How To Start On-Farm Cooking Classes

Give your farm customer hands on experience with the food you grow by teaching them how to prepare it.

by Lori Rice
PHOTO: Suzie's Farm/Flickr

With the rising popularity of on-farm cooking classes, it’s clear that customers are after more than the fresh produce, meats and honey that farmers offer. They are also interested in learning more about the source of their food and how to prepare these delicious farm-fresh offerings.

Small-group cooking classes give farmers the opportunity to educate consumers and explore areas of agritourism while connecting the community and increasing profits. These instructional courses cover everything from cooking summer produce to making sausage, and they are taking place on farms large and small. If you are curious to test the waters by offering your own on-farm cooking class, consider the following as you prepare.

Select A Topic

Start by getting to know your audience and making an effort to understand their goals for the kitchen and homestead. Cooking is a diverse topic, and there will always be a need for the basics, but if your customer base is already skilled in the kitchen, you may need to fulfill their desire to learn more advanced techniques and those that more closely relate to their everyday lives.

Classes that focus on seasonal ingredients allow you to provide creative solutions for dealing with an abundance of zucchini in the summer or how to best manage an awkwardly shaped winter squash. These classes also present the opportunity to add international flair and deepen cultural and culinary knowledge.

Classes that cover processes and techniques are also in high demand. Consumers want to learn how to make more of their own foods, and this is especially motivated by health and a commitment to reduce waste through food preservation.

Fermentation techniques, including making sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, kefir, and even beer and wine, are popular class topics. But these new offerings haven’t replaced the demand for classes about pickling, jam-making and dehydrating. Don’t rule out more complex techniques: Many consumers are ready to jump into classes that offer instruction on sausage making, cheese making, and advanced baking or pastry techniques.

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Ambler Farm in Wilton, Conn., has been offering on-farm cooking classes for adults and youth for about five years. “Young children need recipes that are very tactile and delicious,” program manager Kevin Meehan says, specifically mentioning pizza bites, smoothies and berry crisps. He adds that their program for 8th through 10th graders introduces the students to knife skills and food prep. “Adults are more interested in how to prepare different recipes rather than the skills to prepare those dishes,” he notes.

Source An Expert

Calling on current staff members who are trained in class topics is a good way to cut costs and to give students a more personal farm experience. Your staff knows your growing and production methods well and can work this information into the class instruction, which more strongly ties the course to your farm, your products and the local area.

With that in mind, sourcing a local expert can serve as a marketing point for the courses you offer. A local chef, extension agent, artisanal baker or craft brewer can give interested students assurance that they will receive expert information that they can trust.

On the other hand, Meehan advises that Ambler Farm’s younger students don’t need a chef: They just need a teacher, and local schools have been their best source. “Older student and adult programs need a chef,” he says. “Find a chef first, then develop the program.”

There are multiple ways that outside experts can be secured to teach classes. Begin with those who are current customers. Many cooking-class instructors are willing to work for payment with product, while others require monetary compensation. If the instructor is not a staff member, it’s best to draft a contract that explains fees, services and responsibilities to be signed by both parties.

Spread The Word

Like any program you offer at the farm, a clear business and marketing plan should be outlined and implemented prior to launching classes. Start by identifying goals: Why are you offering these classes? Is it a service to your community or to increase sales of a specific product? Determine your maximum number of students as well as a minimum for holding the class. Calculate your costs for each type of class to help you determine a fee per student.

Next, identify your platforms of outreach and include digital and print media, such as a newsletter mailing list, on-farm advertisements, email list and social media platforms: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Brainstorm local events or community boards that would be ideal for marketing the classes.

Demonstration Vs. Instruction

Demonstration and instruction are two different things when it comes to cooking classes, and it’s important to know exactly what you are offering before implementing your marketing plan.

In a demonstration, students will be watching someone else prepare the food. The format is educational and an attendee may be called on to assist, but demonstrations are not hands-on courses.

Instructional courses involve the students in the cooking process. In these classes, students will be cooking the foods and making their own products. While demonstrations can accommodate larger groups of people, instructional classes are best kept small, 10 people or less, depending on space, to allow for one-on-one work with the instructor.

Rules & Regs

Before planning begins, start by ensuring that you meet all necessary laws and regulations in your state to offer cooking classes. Your kitchen space and regulations surrounding food production and opening your farm to the public must be considered.

There may be health department certifications you need to obtain, as well as liability insurance that needs to be purchased to protect your family and your farm. Your local extension office and health department can help guide you.

Emergency Action Plan

Take precautions into consideration and formulate an emergency action plan with the team who will be offering the classes. Accidents do happen, and you will want to know exactly what steps to take and where the first-aid kit is located should someone suffer a cut or a burn during the course.

Bring It All Together

Once you know the topics that are in demand and who will teach your classes, the marketing can begin. Make the sign-up process simple, communicate details of the class and plan well. Aim to give your students a genuine, authentic experience, and you will find that they will return to your classes time and time again.

“Find a great teacher—period,” Meehan says. “The program will fill over time by word of mouth. Have fun. People want to be connected. Food is a great way to connect people. Wine helps!”

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