The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted many Washtenaw County farmers to sell their wares online for the first time – and they've found high demand waiting for them.
That's according to Kelly Wilson, director of community partners for Michigan local food marketing agency Taste the Local Difference. Wilson also volunteers with Washtenaw County's Local Food Summit, which recently compiled a list of Washtenaw County farms offering online sales. She says many Washtenaw County farms rely heavily on local restaurants to buy their products, often at a higher price point, so COVID-19-related restaurant closures have hit farmers hard.
"Restaurants are either closed or their volume has decreased, so they're not buying as much," Wilson says. "So farms have had to pivot, and pivot during a time of year when they're usually planting and they already have their seasons planned out. So they've had to scrap and scramble a lot."
Wilson estimates that 80-90% of the 27 farms and markets on the Local Food Summit's list did not offer online sales prior to the pandemic. Some have experienced new challenges as a result of the pivot. Wilson notes that online sales platforms require extra expenditures and labor, and in some rural areas, limited broadband access can make them a challenge to manage.
However, the benefits have been significant. Wilson says many farms "have seen a huge increase in their sales" since bringing sales online. Due in part to supply chain issues and shortages affecting larger grocery stores, she says, "there's a lot of new people who are engaging with local food right now." As a result, many farms have already sold out of community supported agriculture (CSA) shares for the year; others have created a CSA for the first time or offered more shares than usual to meet demand.
One of Ann Arbor's most prominent local food suppliers, Argus Farm Stop, repurposed an online ordering platform it had previously reserved for restaurant clients. The business has seen huge success since opening the platform up to individual consumers.
"In one month, they've been able to pay out a quarter of a million dollars directly to producers, just as a result of that online ordering system," Wilson says. "And that's huge. Those are big numbers that are helping keep those businesses afloat right now."
The local food ecosystem is not immune to the supply-demand issues currently facing grocery stores. Wilson notes that many local farms have sold out of popular cuts of meat as news has spread about potential meat shortages caused by major producers shutting their plants down. But she hopes that the crisis will have the positive long-term effect of keeping more people engaged with their local food system.
"Most consumers are used to ordering online," Wilson says. "If we can provide them with a familiar tool to access a new product, it increases the likelihood that they'll stay around post-pandemic and still participate in that system."
For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.
Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate.
Photo courtesy of Taste the Local Difference.