When I saw glimpses of the measures they were taking in Wuhan, China, I knew to keep a close eye on the developing situation. When lockdowns occur, local economies are affected immediately, and soon after, the whole global supply chain.
The US had the fortune of taking early action in the face of what we could see in China and Italy, who didn’t have as much of a warning.
Social distancing, closing schools, and the end of public gatherings have quickly become the norm. As of this writing, March 27th, 2020, supply chains on everyday commodities are just starting to feel the effects of China’s lockdowns. Simultaneously, local economies in the US are feeling the devastation of forced closings of businesses from gyms to barbershops.
Our business, the Craven Local Food Market (CLFM) in Ernul, NC, made the early decision to stop attending the Farmers Market. We see ourselves as critical points of a too fragile system and felt the need to practice strict social distancing, despite the desire to want to be there for our community at large.
Local farmworkers at all levels need to do everything they can to take the necessary measures to protect themselves and their community from further hardship. The health of the supply chain is at a critical juncture, and we should start to consider not just the possibilities of what is yet to come, but what our role is in keeping our country resilient through this outbreak.
Beyond taking steps to keep our food safe, we find ourselves needing to adjust the way we reach our local market. Now that public gatherings are frowned upon or outright banned, pivoting towards home delivery and pickup models may become critical to nearly all local physical product-based businesses’ success.
The devastation that this will cause will have impacts that are untimely, unfair, and swift. Many once profitable businesses are disappearing, especially at the local level.
We will all be adjusting to a new paradigm. How this will change and/or accelerate consumer behavior long term is something all business owners should be thinking about.
Because we all need to eat, farmers can adapt and survive in ways that other businesses can’t. Thankfully at the CLFM, the majority of our business came from the delivery model before this crisis. Our customers have been leaving out coolers for us for a few years now. We swap out jars packed with our farm-grown meals grown and prepared by our ‘farmchefs’ Cait and Joe of Little x Little farm.
Our business model, and ‘owning the supply chain,’ was built for times like these. The week of the first school closings, we saw our weekly orders nearly double at a time when other farmers saw their business decline or disappear overnight.
Why did this happen?
Owning the Supply Chain
When a farmer sells produce wholesale, or even to restaurants, there is a level in which the farmer hands off the power and relationship to the end consumer. If the wholesale account goes away or the restaurant industry goes out, you may put yourself at risk to go away along with it.
Just as when someone chooses to work for someone else, instead of their own business, they put their future into someone else’s hands, be it their boss, or their boss’s boss, and so on.
5 years ago, when confined to an office climbing the ladder of corporate finance, I knew that if I was going to leave my job to start a business, I needed to be in control – full control. I didn’t want the vulnerability of putting my success or failure in the hands of anyone else. For someone who wanted to be part of creating resilience in our broken food system, I knew my business needed resiliency first.
Resiliency, to me, meant going directly to the end consumer. It means you can build, keep & maintain a relationship that can translate into an antifragile business that can last for years to come.
Reaching the Masses
It’s also a nearly infinite market. Instead of just a few wholesale accounts, or a handful of restaurants that carry ‘industry risk,’ we can look at the entire market of people and see how we can serve a much larger and diverse client base.
If we want to reach the masses, we need to figure out what they want and how to get it to them. To me, it seems obvious that most people don’t regularly attend farmers’ markets, and we need to find ways to reach those people other than through restaurants.
Meeting People Where They Want to Be Met
People just aren’t buying ingredients to prepare an elaborate meal like they used to. Grocery shopping is becoming automated in that it is picked for them, ahead of time, waiting for them. The grocery store benefits from all the branding done by the individual products sold at the store and leverages a sales mechanism that meets the modern consumer’s needs and desires.
For us in these times, delivery & pickup points were already becoming the norm, it’s just now been accelerated by a number of years in how integral part of life it has become.
This change means online storefronts are a must to take orders online. The good news about this is that instead of having a 4-6 hour window that people would have been able to purchase from you at a farmers market, they can now buy from you 24/7 while you sleep, from your online store.
They want to meet you. Online first. Then at their doorstep.
Meeting Them With Products They Crave
Taking this one step further, we need to provide those people with foods they are actually craving.
‘Support your local farmer’ does not really work with these people. If it did, they’d already been your customer. That farmer needs to provide value and win the purchase just like any other business, so removing the ‘support’ mindset allows for the necessary shift to challenge yourself enough to take that head of lettuce and to do something more with it – something that the masses will be open to.
As many farmers can relate, I grow lots of microgreens, lettuce, kale, chard, and the like, but I don’t always eat as much as an outsider would assume. Sometimes after a long day out on the farm, the last thing we want to do is put together a healthy meal from scratch.
Why are we expecting the mass of consumers to be any different? They’re not.
So the challenge here isn’t just to do pick up points and delivery services – that should be obvious at this point. The challenge is to create something that has mass-market appeal.
At the Craven Local Food Market, beyond our weekly meals, we make kombucha, popsicles, pestos from our farm production, but also make healthy fudge, roasted nuts, and energy bites as ways to get our foot in the door to ‘mainstream’ eaters.
I think of my dad, who doesn’t really care about local farming, but he does have a sweet tooth. I know if we can win someone like that over, we’re doing our job meeting people where they want to be met, with products they crave.
Being the Local Food Hub
And you don’t even have to do this yourself. There is a huge opportunity to leverage other business delivery routes or add other locally produced goods to your delivery routes.
There is a reason Profound Foods in Dallas, TX, is taking off right now. So many producers in the DFW area that sell to restaurants quickly found themselves without buyers. Needing to unload products quickly, Profound Foods has capitalized on the delivery infrastructure built being a local food hub for restaurants and moving to a local food hub for retail customers.
It seems like Profound Foods was able to flip the switch overnight. With the impressive amount of community building they’ve done over the last few years, it was no surprise their following was ready and willing to make any pivots along with Profound Microfarms & Profound Foods that needed to be made.
Now their retail customers can buy greens, herbs, meat, dairy, with more being added all the time. Now that is value, folks. Locally grown, super fresh food delivered right to your door every week, with easy online ordering.
The people over at Profound make it easy to support their local farmer, not just because they are quality people, but also because they provide real value in a way that meets the needs of the day.
Owning the supply chain for food safety (low touch), efficiency (high margin), and controlling environmental outcomes (jars) is an approach that has the potential to put farmers in a position of leadership in every community around the country.
Right now, right at this moment, we are facing what might be a once in a lifetime opportunity.
One of the biggest reasons it’s hard to build a business overnight is that our new offerings are met with years of resistance in the form of habit.
Asking people to break their routines and try something new interrupts their standard patterns. It feels risky to try new things to many people, which we saw play out in our pre-crisis economy.
But everyone’s patterns have been interrupted. The way they shop, eat, and go about their everyday life has changed so radically in such a short amount of time that all of those old habits are prime for remodeling.
And that’s where you come in.
There is a void to fill, and you can be the one to fill it. Together with our brothers and sisters in the farming community, we can win back the relationship that places like Walmart won with the value and convenience they offered. The definition of value and convenience just changed for millions of Americans.
And that is the opportunity we have to turn a crisis into a transformation of our food system.
Together, we will all play an essential role in getting our country through whatever challenges we may face. I wish you all the best of luck in making the necessary pivots to strengthen your business and community.
Founder, Urban Farm Academy & Bootstrap Farmer