As we look back at the pandemic that consumed most of 2020 it’s sometimes hard to find much positive news. But there’s one joyful initiative this year that brought new money to rural America and reconnected consumers to the farmers and ranchers who produce their food. In some cases, rural entrepreneurs were able to not only survive but thrive.
In the broadest of terms, it’s the rebirth of the local food movement that has been taking hold from Virginia to California. It gained attention during the Obama administration and will likely be boosted again in the new Biden administration. But in this case, the initial drivers are different.
Consumers who were sick and tired of empty food store shelves during the early days of COVID-19 started seeking alternatives. And local farmers and food producers were more than eager to connect and sell.
One shining example is on Facebook as “Shop Kansas Farms” which has now built out a much more robust independent site on the web at www.shopkansasfarms.com to showcase about 400 farms selling everything from beef to produce to honey and more. Shop Texas Farms is still building, and other states are following suit. It’s a model that could be built out in every state with the right people and resources.
It’s not that Facebook is a bad platform, but it was found to be limiting. For example, growers can show photos of their finished meat products, but images of prize-winning cows and pigs were prohibited. Maps on Facebook are difficult to integrate, making some locations difficult to find within a state, according to the site’s founders.
From a startup this spring, the Facebook group jumped to 125,000 members in just three weeks. By the end of this year, there are over 146,000 members. Imagine that: farmers and consumers talking and doing business without any middleman.
Rick McNary, a writer, photographer and global hunger expert, launched the Facebook group and has remained at the core of this operation. But he’s also gotten support from his wife and five other volunteers, including three producers, social media expert Olivia Fletcher and Meagan Cramer of Kansas Farm Bureau. At times, the Kansas Department of Agriculture staff and others have pitched in.
McNary is driven to help farmers and boost the rural economy. He and his volunteers had to create some basic ground rules to get things started. The rules are a mix of basic business advice and sometimes, a bit of whimsy.
“Prices and reviews speak for themselves without commentary. If you see something you don’t agree with, move on,” the site notes. “We want this group to be enjoyable for all. Pretend like you are speaking to your grandma (if your grandma cusses like a sailor, consider how you would talk to a 5-year-old who repeats everything).”
Still, the Facebook group needs to be monitored and some posts removed if they didn’t fit the purpose and mission.
“When I began the group, the single purpose was to connect people looking for food to the wonderful farm and ranch families of Kansas who grow meat, dairy, vegetables and fruit so they could purchase directly from them,” McNary noted about three months after setting up the original site. “As people have joined, many have tried to make it about politics, criticism of the government, criticism of the certain ways people raise livestock and veggies, criticism of prices, posting surveys for their own use and a variety of things that take us away from our purpose.”
Now that the year is coming to an end, McNary told Agri-Pulse that the website is evolving, but there are quite a few success stories worth telling. He solicited response from members in an attempt to quantify the results. Here are a few unaided responses:
• “This is my 2nd year in business and by advertising on this page I’ve doubled my sales and got my name out. I am now in 8 stores around Kansas plus a possible 5 more have voiced interest. Every time I put an advertisement out on Shop Ks, I get some orders.”
• “Because of Shop Kansas we have doubled our herd to be able to provide meat for families across the state. Shop Kansas has been so wonderful.”
• “We have been able to reach a broader audience with this page. Also, I think shoppers feel like they get to know the sellers a bit and understand that we are "neighbors" in a sense, it provides more credibility.”
Despite these success stories, there has also been the realization that more work remains.
For many famers, direct to consumer communication is like a foreign language. Direct to consumer e-commerce is even more of a learning curve for many, McNary adds.
His team has been trying to teach farmer sellers how to use credit cards or a service like Venmo to transfer funds. Longer term, the group plans to build out an “Amazon-like” platform for farmers to be able to buy and sell products on the website.
McNary says he’s also witnessed farmers having problems with establishing prices for beef or other commodities.
“I'm realizing that farmers have lived for so long with their prices being controlled by people above them as opposed to consumers who might be willing to pay more than what the packer or the commodity market is going to pay today.”
For 2021, his group is working on a series of subscription-based marketing webinars, where producers can learn from other producers about how to better market their products directly to consumers. Sometimes it requires a different choice of words and images, he says.
“When you have a consumer interested in a big juicy pork chop, you don’t want to show an image of a pig laying in the mud,” McNary points out.
Meanwhile, the group has been heartened by the opportunity to enhance rural prosperity in areas where there might be few other chances for economic success.
For example, McNary says he visited with a couple that sells pork rinds and they live in a town of 300 people in southeast Kansas.
“Last year she was making $12 an hour with two degrees, but that's all she could get for a job. He was making $19 an hour as a meat cutter but driving an hour each way to work. They started making and selling pork rinds out of their house. After they listed their pork rinds on Shop Kansas Farms for the first time, their sales increased dramatically. Within just a few months, the couple had already sold $265,000 in pork rinds. Now they have purchased an old convenience store in town to refurbish for their growing business.”
Editor’s note: Sara Wyant can be reached at www.agri-pulse.com.