Get a taste of finance, sample marketing at Specialty Conference

Specialty growers can grow their professional network during Jan. 9-11 conference in Springfield.

By Kay Shipman

Bankers and marketing experts comprise key members of a specialty grower’s team. During the Illinois Specialty Crops, Agritourism and Organic Conference, breakout sessions featuring both abound. The Jan. 9-11 conference will be in Springfield’s Crowne Plaza. Dec. 31 is the registration deadline for the preconference and conference.

Information presented during the financial sessions may help growers save by “understanding how to look good on paper (to lenders),” said Andrew Larson, an ag and commercial loan officer with German American State Bank of Winnebago. That improvement may result in better interest rates or lead farmers to state and federal programs with low rates, Larson added.  

A key consideration, cash flow planning is especially critical for specialty crop farms to cover all business and family expenses, as well as save for “a rainy day” plus reinvest in the farm, said Paul Dietmann, a senior lending officer with Compeer Financial, based in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin.

Dietmann, Larson and Rich Ritter, agricultural lending senior vice president with Flanagan State Bank of Gridley, will share lender perspectives during Jan. 9 afternoon financial sessions.

“I’ll peel back the curtain, ‘Here’s how we (bankers) look at cash flow,’” to understand if a specialty farm is sustainable, Dietmann said. He encouraged conference participants to bring their balance sheets that should be updated each Jan. 1.  

Just as farmers work with agronomic teams, they also should develop business management teams that include their lenders, according to Larson. “We will discuss how to interact with lenders to put your best (financial) foot forward and how to work with a lender as a partner,” Larson said.

Interacting with potential customers includes offering samples, according to Christine Smith, national sales manager for Cahokia Rice. She will discuss value-added samples Jan. 10 in afternoon sessions.

Smith recently handed out “protein rice bites” to runners at a Missouri jingle bell run. “The running community is a huge supporter,” she said. Her creative sample locations and events include a bike shop and “back to school” activity.

“I try to focus on what the audience and what the customers might want,” Smith noted.

Along with the rice, Smith always displays other ingredients, such as a container of coconut milk or locally grown vegetables, used in the sample recipes and tells interested consumers where they can find those ingredients.

She also passes out the recipe -- but not all her recipes. Instead, Smith encourages consumers to visit the Cahokia Rice website for more recipes and information.

Smith explains she spends time on social media researching popular recipes, seeking ones she could substitute rice for another ingredient, such as oats. “It’s time consuming, but it’s definitely worth it,” Smith said.  

Preregistration fees for Jan. 9 preconference workshops, including lunch, are $45 for members of the Illinois Specialty Growers Association and $60 for nonmembers. On-site preconference registration fees are $60 for members and $75 for nonmembers.

Conference preregistration fees for Jan. 10-11 are $60 for members and $85 for nonmembers. Onsite registrations are higher for both, and lunch is not guaranteed. Jan. 10 banquet tickets cost an additional $30 in advance and $35 at the door.

For more information or to register, visit