Back to local

Crisis pushes people toward local food systems

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empty shelves in egg section
A nearly empty egg section in a Walmart, March 24, in Chippewa, Pennsylvania. Many people are going back to local food sources after seeing scarcity at chain grocery stores. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

People started going to Plum Creek Farm for ground beef after grocery stores were sold out a couple weeks ago.

“I sold out of what I had, and luckily, I had two more going to the butcher already,” said Amie Sprinkle, who runs the farm in Valley City, Ohio, with her husband, Don. They sell beef, pork and poultry from the farm by appointment.

In the past few weeks, they’ve had their regular customers, but also some new faces stopping in, Sprinkle said.

“There’s definitely people realizing that it’s nice to have a farm you can rely on and being closer to the supply chain,” she said.

The Sprinkles aren’t the only ones seeing a surge in business. The COVID-19 crisis seems to be pushing people away from grocery stores chains and back to local food sources, like farmers markets and farms that directly market their goods.

Some have seen an explosion in sales and interest in the last three weeks.

“It’s gone through the roof,” said Mary Jane Brunton, of Brunton Dairy. “March 16 — that Monday, the phone kept ringing.”

The Bruntons bottle their own milk at their 100-cow dairy, in Independence Township, Pennsylvania, and sell it in mostly glass half-gallon bottles at an on-farm store and through home delivery. Local stores throughout the area also carry their milk.

Existing customers were calling to ask if they were still open, wanting to stock up, Brunton said, and new customers wanted to know if they had milk, after finding shelves at Walmart empty.

 

For others, like Kevin Caldwell, of Broadrun Farms, it hasn’t been that drastic, but the increase in inquiries at his farm has been noticeable.

Caldwell sells grassfed beef at his farm, in North Sewickley Township, Pennsylvania. He said business usually picks up in the spring, after people get tax refund money and want to buy in bulk. But something different has been going on the last couple weeks.

People coming to their on-farm store have mentioned they want to feel more secure in their food supply.

“I don’t know if it will stick, or if six months down the road people will hold on to that. But, right now, it’s on people’s minds,” Caldwell said.

Something’s happening here

So, why are people changing their buying habits in the midst of a crisis? It could be seeing empty shelves in Walmart made them lose faith in the supply chain.

“When you go to the grocery store and see the chaos that’s going on, empty meat cases in a store that always has food,” said Brian Moyer, an educational program associate with Pennsylvania State University Extension. “There’s a fear of food insecurity after that.”

Moyer’s work focuses on direct-to-consumer sales, particularly farmers’ markets and on-farm markets and runs a website — pafarm.com — to support those businesses.

Not that there is a shortage of food, yet. The empty shelves were due to people panic buying more than they needed. Big box stores may have everything you need, but the supply chain to get things there is long. The product is coming down the line, but it takes time to restock.

The short supply chain for local businesses makes people feel more secure. It’s not foolproof. If a farmer that supplies his own market gets sick with COVID-19, there will be problems. But the longer the chain, the more that can go wrong along the way.

Some people may feel safer shopping at a farmers market or an on-farm market as opposed to a crowded grocery store, said Claudia Schmidt, assistant professor of marketing and local/regional food systems with Penn State University.

Consumers may want to help local businesses as much as they can, knowing that the crisis is hitting small businesses hard, she said. At the same time, social media advertisement of local markets has increased across all platforms, putting those local businesses at the forefront of people’s minds.

Come together

Dave King, of Harvest Valley Farms, in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, said he adjusted his planting schedule since the pandemic hit. He’s planting more to meet the increased demand for fresh produce and for seedlings.

“We have our dedicated customers, but I’m seeing a lot more new people that weren’t connected to the local food before, King said. “This pandemic kind of woke them up.”

King runs a diversified vegetable farm with his father and uncle. They have a CSA, sell produce at farmers markets and have a market and bakery store near the farm. King said they kept the store open for a while after the crisis began, but they decided to close it on March 30.

“It wasn’t about customers,” he said. “It was mainly about employees. We have older employees, and because we’re a family business, we’re all in this together … We needed to come up with a safer way to get food to people.”

What they’ve done instead is create “essential boxes” filled with local goods from the market: baked goods, eggs, milk, meats and produce. The box is $100 and can be picked up at the front of the store at certain days and times.

They sold out shortly after announcing the first round of boxes on social media. King said they’ll keep providing the boxes for as long as they can manage it. That’s the benefit of a small farm market. They can adjust on the fly and do things that keep both employees and customers safe.

 

Grow your own way

The crisis has even been inspiring some people to produce their own food. And the timing is right. People are stuck at home at the start of the spring planting and hatching season.

King is anticipating more people buying seedlings from his farm to put in their own vegetable gardens. Moyer said he’s heard the same thing about home gardens and backyard chickens.

“What source of food is more secure than what’s in your own backyard,” King said.

Meyer Hatchery, in Polk, Ohio, sold out of started pullets and has been selling out of chicks much faster than usual in the spring, said Meghan Howard, website manager for the hatchery. Many customers are saying the same thing, that they want to be more sustainable.

“While spring is always our busiest season, we are definitely seeing an unprecedented volume of sales and traffic — for our retail store, website and call center,” Howard said.

This phenomenon spurred a Purdue University animal sciences professor to warn people against “panic buying” chicks during the pandemic. Marisa Erasmus said people need to consider the shelter, feed and health needs of grown chickens and not jump blindly into it because they are concerned about food supply.

Besides that, chickens take five to six months before they mature enough to lay eggs.

Money for nothing

It’s not all been roses. While there’s been an increase in retail sales, some farms lost major restaurant customers. Some have had trouble keeping up with inventory.

All of these essential businesses also have to worry about keeping their workers and family members safe while they continue to provide a needed service.

To heed public health recommendations, many places have changed the way they operate, hurrying to figure out online sales systems. Some are packaging up orders for curbside, drive-through pickup or delivery, or shipping orders directly to people’s homes.

These changes have led to higher expenses, for additional packaging and fees for online technology, but they’ve also made these farm businesses more convenient and accessible.

It may make some of these newbies turn into regular customers beyond the pandemic.

“There’s going to be a percentage of folks who will stick with this — people who never had a CSA membership or went to a farmers market — because we’ve been forced to build in some convenience,” Moyer said.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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