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Small Farms Adapt To Virus Restrictions With Social Media


Some Oregon small farmers are taking a technology-based direct approach to connect with consumers since social restrictions began limiting more traditional methods.

The virus pandemic has changed the way many of us buy food. Safe, local, and fresh are now high priorities for more people than ever. But fresh produce is highly perishable, and managing the time it takes to get that produce into the hands of consumers is a major challenge for small farms.

Farmers able to offer those qualities have always relied on farmer’s markets to reach their customers. But when Oregon Gov. Kate Brown ordered all non-essential Oregon businesses to immediately close on March 16th, local farmers had to adjust.

Faced with this sudden obstacle, farmers like Josh Cohen, owner of southern Oregon’s Barking Moon Farm, turned to technology. But this transition was not an easy one.

"I never really thought of the internet as a useful tool, and I’m not big into social media," Cohen says. "My social-media is the farmer’s market; that’s my community."

Barking Moon scheduled pickup appointments for specific 15-minute time-windows when Cohen and his staff could just hand the produce to his customers through the car window, and customers could be on their way. He also made sure that his staff was personal protective equipment like gloves and masks.

Other small farmers took a similar direct approach. One of those online tools is an existing Facebook community called Champion Club, where small farms can post what they have for sale, and arrange pick-up times for customers to take delivery.

Champion Club founder and farmer Rylan Guillen explained why this works in a socially-restricted world.

"People want to eat something that has been touched by fewer hands than at the grocery store or even a restaurant," he says. "The main hurdle to jump was how are we going to field those orders and make ourselves available to them."

Guillen says the closing of farmer’s markets caused many small farmers to seek new alternatives. Champion Club allows them to connect directly with customers.

"How I view markets -- the traditional way of selling produce -- is a beautiful way to connect with a whole host of people who are traditionally fond of what you do," he says. "What we’re doing is taking that momentum, put you on Facebook and make you available 24-hours a day."

Stuart O’Neill of Rogue Farm Corp, a training organization for small farmers and ranchers, says the temporary closure of farmer’s markets revealed a downside of an over-reliance on limited channels for distribution. That revelation has led him to favor a new future for small-farm distribution.

"I guess I’m in favor of any and all ways for small farms in particular to make connections to their customers and be successful," he says. "So my hope is that it is going to be more direct connections between consumers and farmers."

That future may well include more disruptions of farmer’s markets and traditional distributors. O’Neill believes the success of direct distribution is small farmers' best insurance against losing a market for their produce if that happens.

"What we’re really trying to change is moving more toward the local and regional food system where farmers are selling closer to home and more direct," he says. "That’s the type of food system that I think is going to lead to both feed and keep our communities healthy and strong, and withstand crisis like pandemics and climate change."

A more diverse distribution system that includes online sales is already proving its value for small farmers in Southern Oregon. Josh Cohen from Barking Moon sells memberships online for community supported agriculture produce boxes; also known as CSA. These boxes are a mainstay of many small farms.

"Our main-season CSA stuff, I have limits on membership numbers and we’ve all but maxed out at this point, and it’s hard for me but I will have to turn people away,” he says.

Even though the farmer’s markets have now reopened, Cohen will continue to embrace this marriage of old and new worlds.

"Post safety protocols, I am continuing to do these food-circle meet-ups for those folks who aren’t comfortable heading out to the farmer’s market yet," he says. " I’m going to keep to those alternative marketing channels; I really wonder if I would continue farming if I didn’t have that."

But there also continues to be tremendous support in the farming community for farmers markets. Gail Feenstra of the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Education and Research Program says one of the reasons for this support is, “people like the social interaction, and the farmers do too.”

And, as Stuart O’Neill explains, “I’m not sure how (farmers) would develop a following in order to build that pick-up spot if you didn’t have an entity like the farmers markets to work through initially.”

Until consumers get comfortable again with visiting farmer’s markets, it remains to be seen whether or not most will still want to deal directly with farmers after social restrictions are lifted.

But many small farmers, now that they've had a taste of technology-based marketing, say these new tools for connecting to customers have become a permanent part of small-farming’s future.