over the course of three years. A 12-member Farmer Advisory Board is guiding project activities, which include new marketing tools, trainings, and branding.

The project tracks farmers markets, farm stands, and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) to see if there is an increase in customers and sales over time. “Everyone who lives in Northeastern Connecticut knows it is a beautiful place to live, but many miss out on supporting local farm businesses because they lack information about what farms offer and where to purchase their products,” explained Jiff Martin, Extension Educator in Sustainable Food Systems.

As part of this work, UConn’s team is developing a brand to capture the unique identity that agriculture has in the region. With over 100 farms in the 23 towns, there are a wide variety of products consumers can purchase, and the region takes great pride in its agricultural landscapes. In June 2020, UConn Extension put together a guide that showcases this strong agricultural identity, while helping consumers see the variety of what farms offer and how accessible it is for them to purchase locally. This guide has seen a fall update in September and a winter iteration in December.

Printed versions of the summer guide were quickly snatched up by the community from farmers markets, local business, and community centers. The online magazine version has seen plenty of traffic as people looked to this resource on the go, or to plan out their purchasing of weekly groceries. A postcard mailing to thousands of households in the region and strategic social media marketing around #heartctgrown helped broadcast messaging about local farm offerings in the region.

In addition to consumer education and outreach, three marketing training sessions were held in late fall to help farmers acquire new skills to reach more customers and expand their product reach. The topics included online marketing, using point of sale to increase your market, and relational marketing for farm stands and farmers markets.

Looking ahead to programming for 2021 and 2022, plans are in the works to start promotions of the area’s CSAs, including a searchable online map and a postcard mailing to targeted households. The project will continue to offer marketing trainings for farm businesses, publish shopping guides, and distribute marketing materials. When the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided and public events are safe, the project will employ local food ambassadors to travel the region educating residents about the reasons to buy local food and where to find it.

Article by Rebecca Toms