Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
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Meet Heather Omand – MOFGA Organic Marketing and Business Specialist

Heather and Atom Omand visiting a MOFGA farm. English photo

Heather and Atom Omand visiting a MOFGA farm. English photo

March 1, 2018

Heather Omand, MOFGA's organic marketing and business specialist, provides business and market planning to organic and transitioning farmers, develops and supports local purchasing at a variety of market channels, and provides other types of technical assistance and market research. She creates MOFGA's organic price reports and supports the Farm Beginnings training program and other projects. Omand has a master's degree from UMaine Orono in business administration with a concentration in business and sustainability. She previously received a bachelor's degree in anthropology and worked as an archaeologist. Heather and her husband, Tyler, operated a permaculture design business and example homestead in Greenbush until their 2017 move to Belfast, Maine, where they are pursuing a regenerative agricultural model.

Q. Your job is quite diverse! Has any one aspect of your job in particular seemed most helpful to growers seeking marketing help?

This is a tough question, because the needs of certified organic producers are so diverse. For example, about half of the population thinks the price report should go away and the other half thinks that is the most important thing I do. 

The most requested service is for MOFGA to do more to market the Maine Organic brand. In the past three years, we have applied for at least six grants to fund this work (marketing can be expensive), with no luck, so I have focused on low-cost projects that do this – such as creating a mofga.org page about why buying local and organic is important, developing educational materials for wholesale buyers and creating graphics that growers can share on social media that help explain organic. Adoption of these resources has been slow, but all of this work takes time. 

In 2016 I mailed over 300 marketing toolkits to wholesale buyers across Maine (restaurants, grocery stores, distributors, etc.) that included research about the organic market, how they can educate their customers about organic, resources for sourcing organic, and so on. A farmer let me know that a few of the restaurants he works with showed him the toolkit. I asked if he thought the toolkit had been impactful, and his response was interesting: "On their own, I doubt they increased organic purchasing significantly. However, they are a key part of the ongoing and persistent conversation that MOFGA has with Maine consumers and buyers." 

Q. In light of recent publicity about problems with industrial organic production, do you think consumers are getting the message that they should, when possible, buy local and organic – ideally from farmers they know – to help support the health of people, of the environment and of local economies, as well as animal welfare?

I don't know. This is a tough one. As part of my work, I comb over 20 food industry-related publications for organic market research. I recently saw some information suggesting that the largest consumer base for organic food – millennials and specifically millennial parents – seeks both local and organic. I do think organic still comes first, and they (we!) are a population also very interested in convenience, but I think the message is starting to take hold. 

Label confusion in the marketplace is another challenge on this front. Each year a staff member from MOFGA Certification Services and I speak at the Common Ground Country Fair about labels to help people understand the nuance behind "natural," "animal welfare approved," "fair trade," "organic" and many others. I think consumers have a hard time knowing what they should hold most important – but the takeaway, for me, is that the organic label includes the standards of most of the other labels, if they have any standards at all!

Q. What kinds of resources have you created for the "Buy Organic" page? How widely are they being used?

I did not create all of the resources there, but there is a LOT of great information there. The page itself is really informative – covering the research-based economic, environmental and health benefits of organic. An interactive Google map shows all of the certified organic operations in New England, and you can see which are local to you. The "yellow pepper" search tool enables consumers to search for MOFGA-certified producers by county, product (i.e., tomato, beef, hay, jam, etc.) or markets they serve (CSA, farmers' market, online, wholesale, etc.). The page has a variety of outreach publications and educational materials for consumers, businesses and farmers that talk about why organic is important, provide seasonal recipes, tell how to buy organic on a budget, and more. Finally, the organic marketing toolkit I developed for wholesale purchasers is there as well. In 2017, over 900 unique visitors looked at that page, which is good. The materials are being used by natural food stores, have been distributed through CSA shares, and a network of 35 doctors' offices requested hard copies of a few of the educational pieces. 

Q. Your "Organic Farmer Toolkit" is a wonderful resource! What can producers find there? 

This page is still under construction because each of the "tools" in the toolkit takes a lot of time and research to put together. This resource is a bit newer, but across all the pages it has also generated over 900 unique views. So far, three of the six tools are live: Evaluating Appropriate Scale, Setting Prices and The Organic Marketing Message. On these pages producers can find organic-specific enterprise budgets, sources of pricing information, suggested ways to explain to consumers why organic costs more, and images for use on social media that help explain organic. I am still working on Considerations and Resources (which will include information about labeling, packaging, insurance and food safety), Certification Resources (templates and helpful resources for maintaining certification) and Services and Support (which will help producers find technical assistance for various topics). 

Q. What else would you like to say to organic producers and consumers?

I love feedback! I can't do my job unless I hear from producers and consumers about what they need and think. Is one of the graphics or resources useful, or would it be if …  I'm really interested in trying to do more marketing of the organic brand, and I need a lot of support from the community to do it.

Q. Can you describe how you practice "regenerative agriculture" at your home in Belfast?

Our home farm, Dynamic Farm, is the brainchild of my husband (Tyler – a multiply certified permaculture designer). I'm mostly just manual labor and bookkeeping! But we built several substantial hugelkultur beds this year and planted them with diverse perennials – we are experimenting with a variety of models and ideas. Tyler is very interested in nut crops, interplanting and interesting combinations of symbiotic plants – such as medicinal cannabis, garlic and bell beans. We also were designated a leaf dump spot for the town of Belfast and have since received hundreds of yards of compost and leaf matter. Readers can follow us on Instagram or Facebook, which Tyler uses as a journal for his ideas and experiments. 

Q. You are one of five MOFGA employees with a baby. How is that going? Has having a baby affected your view of organic agriculture?

Our son, Atom, has, of course, completely changed our lives for the better. MOFGA is an incredibly baby-friendly workplace and community, which is exceptional, and the flexible schedule has meant I have been able to stay a productive and valued employee while also getting to be with my son a lot more than my parents were able to be with me. This is so, so important to our family.

Atom has strengthened my commitment to organic agriculture, as having a baby does for many parents. When you watch those sweet, tiny hands bring food to his mouth and hear the happy noises he makes when eats … it is difficult for me to escape the reality that I can be sure only organic and local food is free from synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Otherwise, that is all I can see and think about. All parents want to give the best of everything to their children, and for us, local and organic is it.

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