COVID convinced farmers to sell directly to consumers, something they say they’ll keep doing

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Patrick Cooley

The Columbus Dispatch
Cindy Zaino checks a peach at Branstool Orchards in Utica. The orchard is preparing to open to the public on Saturday and offers customers the opportunity to pick their own peaches.

County Line Meats lost a large portion of its customer base when Ohio temporarily shuttered most restaurants in mid-March last year. Then it faced lingering uncertainty as the hospitality industry navigated pandemic-related restrictions and patrons stayed home.

The Ashville farm sold most of its beef to restaurants prior to the pandemic. When business plummeted, owner Mike Videkovich adopted a new strategy: selling beef directly to consumers.

The farm long has sold freezer beef processed to the specifications of individual customers, but sold such products by word of mouth, never advertising or marketing the service.

“When the pandemic hit and things shut down at the big packer plants, we started getting a lot more phone calls,” Videkovich said. “That’s when we decided we were going to push this.”

Direct marketing simmered within Ohio’s agriculture industry for years prior to COVID, spreading slowly through the farming community.

“It’s been growing for years,” Rob Leeds, the area leader for the Delaware County Ohio State University Extension office, said of direct sales.

But the pandemic fully ignited the trend when it reached Ohio more than a year and a half ago, as growers and animal farmers looked for new ways to sell their meat and produce.

“That’s definitely something that has spiked since COVID hit, and it really helped,” said Melinda Lee, director of the Franklin County Farm Bureau. “It helped them find new customers and really expanded their business.”

Now many farmers who resorted to direct sales to keep their fruits and vegetables from spoiling say they’ll continue to sell straight to consumers to keep an added revenue stream flowing.

Pandemic’s effect on farms

All things considered, the pandemic could have been much worse on agriculture. When pandemic-related assistance is factored in, net farm income in the United States actually rose from roughly $82 billion in 2019 to more than $104 billion in 2020, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. The agency projects net farm incomes to fall but remain largely stable in 2021.

Fortuitous circumstances benefited large-scale farmers who raise crops for hog feed. A rapidly spreading bovine virus nearly wiped out pig farming operations in China and forced Chinese farmers to seek untainted corn from other countries to feed its pigs.

“They had to buy a lot of corn, and who has a lot of corn?” said Sankalp Sharma, a professor of agribusiness at the Kent State University campus in Tuscarawas County. “The United States of America.”

But for small operators who sell specialty vegetables that Americans are likely to see on their dinner plates, overseas sales weren’t an option, Sharma said. Those vegetables spoil faster and need to find buyers quickly.

Small-time farmers instead found revenue coming straight from the wallets of hungry consumers.

Direct marketing isn’t limited to specific crops or meats, Leeds said. The shift has more to do with age.

“When they bring in the younger generation, the younger generation is more social media savvy, and they’re the ones that may take an operation in a different direction,” Leeds said.

Direct selling, however, is easier for growers producing specialty crops, Sharma said.

“A farmer with 1,000 acres producing soybean or corn, they are not selling directly to customers,” Sharma said. “That crop has to be packaged in a certain way and cleaned in a certain way.”

The extraneous work makes direct marketing untenable for the biggest farming operations, he said.

Bob Jones is the kind of farmer most impacted by the pandemic and the most likely to lift his proceeds through direct sales. He owns Chef’s Garden in Huron, which sells produce such as squash, peas, carrots and leafy greens to restaurants.

When the first cases of COVID were diagnosed in Ohio in the spring of 2020 and most non-essential businesses shuttered for several weeks, sales at Chef’s Garden fell 80%.

“Everything came to a grinding halt,” Jones said.

Desperate for another revenue source, the farm set up a website and began selling vegetable boxes. Foodies eager for quality produce for home-cooked meals ordered the boxes in droves.

The shift took some adjustment because restaurants and individuals are interested in different types of produce. Restaurants, for example, order microgreens, whereas individual consumers do not, Jones said. When the kinks were ironed out, the boxes provided a needed revenue stream, and the northern Ohio farmer intends to continue selling them.

“We are blessed to have come out of the pandemic stronger than we were before,” he said.

Farmers see higher profit margins on direct sales, said Christie Welch, an agricultural marketing specialist for the Ohio State University South Centers in Piketon.

“The producer gets the retail price as opposed to the wholesale price,” she said.

But a trade-off exists, Welch said. Direct marketing requires much more effort on the part of the farmer. Rather than preparing one big shipment of produce for a single customer, farmers must prepare numerous individual shipments for a multitude of customers.

“If you were going to deliver a semi load of pumpkins to a retailer, you load the pumpkins, and then they get them unloaded and you’re done,” Welch said. “If you’re selling to individual customers, you have to take the order, get the order paid for, pack the order and figure out how it’s going to be delivered.”

“You really have to balance resources and figure out what is going to work for you,” she added.

For agritourism outfits already selling produce directly to customers, 2020 was a banner year. Branstool Orchards in Utica, for example, lets customers pick their own fruits.

Branstool Orchards in Utica increased the activities it made available to the public during the pandemic.

“We had a great year, probably our best year ever,” Branstool Orchards General Manager Cindy Zaino said.

The spring and summer were especially lucrative for the agritourism industry. Families were mostly confined to their homes as restaurants and retail stores shuttered or went to limited service, and pick-your-own-fruit orchards were one of the few family-friendly destinations available. The farmers who operate them were happy to oblige parents trying to keep young children occupied.

“By far we had more new customers than old,” Zaino said. “People were desperately searching for things to do and the normal distractions of life were gone.”

Cindy Zaino, left, shows Eithon Holland, 17, around the Branstool Orchards Market as he gets oriented to work at the market for the summer in Utica. Branstool has seen a large increase in customers during the pandemic.

pcooley@dispatch.com

@PatrickACooley

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