Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Excellence in Agriculture

A few words with Leah Clark

Governors Award for Marketing Innovation

Jake Putnam sat down with Leah Clark after winning her Governors Award for Excellence in Agriculture. Clark has worked every aspect of Idaho vast marketing program the past decade.

Tell us a little about yourself?

Well, my name is Leah Clark and I am at trade specialist here at the Department of Agriculture. I have the pleasure of being the person that manages the Idaho Preferred Program. The Idaho preferred is a program that maintains and identifies Idaho products so I work with a large diverse group of producers, chefs schools whatever I do to bring local food and and consumers together.

Could we do a better job telling Idaho Ag success stories?

Yes. That's true the greatest stories are not being told and that's one of the greatest parts of my job. I get to work every day with farmers and ranchers and provide them with marketing opportunities that they wouldn't have otherwise. It's also fun working in this industry right now because the local food movement is so hot. It's not a hard sell anymore like it was 10 years ago when you had to knock on doors and ask them to consider using the Idaho products. People are looking seriously for local products. It's a great opportunity right now for local producers to take advantage of that and look at opportunities for marketing their products locally and maybe look at changing their product mix.

Is Farming cool again?

It is! in fact; there was market research done recently that showed that that at one time the focus was on celebrity chefs and then next couple years it'll be celebrity farmers. Farmers are the celebrities and it's already happening. You know I don't really know that technology has that much to do with it I really think that people have got to the point to where they really want to have a closer connection to their food they want to know where it comes from they want to support the local economy. Our research shows to 70% of consumers are willing to pay more for local. And we know the reason that is it's not because our products are the best or better than any others although we think that they are.

Where did this marketing zeal come from?

When I went to graduate school I went to graduate school with a very specific goal in mind and I wanted to work in the beef industry and I went to work in marketing. When I finished my graduate program and was hired by the Idaho beef council and that was perfect. That was my dream job and I learned so much in that position. Things like handling finances and doing a financial accountability and a lot about advertising. And, because of the opportunity of serving on national advertising committees where you learn a lot about market research and how to integrate data in the campaigns. The Beef Council for 15 years was a great opportunity for me. It allowed me to make connections in retail or food service and even within the health care industry and a lot of those relationships I was able to bring with me to the Idaho Preferred program. I was able to move it along rather quickly.

How did you market beef, what was the sell? Was it a hard sell?

What happened during that time was great timing for me. Coming into the industry in 1988 was an exciting time because the check-off had just passed and with that check came the funds that beef industry needed to do a lot of work in identifying the health benefits of beef. So I think we had a good research basis to start with and try to rebuild the story of beef nutrition. So that was the focus of a lot of things we did, just talking about nutrition and how it fit. And so I was able then to use that research to make connections to the health care community and start relationships with the heart association. That hadn't happened in the past. Also, working with the Physicians Association and they at first were skeptical but I think that we had good science-based research, giving us the credibility we needed to begin to build a better reputation for beef and the beef industry.

All of your successful marketing was research based?

It is and that crosses over into Idaho Preferred. You know that's the fun thing about Idaho Preferred. We have such a diverse agricultural industry here in Idaho with 185 crops, so every day is different. One day I may be promoting cheese, the next day its garbanzo beans and tortillas, turkey and wine and so we have this huge breadth of products. All of those products find a place in consumers grocery shopping carts. So it gives us a lot of flexibility in the marketing techniques needed to market those products. Its not just advertising and television radio you know, it's food shows and trade shows, its also direct consumer events. So there's a lot of opportunity with the breadth of products we have to really take advantage of our marketing opportunities.

So in marketing, it takes a little money to make a little money?

I think that's another reason that Idaho Preferred has been very successful. We provide a marketing service that if a producer wants to go out and that service might not be within their budget; this program might allow them to take advantage of some of those marketing opportunities. So through state funds and through specialty crop grants we have the dollars to be able to provide the marketing opportunities and marketing events and activities that producers can take advantage of them for membership fee.

Our Farmers are the best in the world--

Its not only us telling them that, but we have chefs seeking them out and telling them that. We have retailers that are just competing, that's right competing for local products. We see the big retailers, aggressively courting local producers because they want their products in their stores. Consumers are demanding it. So its really not just us preaching to our selves, ‘Hey we’re the greatest out there,’ our customers are telling us its the best and are competing for those products.

Just as the local movement was taking hold, the giants of retail were also interested in our local producers?

You know we have a broad variety of retailers in this community and in this state. And I think that they're all trying to get on the bandwagon as far as getting more local product in stores. But we find is that the big guys are here to stay and they sell a lot of groceries. We need to take our share of that business and Walmart and Albertson's as two big chains are aggressively working with our local producers and it's not always easy they are large corporations. But they're finding ways to make it doable for local producers as well as the smaller chains like Paul's. All they really do want to is to support the local farmer and they want to meet the needs of their customers, they want local product.

Where is this all heading?

Well, market research says that this is a trend and not a flash in the pan trend. The trend to buy local and eat more locally is longer-term for sure. Not just in United States but abroad. So I think that we set a precedent. I think people are recognizing the value of eating locally they're recognizing the value of keeping their dollars in the local economy and supporting agriculture because it's such a large part of our Idaho economy. So I think that we will continue to grow. I think it will continue to expand in our offering to consumers, and I see it maybe taking agriculture back to a little bit more diverse than the days of just being potatoes and sugar beets, wheat and barley. We're great at all of those things but I do see the opportunity for us to start producing, instead of carrots seeds, the actual carrots and lettuce and those types of things that we can produce here locally on a seasonal basis and be available to our consumer base.

Any innovations and surprises from producers out there?

I just recently learned we're starting to grow soy beans. That wouldn't be a big deal if you are back in Midwest but that doesn't really seem like an Idaho product. I love the fact that we are starting to do some specialty vegetables as well as lettuce is kind of returning because when you think about it, what one product is on every menu on every restaurant that you go into, its some kind of salad and we can grow that is here and so I think I'm really excited to see some of that happening we're growing tomatoes were seeing hot house tomatoes. I am really excited about growth in the nursery industry as far as products. if you go into any grocery store and buy poinsettia most likely it was grown right here in Idaho. So there's just a lot of unique products out there.

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