How the pandemic taught farmers to love online sales

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“The losses were devastating,” DiMare recalled in an interview. “It takes money to harvest the crop, and nobody was in position to really take the glut that was left. Not only from our company, but the industry and others around the country. They had no outlet.”

DiMare wasn’t alone. The Florida Tomato Committee estimates there were 40 million pounds of unsold tomatoes between mid-March and mid-April 2020, about 42 percent of the crop that usually ships in that time period. Unsold tomatoes were either plowed under, dumped or donated. Total losses were estimated to be $48 million.

And it wasn’t just tomatoes. Producers of fruit and vegetables, including potatoes and onions, began reporting record waste of crops around the country. Dairy farms reported the same. The U.S. Department of Agriculture did not track much of that waste, but they did track dairy losses, which skyrocketed as more than 780 million pounds of milk was literally poured down drains.

The farmers who grow America’s fresh food face special challenges during times of emergency. Factories that manufacture household items or even shelf-stable food can mothball an assembly line and hold the excess in storage, but farmers can’t just delay a harvest or ask cows to take a pause in milk production. Produce and milk is by definition perishable, which means it needs to be harvested and brought to market when it’s ready.

That meant the pandemic was a different kind of emergency for many American farmers. Florida’s usual disasters are hurricanes and tropical storms, which means farmers typically have a few days warning that they can use to protect or harvest crops and get them distributed. There is also crop insurance specifically designed to compensate for losses from a storm or other natural disaster.

But Covid caused disruptions for months up and down the supply chain, from field hands who fell ill from the coronavirus, to packing plants that were shuttered, to restaurants and schools that closed their doors. All that meant many farmers, particularly those like DiMare who primarily served the wholesale market, had nowhere to send their fresh food when it was ready.

“Florida is used to disasters,” said Alan Brock, rural affairs director at the Florida Agriculture Department. “This was the one thing about Covid — our crops were still in the field. We weren’t able to harvest them and ship them. This was a unique challenge we hadn’t conceived prior to this.”

That’s why producers and state officials across the country are now working on new ideas for weathering future crises without suffering such massive food losses again.

For many states, including Florida and Maine, the solution involves building and expanding secondary food distribution chains that can connect producers more directly to customers. This is particularly important for farmers whose food is aimed primarily at the food service industry; when those larger, national networks are disrupted, farmers like DiMare need to be able to find more customers closer to home.

What this means is that even in large agricultural states with a focus on serving the national market, officials are now working on ways to start thinking local.

Eating local has been trendy in recent years; in 2018, a Gallup poll found that nearly 75 percent of Americans said they were actively trying to include locally grown foods in their diets, with the biggest focus on vegetables, fruits and chicken.

But during Covid, for many, finding local food became a necessity. Stephanie McClung, external affairs director at the Florida Agriculture Department, said that at the start of the pandemic, the department was flooded with calls from producers like DiMare, so the department decided to focus on finding agencies and other food service customers in Florida that normally purchase food from out of state and get them to buy local instead.

The result was Florida Farm to You, a website where over 550 producers uploaded their profiles, complete with the produce and products that they offered, expiration dates and location. McClung said the Florida Department of Corrections, nursing homes and schools and daycares that stayed open were among the buyers who began purchasing bulk fresh Florida produce through the site.

“There was more realization around the state of how much we weren’t using our fresh and Florida products, so I think individuals wanted to buy local more,” McClung said. “We wanted to make it more of an online farmers market.”

The pandemic forced dairy producers to literally pour milk down the drain

SHARE OF MILK AND MILK PRODUCTS, IN POUNDS, DUMPED OR LOST

To make the system work, individuals who had refrigerated trucks or other ways to transport produce donated their equipment and time to get the produce to the purchasers. The website also helped producers find ways to pivot from their usual bulk packaging to individually sized retail packaging.

Although the emergency has since passed, McClung said the website is still providing a useful tool for both producers and consumers.

“We were able to be the go-between in a lot of cases. Which is why we saw a need for the site to continue,” McClung said.

