How Small-Scale Farmers Found New Routes to Market During the Covid-19 Pandemic

COVID-19 has created disruptions in nearly every aspect of our lives, mandating a need for social distance, slowing supply chains across industries, and forcing public markets and restaurants to shut down. However, in a time of fast-paced change, many small-scale, local produce growers are reaching customers in entirely new ways. Utilizing digital agriculture marketing and social networking, they're not only weathering the pandemic, they're growing stronger and more resilient.

 

Their rapid adaptations—from sourcing and managing itinerant workers to selecting what to plant and how to market products—may prove to be part of the small-scale farming landscape from here on out.

 

"With the pandemic, the thing is, most of the farmers [faced] kind of a dilemma," said Artur Gregório, founder of In Loco, a nonprofit that helps support small-scale farmers in southern Portugal. "Do I shut down, or do I reinvent myself?"  

 

In Loco helped many seasoned small produce growers—half over age 60—to reinvent themselves by assisting them in lining up with online distribution platforms and teaching them a new method of farming marketing: how to sell and deliver products directly to consumer households. "Old-school farmers have very limited skills in getting products to market," concedes Gregório. "They don't manage to get to people who could enjoy and put a value on their wonderful products."

 

By suggesting new tools and marketing ideas, In Loco began to see instant results with the smallholder and small-scale farms the nonprofit assists. Gregório said: "In some cases, farmers had a 400% increase in sales in the first confinement period." 

 

While many farmers around the globe were willing to try selling into new channels, often directly to consumers, few were ready to tackle their own marketing—at least, not without help and new sales tools.

Drone_sky_view over crops
Drone_sky_view over crops

COVID-19 has created disruptions in nearly every aspect of our lives, mandating a need for social distance, slowing supply chains across industries, and forcing public markets and restaurants to shut down. However, in a time of fast-paced change, many small-scale, local produce growers are reaching customers in entirely new ways. Utilizing digital agriculture marketing and social networking, they're not only weathering the pandemic, they're growing stronger and more resilient.

 

Their rapid adaptations—from sourcing and managing itinerant workers to selecting what to plant and how to market products—may prove to be part of the small-scale farming landscape from here on out.

 

"With the pandemic, the thing is, most of the farmers [faced] kind of a dilemma," said Artur Gregório, founder of In Loco, a nonprofit that helps support small-scale farmers in southern Portugal. "Do I shut down, or do I reinvent myself?"  

 

In Loco helped many seasoned small produce growers—half over age 60—to reinvent themselves by assisting them in lining up with online distribution platforms and teaching them a new method of farming marketing: how to sell and deliver products directly to consumer households. "Old-school farmers have very limited skills in getting products to market," concedes Gregório. "They don't manage to get to people who could enjoy and put a value on their wonderful products."

 

By suggesting new tools and marketing ideas, In Loco began to see instant results with the smallholder and small-scale farms the nonprofit assists. Gregório said: "In some cases, farmers had a 400% increase in sales in the first confinement period." 

 

While many farmers around the globe were willing to try selling into new channels, often directly to consumers, few were ready to tackle their own marketing—at least, not without help and new sales tools.

Powering Agriculture Marketing

For the vast majority of smallholders and small-scale farmers, finding the time to manage marketing—especially during the harvest—is asking a bit too much. In the past, those who sold direct to consumers typically did so at public markets. But with many public markets either closed or declining in sales, selling direct has become an increasingly viable alternative. 

That's where experts such as Bryan Moyer, a Penn State University Extension educator, stepped in to help. Moyer, who teaches a social media marketing course aimed at farmers, says selling direct has caught on because many urban consumers now prefer to buy directly from a trusted source—especially if they don't have to venture out to the countryside.

 

While the new market is appealing, the challenge for many small-scale farmers is that they have to spend up to 30% of their time on direct marketing, estimates Moyer. "About this time last year, my conversation with farmers was about being able to manage it all during the harvest season," he says.

 

He's seen a healthy rise in participation by small-scale farmers in marketing "farm boxes," based on a subscription model in which farmers ship or deliver a weekly box of what they harvest in a particular growing season. Moyer says the sales are typically going to "a whole group of customers you didn't reach before, generally younger families."  

 

Still, packaging boxes and the logistics of shipping them remain barriers for small-scale farm operations—and an opportunity for farm consultants to help organize that form of distribution. "It's another business to manage," says Moyer. He adds that farmers may need to invest in online ordering systems, point-of-sale systems, and labor to fill orders and monitor sales. Is it worth it? Yes, but the key, he says, is developing efficiencies so costs become more manageable. 

 

Other options are emerging, too. Small-scale farmers joined forces with new services that form membership clubs for consumers looking for direct relationships with businesses, including regular deliveries from growers. One of the clubs even included a story about the farmers with every delivery.

 

Even for those going it alone, getting the word out is becoming less of a problem. "The small- to medium-size farms who started in direct-to-consumer sales are using social media; it's their primary tool to communicate to their existing customer base and attract new customers," says Moyer.

