The rancher found a way to donate beef. The grocer found a way to keep his doors open during heavy demands. The farmers market found a way to serve customers in a different manner. All during a pandemic.
Colorado Proud hosted a virtual round table June 3, focusing on how agriculture can succeed in tough times. Colorado Proud, created by the Colorado Department of Agriculture in 1999, works to promote Colorado food and agricultural products. Products are labeled with the logo for ease of identification, and the program hopes to raise consumer awareness of the benefits of buying locally grown, raised and manufactured products.
Panelists included: Kate Greenberg, Colorado commissioner of agriculture; Duke Phillips IV, COO Ranchlands; Pete Marczyk, founder of Marczyk Fine Foods; and Rosalind May, executive director of Colorado Farmers Market Association. Each shared their experiences in their sectors during the coronavirus pandemic.
How have you had to change your business model during this COVID situation and how are you adapting?
Marczyk said in his grocery stores there’s been a lot of adaptation happening because of COVID, and they’ve made a lot of changes to their business model.
“We've changed our shifting to allow for distancing among the staff, and to keep staff out of the store while customers are in the store,” he said. “So we've gone to basically a 24-hour schedule.”
The entire grocery supply chain has had to adapt to the new situation of the “incredible unprecedented demand for a few weeks in a row.”
“It was like Christmas week every day for 20 days, and really in a lot of fear,” Marczyk said.
May said at the famers markets they’ve had to adapt as well. The process began with collaboration among CDA, the governor’s office, and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Farmers markets were declared an essential business early on in Colorado, while other states weren’t as fortunate. The groups developed recommendations and tool kits for farmers markets on how to operate safely during COVID-19.
“We've had this really wonderful collaborative effort, and that's meant that we have this set of guidelines that market managers around the state have been proactive,” May said. “They were proactive even before those recommendations came out.”
CFMA has been connecting with other states and with the National Farmers Market Coalition to identify the protocols that can work. Some of the protocols include more space between vendor booths, and depending on the size of the market, limiting the number of people in the market at a time or restricting people at vendor booths.
“Markets are adapting by ensuring social distancing at the market,” May said. “We have outdoor shopping at farmers markets so you have fresh air and sunshine in the whole shopping environment.”
She said some vendors are even going as far as starting to pre-bag produce, so only the vendor has handled it.
“It's a change in the nature of farmers markets,” May said.
The markets are essential in nature, and where people can find the freshest, highest quality local food, and where farmers and other producers can sell what they grow and produce.
“It's become really clear how essential farmers are to farmers markets,” May said. “Providing a place for farmers to sell. So it is absolutely an adaptation. Market managers are working very hard to make sure that they can operate markets safely.”
Vendors and customers alike are adapting to the changes, and so far, there’s been some challenges, but nothing managers couldn’t handle.
“We've had a smooth opening of farmers markets so far in Colorado and that is due in large part to the collaborative effort to make sure that markets can open,” May said.
What are the key things we've learned as producers and consumers from this experience?
For Greenburg, early on there was a massive pivot in the food supply chain where restaurants and food service were shut down. Then all of a sudden there seemingly was a shortage in stores.
“But it was a backup and a pivot to a new point of demand. So when we all started getting all of our food at the grocery stores the entire chain back down to Duke on a production level, had to pivot to meet that new demand,” Greenberg said.
CDA and Greenburg in that time have seen sort of a parallel track of greater direct-to-consumer demand.
“I know a lot of folks who are sold out of their halves and wholes on beef before they normally are and can't keep up with demand,” she said. “A lot of folks are building interest in buying directly from their farmer or rancher, hopefully, with the work that we're all doing—this is going to stick.”
Greenburg has learned there are some vulnerabilities in the food system, and it’s not going to change over night.
“I think it's got folks thinking about how do we build a more resilient system that supports our producers and supports our workers and supports everybody throughout the supply chain,” she said.
As she sees COVID-19 related trends, she hopes some of the momentum that came from the pandemic, will go well beyond the end of it. She hopes consumers will think local, and think about supporting family businesses when buying their food items directly.
Phillips agrees, and sees diversification as part of an important strategy for adapting and sustaining not only during COVID, but long term. For him, everything they’re able to produce comes from the land. Not necessarily in a farming sense of cattle or cropping, but in any kind of income they can create. One of those things is welcoming guests to working ranch vacations.
“Not only does it create this secondary level of income, but it also kind of builds a constituency and making people aware that we are out here, farmers or ranchers are important, what we're doing is important on a lot of levels and kind of getting people to know producers.”
For Phillips it seems like there’s a wall between the urban and rural communities, and anything “we can do to build bridges over that wall or break through that wall and get a collaborative effort going forward is fantastic.”
“So the hospitality kind of does both of those things,” he said.
Their other business, a leather mercantile, has helped them diversify even more.
“It started to just as a saddle shop where we repaired our own gear, and that's kind of snowballed into more of that and it's still definitely a fledgling business,” Phillips said.
Because the pandemic essentially killed the hospitality part of the business, and it was reeling, they tried to really focus on the retail aspect of the mercantile.
“Essentially trying to build that business to make sure we can keep the lights on,” Phillips said. “It keeps our bills paid and people happy. Looking forward, there's a lot of diversification that we've been talking about.”