One beneficiary was William Johnson, who helps run his family’s small fruit and egg farm in Miami. When the pandemic hit and avocado prices dropped, Johnson estimates he lost 30 percent of his avocados that went to waste and fertilizer use.

He said Florida Farm to You program helped the operation increase its sales and helped him find a new customer that continues to buy bulk produce.

“It was tough on us from a cost perspective. But from a sales perspective, we did sell more than we did before the pandemic,” Johnson said, adding that the visibility of his Florida Farm to You profile played a role in getting more attention from individual customers.

“It honestly surprised me how many people found us through that portal,” he said.

At the start of the pandemic, the state of Maine already had a leg up with its own local food distribution website, Real Maine.” Similar to Florida Farm to You, it’s built around an interactive map that connects local residents with local food in a state where nearly 90 percent of food produced is exported across the country.

During 2020, the site’s traffic increased by 71 percent over 2019 and so far in 2021, is up an additional 7.6 percent, according to Maine’s Agriculture Department. And just like in Florida, the state Corrections Department and others began using the site to make new bulk purchases of in-state produce.

But agriculture officials found that the website wasn’t enough to help some local producers, who had trouble pivoting to direct-to-consumer sales and needed help with things like setting up credit card payment systems or equipment to pack and ship to individual buyers. So the state began providing grants to help with those transition costs.

“What we saw (during the pandemic) was a natural turn to local farmers and producers. And customers went to great lengths to reach out to farmers and to find other ways to purchase food that they were looking for,” said Maine Agriculture Commissioner Amanda Beal.

Beal sees the move paying dividends for Maine in the future. “Maine is at the end of the line for trucking routes,” she said. “If there ever was market disruption [again], we want to be in a better position for resilience and food supply for our own benefit.”

One producer to take advantage of these programs was Amber Lambke, founder and CEO of Maine Grains located in the small town of Skowhegan, Me.

“Right around the end of March, we lost our biggest customer that was a chain restaurant in urban areas in the same week that flour ran out in grocery stores across the country,” Lambke said. “And our online sales went berserk.”

Prior to the pandemic, Maine Grains used to do a couple dozen orders a week online, usually for special products. In April 2020 they averaged 180 orders a day — causing them to be about 3,000 orders deep at one point. Overall, the business grew by 35 percent in 2020.

“It has meant a whole new exposure to customers that discovered our product through that period and were thrilled. And the feedback we were getting was heartwarming,” Lambke said. “We got pictures in the email of people hugging their packages of grains when they arrived, pictures of what everyone was home making, and realizing you could see just how much stress people were under and nervous about running out of food.”

Though sales have largely gone back to a focus on bulk supply, online sales remain at a much higher level than before the pandemic. Lambke said she is using a state grant to purchase equipment that increases their ability to package retail-sized bags and is broadening a product line for home cooks. They even hired an in-house baker to help develop products for their retail shop.

“Even on the wholesale side, people are thankful to regional producers and thankful we exist,” Lambke said. “We have seen a loyalty and an interest that has come out of Covid that the infrastructure of a local food system is fragile and it’s really important because it ensures self reliance.”

The experience is shared by Christa Bahner of Bahner Farm, a small, organic vegetable farm that typically sells in farmers markets, natural food stores and small restaurants. During the pandemic, they opened a to-go window to serve drive-up customers as well as online sales.

“I think people in general were looking for places to go that were not a store,” Bahner said. “We had people come up to our front window and our farm stand sales tripled from 2019 to 2020. Which is bonkers.”

Bahner used some of the state’s support programs to help cover credit card fees, which was a new expense for a business that previously worked mostly in cash. Bahner said she feels more confident, now, that her business is well positioned to weather future emergencies.

“We know we can do it, hopefully it wouldn’t be so scary. We have a nice three-legged stool of sales,” Bahner said. “We have the farmers market, the farm stand and the wholesale. And if one of those things got kicked out from under us, we still have two strong legs.”



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