Sometimes the first step to connecting to your community is taking a look around.
Such was the case for the Fresno Grizzlies, the Triple-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, with the inception of the club's "Farm Grown" initiative.
About two-and-a-half years ago, Sam Hansen, who's now the Grizzlies' marketing creative manager but was then their graphic designer, was driving to work through California's San Joaquin Valley when he found the inspiration he was seeking for a new icon he'd been toying with in the farmland along the side of the road.
"I was looking out at all these fields, and I could actually see these migrant workers picking the fields. I started to picture these guys picking up baseballs and filling the crates with them." said Hansen, who'd been looking at other graphics the team had created with their "F.G." initials. (They'd already been using the slogan "Fun guaranteed," for example.)
"I'd thought of the phrase 'farm grown,' and I thought it could be a sub-brand within the Grizzlies and that maybe we could use it as a marketing campaign to harness in on the ag industry," he said, reference to the agriculture industry. That day on the drive in, "I was thinking about the Farm Grown campaign and branding a separate icon, the ball with the leaf."
Hansen and members of the Grizzlies' marketing and merchandising team continued to brainstorm around the image and the phrase, and the more they talked about it as a sub-brand, the more they liked it.
"Agriculture is not only a huge part of our economy but also a huge source of pride in the Valley, and I thought we could tie that into players like Buster Posey and Tim Lincecum," Hansen said. "We could use it as a way to show local kids that they can be proud not only that we grow the food for the world here, but we also grow World Champions here."
Hansen and the marketing department showed what they had to Jerry James, the Grizzlies' director of corporate sales, who also works with the team's community fund. That's when Farm Grown blossomed into what it is today -- a multi-pronged program that connects the team to its surroundings and involves it in local issues in a way that is perhaps unique among pro sports teams.
Through Farm Grown, the Grizzlies host in-depth discussions about topics pertinent to the agriculture industry (Farm Forums), engage area children in reading, healthy eating and baseball (Farm Grown Magazine), help young adults pursue educational and training opportunities (Farm Grown Scholarships), bring farmers and fans together during games (in-stadium farmers markets) and promote awareness of the agriculture industry through its Community Garden and new "Agriculture Zone" beyond the left-field fence.
"Jerry James took it leaps and bounds beyond what I ever imagine," Hansen said. "I had no idea that the ag community would embrace it, but Jerry took it and really grew Farm Grown into the network we have now. It's been really cool to see that, through the forums, we've become a hub for meetings about water rights and ag innovation and all kinds of ag issues."
James has an extensive background in regulatory permitting and has served as the planning director for neighboring Madera County, which netted him connections in the agriculture industry throughout the San Joaquin Valley.
"Immediately when I saw [the new Farm Grown graphic], I said, 'This is a lot bigger. This taps into the whole culture of the Central San Joaquin Valley.' They said, 'What do you think? What kind of ideas are you proposing?'" James recalled.
He didn't know exactly, but he was sure "it would fit perfectly with the ag community, who we do represent in the Valley," he said.
The program buds
James reached out to anybody connected to the agriculture industry who would listen, and he asked what they most wanted to see in a program that connected a Minor League Baseball team to the farming community that drives the local economy.
"When we talk about agriculture, we're talking about more than just the crops, more than the veggies and fruits or dairy," James said. "It's the infrastructure, the tractors, the plastic packaging the grapes go into, the whole package. It's a multibillion dollar industry that we never really looked to tap into.
"We were talking to everybody, from CEOs of major multimillion dollar companies, to small farmers, community leaders, people in government... Anybody who represents agriculture at any level, we were asking."
The Grizzlies heard a lot of answers, but most people were interested in three things -- making people aware of the importance of a strong, local agriculture industry, tying it to literacy and education for children and promoting awareness of farmers as environmental stewards.
"When you talk about people who care about the land, farmers do," James said. "It's how they make their living. They all want to practice green and take care of the land."
With those priorities, the team developed Farm Grown into the multifaceted outreach program it is today. Perhaps the most visible aspect of Farm Grown is Farm Grown Fridays. Every Friday home game features a farmers market, gardening demonstrations for families and agriculture displays around the ballpark. The players wear special Farm Grown uniforms.
"The farmers market was really cool, because we didn't charge any of the vendors," said Fresno media relations coordinator Ryan Young. "There wasn't a vendor fee at all, because we didn't want to take any percentage of the profits. That's another unique thing -- a lot of markets charge anywhere from $50-$500 to have a table."
The uniforms were a big hit too.
"The players ended up liking [the Farm Grown jerseys] better [than the standard home jerseys], so they started wearing them on Sundays or Tuesdays," Young said. "That's another example of -- you start this one thing, and people like it and it spreads and grows into something bigger.
"Of course, that might also be because those are newer jerseys and they breathe a little better."
Whatever the cause of the uniforms' popularity, the level of community engagement with Farm Grown has at this point outgrown everyone's expectations, even those of Jerry James.
"The program has just exploded to where we now have a Farm Grown Council made up of groups of stakeholders, major partners from CEOs of private ag businesses to farm bureau representatives to government representatives, people representing water, and then literacy and education people," James said. "They help us make up our minds about where we're going. 'OK, here's what we're going to focus on in the coming months.'
"The Center for Land-Based Learning asked us to partner with them. The Tulare County World Agriculture Expo was asking to use our name. Those are the elements and topics we talk about [with the Farm Grown Council] to help us stay on track and make sure we stay where we want to be."
He said the team was looking for a new, much larger place within or around the Grizzlies' Chukchansi Park for the next round of Farm Forum discussions and suggested that a solution may involve a circus-style tent.
"What we do is try to be very neutral on the forums. What we want is ag to have a voice, but we also bring in the other side. A perfect example is that we had one on high-speed rail, which is a very important topic around here," James said. "They're proposing to put in a new high-speed rail system that would cut through a lot of ag land. We have the side of ag that is not for that, and we have the [California] High Speed Rail Authority and people who are for the project. What we do is allow the platform."
If the Grizzlies adopt a laissez-faire attitude for such debates, though they take a decidedly more activist approach to issues upon which they have a direct impact.
"One thing I know we're going to be working with is the drought that's hit our area. It's already a huge issue and we're trying to feel our way through -- 'OK, how do we do our part?'" Young said, adding that the local ABC affiliate just did a story "on the fertilizer we use to turn the grass into a real green green.
"They knew we didn't want to use so much water but that we still had to keep our field in shape. Our groundskeeper showed off the product to them. We use it so that we don't have to water so much. We're trying to help conserve in all the areas we can."
But don't get the idea that the do-good nature of Farm Grown has led the Grizzlies to forsake their "fun guaranteed" attitude or the Minor League Baseball showmanship that comes with it. They're combining both approaches.
"There's a rock wall in right field, and it hasn't really been used in a long time," Young said, "so one thing we're talking about is putting a giant milk jug on top of it."
Josh Jackson is a contributor to MiLB.com.