With legions of restaurants and bars closed or operating in a very limited capacity, demand for wholesale ingredients from local farmers has plummeted. For this reason (and others related to processing, shipping, and logistics), farmers in Minnesota and beyond are struggling to find markets for their products, many of which come from livestock and seeds purchased long before the term “coronavirus” became standard vocabulary.
People who work in agriculture aren’t the only ones experiencing shifts related to food right now either. The restriction of restaurant dine-in options is immediate and obvious to consumers, but grocery shopping has also changed—and not just because there are now masked figures in every aisle. Meat prices are fluctuating due to virus outbreaks in meatpacking plants, oversupply and restricted access to processing facilities, and in the time leading up to statewide quarantine and the first weeks of shutdown, many Minnesota grocery shoppers encountered shelves that had been picked clean. No one knew what was coming and people were preparing for the worst.
The result was a situation where farmers had livestock and produce they couldn’t sell, while consumers encountered shortages due to convoluted, COVID-induced disruptions in the food supply chain. In the beef category alone, Information Resources reports that U.S. demand increased by 92% in late March, and yet the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association estimates industry losses due to the pandemic will reach $13.6 billion. While grocery store shelves aren’t as barren now as in the early days of quarantine, a continued disconnect between supply and demand—where demand varies greatly among markets like grocery stores, restaurants, hospitals, and schools—is fueling considerable interest in farm-to-consumer sales throughout Minnesota. This phenomenon, part necessity and part intentional, community-minded purchasing, comes at a time when many people have more opportunity to experiment with gastronomic ventures like cooking new recipes, preserving fruits and vegetables, and butchering whole hogs.
On May 5, Sazzy Calhoun, an East Bethel, Minnesota resident who grew up in a northern Wisconsin farming town, created a Facebook group called Farm Direct Minnesota. She thought she might be able to help bridge the gap between farmers struggling to sell and consumers struggling to buy, locally. “I just put it out there and said, ‘I started this group, I am its member.’” laughs Calhoun, who has made a name for herself in the film industry as an actor, director, and crew member.
Fast-forward two months and Farm Direct Minnesota is headed toward 47,000 members. The group features posts about local hog butchering classes, DIY butchering via YouTube tutorials (whether advisable or not), and a comment thread reading: “Bought 2 hogs ready to butcher for $90. Daughter learned how to butcher in my front yard!” with a reply below it, “Same except our kids learned in the dining room [face with tears of joy emoji].”
Regardless of where (or if) your daughters learn to break down a whole hog, conversations about butchering livestock are only an indication of Farm Direct Minnesota’s success, not its sole purpose. According to its description, the group is for “connecting farmers direct to customers.” Calhoun holds that if the page “helped one person get rid of something so that they put food on their table, and it also helped [an]other person put food on their table” her efforts will have been worth it. As it stands, Farm Direct Minnesota is facilitating much more than a singular meaningful transaction.
Scrolling through posts on the page, you’ll see everything from eggs, to meat, to berries, potatoes, goats milk soap, and alpaca fiber for sale. An interested consumer can apply filters for their desired product, geographic area, or any number of other “topics” that posts have been sorted into by their creators. When shoppers find an offering they’re keen on, they comment, or perhaps head straight to a producer’s direct messages, with questions about things like weight, feed specifics (in the case of meat), price, and pick-up location. From there final arrangements are made for payment, and the exchange of goods for (or via electronic) currency. Assuming both parties are pleased with details and logistics, the consumer retrieves their prize for feasting, freezing, preserving, or continued processing as necessary.
A diversity of offerings, the ability to find things your neighbors might be selling, and oft-competitive prices, have brought shoppers to the page in droves. For the farmers advertising there, this means new potential customers, and perhaps, staggering sales.
Calhoun recalls messaging a farmer who was selling hogs, just to see how things were going. When the farmer wrote back that she’d moved 1,600 hogs, Calhoun thought maybe that was a typo, but as the conversation continued it was clear: 1,600 hogs had been sold in just a few days, and the farmer attributed many of those sales to posting on Farm Direct Minnesota.
Hogs aren’t the only hot commodity on this Facebook page either. A farmer recently selling 1,000 turkeys is memorable to Calhoun as well. “I sent him a message and I said, ‘Let me know how many [turkey sales] come from this site.’” A week later, the turkey farmer wrote that he was taking his post down. He’d sold out, and by his estimate 450 of those sales were through Farm Direct Minnesota.
For most small farms, the idea of selling 1,600 hogs or 1,000 turkeys directly to consumers is both wonderful and absurd, but Farm Direct Minnesota hasn’t exclusively cornered the direct sales market. Dayle Reinke and her family own Cloverleaf Grass Farm near Wadena, Minnesota, and have been selling their sustainably raised, grass-fed meats straight to customers for years. When the family began using regenerative farming practices and marketing directly around 2011, Reinke says they had “a fair amount of scoffers.” Lately, though, things have changed.
“We rebuilt a couple of years ago […] and this year we’ve had people asking us, ‘Okay, how much did that cost, what does that look like, can we come see it, this looks like it works.’” Reinke attributes this sudden interest to a simple, and compelling, revelation: “They found out that we’re out of meat.”
Sales have been outstanding at Cloverleaf Grass Farm since things with COVID-19 got serious. “It really went crazy. We had just processed the last of our winter pigs in March, and we had intended on having those products through the Fourth of July, that’s what we’ve done in the past […] and our pork, our sausages, our roasts? They were all sold out by early May.”
The Reinkes, who’ve been in the farm-to-consumer space for years, are seeing remarkable demand, as are farmers trying out the direct approach on Farm Direct Minnesota. Anna Richardson, program director at Falcon Heights-based “food hub” The Good Acre, says their organization has had similar experiences recently. The Good Acre, which works with a culturally diverse array of local farmers and makes fresh, healthy food available to diverse populations in and around the Twin Cities, runs a CSA share program, among other ventures.
“We had higher demand earlier in the spring this year than we’ve had the past two years. Sales were coming in pretty slowly through February, but as soon as we were quarantined we saw a huge demand from individuals for local produce. We’ve heard the same story from most of our farm partners who operate CSAs. Many have added more shares than they were planning on selling, and most sold out far earlier in the spring than usual,” reports Richardson.
CSA shares, a way to purchase a share of rotating seasonal produce from a farm for an entire season, are a form of direct-to-consumer agriculture that has gained popularity in recent years. Dayle Reinke says that, in talking about her grass-fed meats and the value of knowing where your food comes from, she mentioned CSAs to a woman concerned that if the pandemic further compromised our food systems, she would find herself in a food desert. “I mentioned a CSA, and she’s like, ‘What is a CSA?’ So I was able to explain that to her, and the next day she enrolled in a CSA and started getting her veggies.”
It’s these sorts of interactions—the sharing of both nourishment and information—that make direct-to-consumer farming so satisfying for the Reinkes and keep a page like Farm Direct Minnesota feeling vibrant, relevant, and neighborly. Richardson sees it in her work at The Good Acre too. “I do think consumers continue to show an interest in and demand for local products, partly in response to learning more about the flawed food supply chains we have in the U.S., and partly in an effort to support their own communities. We’re hopeful that consumers have learned a lot about where their food comes from over the past four months and that their new local-food purchasing behaviors will stick.”