OGDEN -- Fresh is best.
That was the message from a panel of purchasers and promoters of local farm products who spoke at the Utah Farm Bureau Federation's annual convention, held Thursday at the Eccles Conference Center.
"The connection to food and the connection to Earth is huge," said Zeke Wray, executive chef with the Talisker Restaurant Collection in Park City. The message he and the other panelists wanted to convey is that they are willing to work around the parameters local farmers and ranchers have for using their products.
"You have to find that niche, that way of marketing and that channel of where you are going to sell that product," said Jed Christenson, marketing director for the Utah's Own program. His program is designed to aid farmers and ranchers in establishing a culture where consumers are better directed to local products.
Christenson and Wray were joined by the director of nutrition services for the Jordan School District and the vice president of purchasing at Salt Lake City-based food distributor Nicholas & Company.
The panel members all said local products increase the nutritional value of what they serve or provide for their customers.
All also said fresh products are more in demand and are part of current trends.
One example is the growth of farmers markets. Since the year 2000, the number of farmers markets nationally has increased by 150 percent, said Sterling Brown, the farm bureau's vice president for public policy.
But the panelists asked those who raise fresh products to find ways to help people in planning to use those products.
"I would be willing to work with those of you who would be willing to teach me and work with me on the product safety list," said Jana Cruz, from the Jordan School District.
She said the district has come full circle, to getting away from processed foods and even to wanting farmers to provide fresh foods to the district and creating a teaching opportunity.
Answering a question about a farmer who had to let several acres of sweet corn go to waste when he couldn't sell the corn for enough to cover his costs, Christenson said that was a prime example of how important marketing is to farmers today.
"He probably should have done more research," Christenson said. "It's very important to know who's going to buy it ahead of time."
Christenson said the goal of his organization is to educate consumers, teaching them where they can find local products and creating a culture where those products are desired.
Wray said he makes it a point to reach out to local producers, but he asks them to come to him, too.
"Usually the strongest relationships we have with farmers and purveyors are with those who are persistent," he said. "Come in regularly. We are busy. We can't always reach out."
Wray said his restaurants purposefully have worded menus to read "nightly or seasonal vegetables" to give eateries the flexibility they need to buy local offerings while they are fresh.
"We do this so we don't peg-hole ourselves," he said. "It adds another layer of communication with our customers. It allows our chefs to be creative."
Barry Houghtalen, with Nicholas & Company, told attendees to continually tell their family stories.
"The story is important. It makes a difference," he said.
"Sometimes that translates onto the menu. Don't short-sell the value in who and what you are from a local standpoint."