Pandemic accelerates direct-to-consumer farm sales
During the pandemic, some consumers turned to local farmers and ranchers as a purchase point, so businesses had to diversify quickly
In a cold Sunday afternoon, Colby Townsend is feeding 3,000 Rhode Island Red hens that lay 14,700 brown eggs each week at Hayden Fresh Farm south of the small town of Hayden in northwest Colorado.
Small business co-owners Townsend and his wife, Michelle, have not been able to take a day off since mid-March last year when pandemic-related restaurant restrictions hit their wholesale accounts hard. In a rollercoaster business year, the couple worked 12 hours a day reacting to the changes necessary to keep the farm aloft.
“The pandemic was the best thing/worse thing that happened to us,” Townsend said in December, with hens softly clucking in the background. “It definitely stressed us out. But we diversified ourselves so much we feel that we can survive other closures.”
During the pandemic, some consumers turned to local farmers and ranchers as a purchase point, so businesses such as Hayden Fresh Farm had to diversify quickly. The Townsends set up two roadside farm stands, increased fivefold eggs sold locally through the nonprofit Community Agriculture Alliance’s Marketplace and prepped to sell every week at the local Saturday farmers ’market. Their egg sales moved from 10% direct to consumer and 90% to restaurants and stores instead to 70% direct to consumers.
“The diversity has allowed us to stay in business, and while it’s more work in the short run, it will allow us to have increases and always have the capacity to meet our break-even over the long term,” Townsend said.
Increases in staff time were countered by a 20% higher profit margin for direct sales, Townsend said. However, the owners also needed to beef up equipment by buying a delivery van, procuring mobile credit card sales technology, improving their e-commerce website and scrambling to buy more individual egg cartons instead of reusable bulk crates.
Townsend believes some reasons the farm experienced direct sales success are customers who wanted to know where their food was coming from, have fewer layers of people handling their food and stay away from crowds at grocery stores.
At the Community Agriculture Alliance storefront in Steamboat Springs, local food sales and customers quadrupled the first pandemic week in March 2020, said CAA Executive Director Michele Meyer, who then added refrigerators, freezers, store hours and part-time staff.
“When people couldn’t find eggs and meat at the grocery, they found us,” Meyer said.
Becca Jablonski, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at Colorado State University, said 7 million additional U.S. households turned directly to producers in 2020. Experts say that growth in direct agricultural sales across the state could benefit the industry long term due to the increase in consumer knowledge and appreciation of local food production.
“Based on a national survey of 5,000 households, at least 6% reported purchasing direct from farmers and ranchers for the first time during the pandemic,” Jablonski said.
Resources connect farmers, ranchers directly to consumers
State agencies, nonprofits and supportive volunteers stepped up during the pandemic to help local farmers and ranchers reach more consumers directly. Some online resources include:
ColoradoProud.com – Colorado Department of Agriculture staff created an updated, categorized directory to link consumers more easily to small businesses. The site lists 184 vendors. “Meat, Poultry and Eggs” is the most visited category.
Facebook.com/ShopColoradoFarms – A Loveland digital marketing professional created this Facebook group in May, modeled after Shop Kansas Farms, as a community service effort and an educational and networking forum. In the first eight months, the group added 11,743 members.
CoFarmersMarkets.org – The nonprofit Colorado Farmers Market Association based in Fort Collins lists 60 member markets including summer, winter, year-round and online markets across the state. Experts say more than 100 markets take place across Colorado.
ColoradoProduce.org/colorado-grown – The nonprofit Colorado Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association links to a variety of produce resources across the state.
Colorado Farm Fresh Directory (found on https://ag.colorado.gov/publications) – The CDA updates this annual consumer guide to farmers’ markets, farms, ranches, u-picks and roadside stands.