Local farmers started selling online during the pandemic. This trend is here to stay

When the pandemic first hit, Maureen Schletzbaum had to find a way to sell her products while avoiding human contact. Normally, she had set up a stall at two different farmers’ markets near Pleasantville, Iowa, where she and her daughter operate Straw Hat Farms.

But as COVID-19 continued to spread, Schletzbaum chose to go online. She listed the produce she had available — peppers, potatoes, flowers — on her website. And the orders are pouring in.

Supplied by Straw Hat Farms

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“There was no contact for people to order and pay,” she said. “And then we would just drop it off at their doorstep.”

Schletzbaum was one of many local food producers who turned to e-commerce during the pandemic. And she, like many others, has no intention of stopping.

This is part of a larger trend for both producers and consumers to shop online. The pandemic has acted as a catalyst, pushing farmers and growers online out of sheer necessity. It has also provided a great opportunity for online platforms, including Market Wagon, which allows farmers to sell directly to consumers.

Founder and CEO Nick Carter Carter said that while Market Wagon has been around for about a decade, it has grown significantly over the past two years, especially in the Midwest. But he said the shift to buying and selling food online was inevitable.

“Everyone was going to embrace e-commerce grocery at some point, it was just going to take time,” he said. “Consumer habits are changing slowly. COVID just forced that.

And for many farmers, selling food online is easier than selling it at a farmers’ market.

“You don’t know how many products you have to take and you have to load it all up the night before and get there and get settled and all that stuff,” Schletzbaum said. “So that’s a big advantage.”

But e-commerce is more of a tool in a farmer’s toolbox than a replacement for the traditional farmer’s market, says Margaret Milligan, Buy Fresh program coordinator, Buy Local Nebraska. The organization represents a few different farmers’ markets across Nebraska, none of which have seen a decline in vendor numbers since e-commerce began to pick up steam.

While e-commerce is easier in some ways, she said, “online sales can also take longer to find and market to customers. There’s also packaging, shipping, and transportation to consider when selling online.

The more direct-to-consumer opportunities, the better, Milligan said. After all, the supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic have sparked renewed interest in local foods in general over the past couple of years.

“I think people just wanted to be more connected with who’s growing their food,” she said.

While Schletzbaum, the Iowa farmer, plans to continue selling online, she still frequents one of her local farmers markets.

“We are a small community of around 500 people, so we want to support the community by participating in this market,” she said.

Online sales could attract a new group of customers, according to Carter, CEO of Market Wagon. He said their data shows the platform is reaching people who don’t frequent farmers’ markets.

“Rather than thinking that farmers are abandoning the farmers’ market or burning out, what they’re doing is actually going beyond it,” he said.

Follow Dana on Twitter @DanaHCronin

Harvest Public Media reports on food systems, agriculture, and rural issues through a collaborative network of NPR stations throughout the Midwest and Plains.

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