SCRANTON, Iowa — Justin Robbins and his family had been selling beef straight from the farm for several years, including individual cuts for the last 18 months.
Business was good, he says, but that changed as the COVID-19 pandemic settled in nearly a year ago.
“It was really starting to get on its feet before the pandemic, but COVID put us in the hot seat and it hasn’t slowed down since,” Robbins says. “I woke up one morning at 2:30 and booked up locker space that night. That’s how we got through 2020. We booked all our 2021 dates in the spring of 2020, and we’re working into 2022.”
Robbins and his family run a cow-calf operation near here in Greene County, Iowa. He says all beef sold originates on their central Iowa farm.
“It’s all raised by us or has our genetics,” he says. “We’re involved from conception through consumption.”
Cattle are processed at a federally-inspected locker, allowing Robbins to ship beef all over the country.
“We are officially shipping from coast to coast,” he says.
During the initial stages of the pandemic, consumers were worried about being able to find many products, including food and particularly meat as most packing plants temporarily slowed or shut down processing as COVID-19 spread in facilities.
Many started looking locally for their food, says Joyce McGarry, a food safety specialist with Michigan State University.
“Having a food shortage was a big concern to consumers,” she says. “People wanted their own food supply because they felt it was more safe.”
Along with Ron Goldy and Bob Tritten, McGarry participated in a project to determine the importance of a local food supply to consumers. They had predicted that as many states went into a lockdown to slow the spread of the virus, people would look for food that was closer to home and could be prepared by the consumer.
As sales in restaurants dwindled, interest in things like meal and grocery delivery services skyrocketed. McGarry says in addition to utilizing those options, they began to look for products grown locally.
“People still needed to eat,” she says.
She says there has been a national shortage in quality canning materials as consumers grew gardens or bought produce at farmers markets.
“The buy local/home gardening/home food production and preserving interest was first seen in an increase in vegetable seed purchases and then how quickly garden centers and greenhouses sold out of vegetable transplants and feed stores sold out chicks and ducklings,” the report said.
The interest continued through the season with direct farm marketers seeing an increase of 30-50% over 2019, she says. This increase came through more customer visits and an increase in sales per customer.
“Direct farm marketers worked hard to quickly make significant and costly changes in their farms to keep customers distanced and safe,” McGarry says.
She says as the farmers market season begins, consumers should expect to continue to see more packaged items for sale. McGarry added the popularity of CSAs should also continue to grow.
Robbins says as demand grew for beef, he kept prices the same to help keep it affordable.
“We don’t want to gouge anyone and take advantage of any kind of shortage,” he says. “We sell a wholesome product at a fair price.”
The family runs 200 Angus cows on the farm, and after 75 head are shipped out west and 25 heifers are retained, that leaves around 100 head to feed for the beef business.
Robbins believes many consumer want to know the source of their food.
“People like knowing who we are and how these cattle were raised,” he says. “They know they are welcome to contact us any time with questions.
“I like to put myself out there, so people know we are not just an online store. It’s important to me to establish these relationships, and that our customers understand what we do on our farm.”