With an increased demand for local food as shoppers avoid the potential perils of large supermarkets, communities around the state are finding new ways to connect local farmers with their customers.
Modified farmers markets, online shopping and community supported agriculture have emerged as some of the methods farmers are using to sell their products amid COVID-19 restrictions.
“The reality is, we have amazing farmers in Indiana that are creative, innovative, that are going to figure out how to do this,” said Tamara Benjamin, assistant program leader for Purdue University Extension in diversified farming and food systems. “We just need to understand what the playing field looks like. What should it look like so that everyone stays safe? And how can we make sure the food that’s here in Indiana, that’s incredibly safe, that’s incredibly good, how do we get it directly to the consumer that is demanding it?”
Benjamin has been helping farmers adapt to the new COVID-19 rules by getting their products to market and starting online sales. She and her team have produced several helpful articles on how farmers can make the process work for them, from social media tips to setting up a vendor page.
Indiana has more than 194 farmers markets across the state, with at least one in every county, making them an important part of the local food supply chain.
Under COVID-19 restrictions, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb identified farmers markets as an essential service. That means they can continue to operate, but they’re going to look a little different than usual.
“We knew we needed to change what the idea of a farmers market is, because most of the time, farmers markets were created as a way to meet people, interact and learn who your farmer was that was producing the food,” Benjamin said. “We realized we needed to change that idea because we have to do social distancing now, so we had to find ways that people could still interact, but in a way that was safe for everyone.”
Many other organizations across the state, such as local food councils, have also been helping farmers and consumers find each other.
“Statewide, we’re thinking about how to get more of these farmers markets and farmers who normally sell at farmers markets into a virtual farmers market setting,” said Jodee Ellett, the community engagement leader for Indiana University’s Sustainable Food Systems Science. “That would be a big change for them, and that is something food councils can support.”
In the past two weeks, Market Wagon, an online farmers market that allows customers to enter their zip codes and shop at farms located close by, has added hundreds of customers and doubled its sales.
Benjamin said she recently heard from a farmer whose business previously relied on large restaurant orders and farmers market sales. His business has more than doubled through online sales.
“So, they’re not hurting,” Ellett said. “We have supply and we have a demand; we just have to link them up,” she said.
In fact, many farmers are trying to meet the increase in demand.
“All of a sudden, consumers who may have participated in local in the past or have a hard time getting things at the grocery store are finding local food marketplaces to buy more food,” Ellett said. “Farmers are trying, even though a lot of their planting was done in January, some of them are doubling back and planting more so they can respond to an uptick in demand.”
Many Hoosier farmers already participate in community supported agriculture, or CSA. Members pay a fee and are then guaranteed a weekly box of vegetables from either an individual farmer or a group of producers.
Each CSA is unique and offers different pay structures and options. An added benefit is being able to speak with the producer directly, to either express concern or appreciation.
Grant Pershing, the owner and manager of Blue Hour Farm in Bloomington, said more than 50% of his sales are through a CSA. Those sales grew further last year when the Bloomington farmers market was disrupted by protests over stall owners who were alleged to be white supremacists.
A few of Pershing’s customers have reached out to him about the current situation and are nervous about having access to safe food, whether it be local or not.
“Many fear food distribution shutting down and how they could access food without having human contact,” he said.
THE BENEFITS OF BUYING LOCAL
Larry Howard, chief of earthworm choreography at Maple Valley Farm in Bloomington and managing partner at Harvest Partners LP, said his customers are grateful for the partnership.
“Several people have written or mentioned in person while picking up their eggs that their freezers are still stocked well with meat and they are avoiding the buying frenzy,” he said.
Producers are being more nimble and offering a variety of different ordering and delivery options. There are several ways to find local farmers either through internet searches, local farmers market pages or Indiana Grown, which also maintains a list.
Also, many farmers markets will be open and offering drive through options. Customers place orders online through the market website and pick up their items at a location set up by the market.
Both Howard and Pershing will be participating in drive through farmers markets this year in Bloomington.
“You as a consumer have to be a little more agile and flexible and start seeking out those farmers, because they are going to be up to their ears producing soon, and they are going to need all of us as consumers to help them out,” Benjamin said.
Beside the environmental benefits of buying locally produced food, including a reduced carbon footprint and fewer packaging materials, varieties of food that aren't made for shipping long distance are more nutritiously dense. That’s also good for the local economy, which will be important in the coming months.
“Thinking about how you want your community to look has a lot to do with your choice in buying local,” Ellett said. “If you are interested in a vibrant local economy, you may be interested in supporting your local farm and those local businesses who are buying local from each other.”
Ellett said the consumer response to COVID-19 points to the vulnerability of the food supply chain in crisis situations, and the importance of valuing and buying local.
“I hope the current situation will make people see how fragile the industrial food system can be and how we need a more resilient locally based food system,” he said. “ A locally based food system is important all the time if we wish to do what’s best for our health, economy, animal welfare, environment, community, fellowship and so on. I hope the current situation will remind people of that.”