There were weaknesses Phillips was aware of, but the magnitude of those weaknesses really became apparent during the pandemic.
“We're really looking at the channels that we're selling to and actively trying to diversify on that end as well,” Phillips said. “So, every possible diversification we can do moving forward is going to be looked at.”
How can we tell the story of local food without events or interactions with producers, sampling or in-person experiences?
Marczyk has a saying in his company, “Show me. Don’t tell me.” He and his staff started to notice new people coming to the market because they didn’t want to deal with the grocery chaos elsewhere.
“They've never been in,” he said. “They just hadn't had an experience like small market and what differentiates it.”
He believes many Colorado producers and many home-owned businesses are really stepping up and showing new customers in a very visceral and very real way how important their businesses and their offerings are.
“I work with a lot of my peer colleagues and competitors, and we've been talking about how different our shoppers are right now,” Marczyk said. “They're not thinking about that they want to get fed, they want to get nourished and we're able to do that in a way that is highly differentiated from the national supply chain stuff.”
One of the great outcomes from that could be people who have been introduced to stores like Marczyk’s through necessity, will stick around after the pandemic. There’s been definite holes in the supply chain from bigger vendors, and his local producers have filled that gap for him.
“We never ran out of eggs. We haven't been out of meat,” he said. “It's been really inspiring and really powerful, but I think that food is such a powerful thing in our lives and I think so many people took it for granted, until it's not available, until you can't get what you want and now people have to start to scale this up.”
Marczyk thinks there is a place for people like those now shopping in his store and appreciate what he’s doing.
What do you think the future of local food looks like in the coming years and what do you predict will change long term?
Marczyk believes there will be lasting change.
“I think one of the things is a deeper and more meaningful appreciation of our supply chain,” he said. “And I think people will more effectively vote with their wallets to support local and close-in production.”
The break down of the supply chain shows it fragility and the high cost of cheap food. Wild swings in prices have helped people begin to appreciate locally produced foods.
“Our customers have seen that there's much more parity when you don't have all these huge vehicles from far away,” Marczyk said.
Another change happening in his stores is the change in working hours and conditions.
“We put the brakes on early,” he said. “We were open 12 hours a day, which was too much it was just too taxing on my team.”
His stores are now open eight hours a day and everyone is getting their shopping done.
“It's a much more sane lifestyle,” he said. “One of my hopes here is that we all can experience some level of sanity out of this. Maybe this virus is here to teach us something.”
May thinks the future of local food, as it becomes even more important going forward, could certainly be something that’s here to stay.
“There's a greater appreciation of workable food, and the important work that our farmers and ranchers do,” she said. “I think that also local food in the future, it will be more just and equitable. This healthy, high quality local food that everyone has access to.”
May and her counterparts are seeing the value and tremendous problems faced by the communities doing the work to get local food to the people who need it.
“I think that we're seeing it's possible to see the changes that are made being exposed, the inequities that are there, and begin to make changes to address that,” May said. “It's important for all of us to do that as we go forward.”
What good has come from these pandemic times, or what do you hope sticks around?
Marczyk hopes “we all are going to have more of a sane approach to our lives.”
“I think that we're going to see a lot more sanity. We've all been running so hard and chasing and chasing and chasing and I think the consumer has shifted.”
Marczyk believes customers are forging lifelong bonds, and on his end, his employees are working double, triple and quadruple time to keep things moving.
“I really think that people have recognized that and will appreciate it long into the future,” he said.
For Phillips, he realized the holes in the beef industry at the larger levels.
“There's a lot of holes, kind of flaws, in it and this pandemic has shed some light and kind of began some things in motion,” Phillips said. “I hope that those kind of keep rolling, gain momentum and really have a look at it, I think, philosophically.”
He believes sometimes it takes a really bad situation to gain some perspective and begin taking joy in small things and not being so needy.
Greenburg too believes local food matters, and knowing your farmer matters for so many reasons.
“I think the bigger picture, too, is that the more that we support our family farmers and ranchers and everyone who works throughout the supply chain here in Colorado,” she said. “That means we're supporting our local businesses, which means we're supporting mainstream, which means we're supporting schools and communities all across Colorado.”
It really isn’t just about having delicious, healthy, fresh food and having consumer choice, but it really does touch on so many of the fundamental pieces of what makes communities tick and what builds resilience in the community.
“I hope we find some greater sanity as we're building a stronger Colorado throughout all this,” Greenburg said. “That we find ways to slow down, talk to our neighbors, check in on people, to make sure that everyone's doing all right as we do some really big work and rethink, you know, how do we grow from here in a way that that benefits farming ranching, and all who work in agriculture in Colorado.”
Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wendy Lee White, Colorado Department of Agriculture marketing specialist and manager of the Colorado Proud program, moderated the roundtable and panel discussion. She said the pandemic is really a time to continue coming together to support agriculture in Colorado and local food.
“But more importantly it's a time for us to support each others ideas, best practices and opportunities to thrive not only during COVID, but beyond as well,” White said.
CP recently launched a new website, www.coloradoproud.com, to connect producers of local products with consumers. She encourages producers to join CP. It’s free to list a business and become a member of the group. They’re also featuring different businesses and products on social media.
“We're really excited to be promoting Colorado proud, our members, and the agriculture industry in the state,” she said.