UNL Extension to prep growers for COVID-19 fallout

The traditional business model of small-scale agriculture may undergo a drastic shift in the coming months.

While America circles the wagons to combat COVID-19, the threat of restaurant and farmers market closures looms heavily on spring and summer commerce for small-scale farmers and greenhouse growers. With so many unknowns about the upcoming produce marketplace, Extension experts are urging agriculturalists to begin looking into alternative means for selling their goods this year.

“There is a lot of concern about how this tragedy will affect farmers, but it may be an opportunity to discover new ways to get products to people,” said Ben McShane-Jewell, University of Nebraska-Lincoln assistant Extension educator in Blair, Nebraska. “A lot of farmers already do CSAs. That could be a model that works really well in this scenario — pick up a box and take it home.

“It’s going to be really tricky though, not everybody has the technology or is comfortable with technology.”

Copious meetings were underway last week as UNL Extension personnel strategized how to help farmers bridge this new supply-to-demand gap. And as always, the think-tank is delivering.

Extension is planning to host several web-based training seminars in the near future that will focus on selling ag products in the current climate of social distancing. McShane-Jewell said they’ll teach farmers and growers the basics of technology, social media, and how to market products online, plus training on proper food handling and best practices regarding spread of COVID-19.

“It’s going to take creativity and ingenuity to find customers,” McShane-Jewell said. “I would encourage people who are in a position to do so, to reach out to their peers, find out what other people are doing and the strategies that make sense (for them). And reach out to Extension, we are happy to help them navigate through this.”

Cass County’s UNL Extension educator, Katie Kreuser, said Extension is also trying to combat farmers market closures as the COVID-19 shutdown intensifies.

Extension personnel have been meeting with representatives of several other concerned organizations, such as the Nebraska Food Council, to strategize an intervention, she said. The current plan is to draft a letter to local health departments, farmers market managers, city mayors, and other key community leaders that will provide a basis for the continued operation of farmers markets in the state.

“We are really trying to get Nebraska to consider policies where farmers markets are considered essential businesses like grocery stores, so they remain open,” Kreuser said.

Kreuser added that with instituting sanitization measures and specific procedures to combat COVID-19 spread, farmers markets may be a better option than the average grocery store.

“We know that a local food chain may reduce the number of contact points of food, which reduces possible spread,” she said, adding that Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is an excellent sales platform for minimizing the amount of people who handle produce.   

Otoe County UNL Extension educator Rex Nelson added they’ve already witnessed a shift toward this sales strategy for spring and summer produce in Nebraska, with increased web traffic on online buying sites and interest in CSAs and direct buying options.

Fortunately, the Extension educators agreed that this is typically the slow time for small scale producers, who are just getting ready to begin planting, so financial losses due to COVID-19 closures have yet to be substantial.

Ryan Pekarek, owner of Pekarek’s Produce near Dwight, Nebraska, said his direct sales to local schools and UNL are on hold, and an order with Lone Tree Foods was canceled, but his sales to grocery stores have continued unimpeded.

Pekarek added that depending on how the COVID-19 situation progresses, he may begin selling produce at the farm earlier this year, but is withholding judgment on whether drastic measures to increase sales will be necessary.

“Right now, we’re just continuing doing what we would be doing this time of year anyway,” Pekarek said. “Our policy is to stay the course right now. We’re not making any big changes. We’re still two months away from really getting into going; a lot will change by then.”

McShane-Jewell said farmers who feel they need to adapt their 2020 growing season to buffer revenue losses due to COVID-19 have a few good options and tools at their disposal.

The first, he said, is adding greens and microgreens to their repertoire.

“Restaurants are buying a lot of that stuff,” he said. “It’s a great source of income for some of our growers — a higher end product with a premium price, and a crop that can be turned around and restarted in a couple weeks. It’s always in high demand. A pretty good market to get into.”

He added that farmers should also consider creating processed goods from their commodities, like sausage or salsa, so they can begin offering value-added products at higher price points.

Finally, use Extension as a lifeline, from how to grow a new crop to financial planning for your business. Stay tuned for announcements about UNL’s new online COVID-19 disaster training seminars, or visit https://extension.unl.edu/ and https://disaster.unl.edu/.

The Extension educators also offered advice to consumers who are interested in supporting local farmers by directly purchasing produce this year. Sites like https://www.barn2door.com/, https://www.harvie.farm/ and http://buylocalnebraska.org/ are popular places for both sides of the supply chain, but consumers can also find directories for local farmers and farmers markets through the U.S. Department of Agriculture database, https://www.ams.usda.gov/local-food-directories/onfarm, https://www.ams.usda.gov/local-food-directories/farmersmarkets.

McShane-Jewell also suggested performing a Google search for local growers as the best way to locate their individual social media pages.

“The consumer has to have that mentality of supporting local,” Kreuser encouraged, “not when it’s convenient or just one day a week — it’s a mentality that you need to live all the time for it to make a difference in the food system.

“This is a great time for homeowners to learn how to grow vegetables in their backyard, but at the same time, it’s a really great opportunity to support local producers.”

Katy Moore can be reached at katy.moore@lee.net.

A Kansas native, Katy is the daughter of a farmer and a cowgirl. She has been a professional journalist since 2008 and is the Editor of Midwest Messenger. She can be reached at katy.moore@lee.net.