It could have been very easy for Joan Haddow Hohenstein, owner of Canadian Fruitful Tree Company in East Kelowna, to miss the inaugural Meet Your Maker Okanagan event last April.
She read about the opportunity in a last-minute e-mail, but nearly declined—the timing was bad and her company was swamped with orders.
“I’m so glad I went,” says Haddow Hohenstein.
In a matter of hours she landed five deals with five different companies.
Doors Haddow Hohenstein had been trying to knock down for months were suddenly opening.
“It’s informal, it’s nobody’s territory. Just being able to get these people who are usually hidden in head offices…it erases all those barriers.”
This year she is volunteering the limited spare time she has to help orchestrate next week’s 2nd annual Meet Your Maker Okanagan and share the importance of the closing the gap between producers and buyers.
“Getting those five minutes (with buyers) is gold.
Meet Your Maker was introduced to the Okanagan in 2012, following the success of similar Lower Mainland events held over the past six years.
The concept is modelled after Portland’s Farmer-Chef Connection: An effort that has joined farmers, ranchers, food processors and manufacturers with restaurant chefs, grocery retailers, food service operators and distributors for the last 13 years.
“Portland is a real leader in local food and have been for a long time,” says Jennifer Vincent, coordinator of Meet Your Maker Okanagan.
Vincent, who grew up on a small hobby farm in the Fraser Valley, is passionate about community development and eating local foods.
Three years ago she moved to Penticton and since then has started Farm Bag Fundraiser with two other business partners.
The initiative helps schools raise money through selling local produce. In its first year, the program sold over 30,000 pounds of produce.
“It’s a really nice way to raise money for a school rather than (selling) chocolate almonds or whatever other unhealthy treat is being offered to parents who feel obligated to buy it.”
Vincent’s participation in the local food scene led her to the opportunity to coordinate Meet Your Maker Okanagan.
“I thought: This sounds wonderful…I like the vision and the products, and I like working with people.”
Local producers were enthusiastic about the inaugural Meet Your Maker Okanagan as well.
“Several of those producers were really raving about the fact there were buyers in that room from companies they’d been trying to communicate with for years, and could never get through to.
“It’s one of those wonderful events where this is an unusual opportunity—you don’t usually get all these people in the same room.”
The event is one of several put on by FarmFolk CityFolk, a nonprofit organization based in Vancouver.
Vincent says the society is a B.C.-focused security support network.
“They’ve been involved in pretty much every food security project you could put your finger on over the last 20 years.
“They operate in all aspects of building the local food system.”
Perhaps the most well known FFCF annual event is Feast of Fields, which aims to connect consumers with the food they put in their mouths and the farms where that food was produced. It also is a major fundraiser for the society.
But the primary goal of FFCF is to close the gap between farmers and large grocery outlets, says Vincent.
“It’s important because small scale farmers face a whole bunch of challenges in getting their products to market.
“There is a real need to see what we grow in this region in the stores where we shop as consumers.
“The local food movement is about keeping not just the food, but the money in the local economy.”
Haddow Hohenstein says it’s difficult to explain how important the work FFCF does is to small scale producers.
“In this valley, being a fruit farmer is really tough,” says Haddow Hohenstein.
“Having avenues like this that help (producers) look at other opportunities for what they grow—there needs to be so much more of it.”
She adds there is “no excuse” for producers to miss out on this year’s Meet Your Maker Okanagan.
Along with the obvious benefit of pitching products to buyers, Haddow Hohenstein notes there is value in learning the buyers’ expectations, limitations and overall relationship with producers—a topic that will be covered in the morning workshop by FFCF’s Barbara Joughin.
“Why do they have to be so insistent about this and that? Most of the time it comes off that they’re a bunch of really grumpy people and they don’t make any sense. But there are very good reasons why they have to do that, which wouldn’t be obvious to the rest of us.”
This year Meet Your Maker Okanagan will also feature keynote speakers Sara and Troy Harker, 2013 BC Outstanding Young Farmers of the Year.
An optional afternoon workshop will show producers how to leverage social media in their food businesses.
Several producers will have an extra chance to showcase their ingredients as first and second year students from Okanagan College’s culinary arts program will prepare a lunch featuring items contributed by the attendees.
“It’s a great way to introduce these up-and-coming chefs to the bounty of our region,” says Vincent.
Chef Roger Planiden, a part-time instructor at Okanagan College who will be overseeing the young chefs, adds the producers benefit because their products can be tasted in professional dishes.
It will also give his students a challenging cooking scenario.
“It’s going to be like a really huge black box, we really don’t know what we’re getting,” says Planiden.
“We’ll work together as a team and put something together.”
The chef, who also owns Culinary Adventure mobile catering company, says the event gives farmers an opportunity to see how their products are being used.
“I think it’s a great way for them to meet the chefs, talk to them and ask them what they’re going to do with their products and how they plan on using them.”
Meet Your Maker takes place March 6 at Westbank Lions Community Hall; it is not open to the general public.
Registration will be open for B.C. food producers until 5 p.m. on Sunday, March 3.