Empty fruit stand open-air building
Empty fruit stand open-air building

That's where experts such as Bryan Moyer, a Penn State University Extension educator, stepped in to help. Moyer, who teaches a social media marketing course aimed at farmers, says selling direct has caught on because many urban consumers now prefer to buy directly from a trusted source—especially if they don't have to venture out to the countryside.

 

While the new market is appealing, the challenge for many small-scale farmers is that they have to spend up to 30% of their time on direct marketing, estimates Moyer. "About this time last year, my conversation with farmers was about being able to manage it all during the harvest season," he says.

 

He's seen a healthy rise in participation by small-scale farmers in marketing "farm boxes," based on a subscription model in which farmers ship or deliver a weekly box of what they harvest in a particular growing season. Moyer says the sales are typically going to "a whole group of customers you didn't reach before, generally younger families."  

 

Still, packaging boxes and the logistics of shipping them remain barriers for small-scale farm operations—and an opportunity for farm consultants to help organize that form of distribution. "It's another business to manage," says Moyer. He adds that farmers may need to invest in online ordering systems, point-of-sale systems, and labor to fill orders and monitor sales. Is it worth it? Yes, but the key, he says, is developing efficiencies so costs become more manageable. 

 

Other options are emerging, too. Small-scale farmers joined forces with new services that form membership clubs for consumers looking for direct relationships with businesses, including regular deliveries from growers. One of the clubs even included a story about the farmers with every delivery.

 

Even for those going it alone, getting the word out is becoming less of a problem. "The small- to medium-size farms who started in direct-to-consumer sales are using social media; it's their primary tool to communicate to their existing customer base and attract new customers," says Moyer.

While good bandwidth in rural locations is a global issue, it's a misconception that farmers or rural residents aren't participating in social media, at least in America. International figures are hard to come by, but according to Farm Market iD,1 66% of rural Americans use Facebook and 64% use YouTube. Not surprisingly, far fewer rural residents use specialized networks such as Pinterest, Instagram, or Twitter. 

 

Diversify Farm Marketing

 

Jenny Holtermann, better known as "Almond Girl," is a fourth-generation California farmer who not only helps run a small-scale, family-owned almond farm, but is also an entrepreneur, a blogger, and a social media maven. "We launched our e-commerce shop in 2020 as a direct impact of the falling markets," she says. "Almond prices to growers fell from $4 pound to less than $1.50 pound....  Our family was looking for a way to diversify and, being with a permanent crop, we had limited options to diversify fast."

 

Holtermann believes that e-commerce capabilities provide her farm with a better way to tap local markets and customers. "We have found support from our community in making this change and continue to see areas of growth for our new business," she adds. The Almond Girl website features more than almond variations and sample packs—it also includes unexpected offerings such as seasonal shirt designs, hats, stickers, and even farm-themed bowls, towels, and cheese boards. Holtermann says her prior experience in both farm sales and blogging helped enable the store to get off the ground quickly.

Asian senior man farmer live streaming or vlogging on smartphone in rice paddy wheat field
Asian senior man farmer live streaming or vlogging on smartphone in rice paddy wheat field

While good bandwidth in rural locations is a global issue, it's a misconception that farmers or rural residents aren't participating in social media, at least in America. International figures are hard to come by, but according to Farm Market iD,1 66% of rural Americans use Facebook and 64% use YouTube. Not surprisingly, far fewer rural residents use specialized networks such as Pinterest, Instagram, or Twitter. 

 

Diversify Farm Marketing

 

Jenny Holtermann, better known as "Almond Girl," is a fourth-generation California farmer who not only helps run a small-scale, family-owned almond farm, but is also an entrepreneur, a blogger, and a social media maven. "We launched our e-commerce shop in 2020 as a direct impact of the falling markets," she says. "Almond prices to growers fell from $4 pound to less than $1.50 pound....  Our family was looking for a way to diversify and, being with a permanent crop, we had limited options to diversify fast."

 

Holtermann believes that e-commerce capabilities provide her farm with a better way to tap local markets and customers. "We have found support from our community in making this change and continue to see areas of growth for our new business," she adds. The Almond Girl website features more than almond variations and sample packs—it also includes unexpected offerings such as seasonal shirt designs, hats, stickers, and even farm-themed bowls, towels, and cheese boards. Holtermann says her prior experience in both farm sales and blogging helped enable the store to get off the ground quickly.

Recipes that Resonate

Diversification applies to marketing techniques as well. In Loco's Gregório targets his efforts on boosting community food literacy because he believes it can improve the fortunes of local farmers. In February 2020, his organization launched a food education project on an Internet platform that provides consumers with tools, recipes, and COVID-19-era food safety advice. "The website has recipes that have respect for seasonality," he said. The recipes connect consumers with nearby small-scale farmers who produce the required ingredients. 

The website began with 70 local producers in southern Portugal and has since expanded to include 263 local producers nationwide. More work remains. In Portugal, the Ministry of Agriculture has created a direct sale platform that consists of a distribution and payment system for smallholder and small-scale farms. "The small-scale producers who were almost condemned to perish are seeing things a different way," said Gregório. "They see a future with a much brighter perspective." That's the type of resilience that may encourage and sustain small-scale farmers well beyond the pandemic.

man and woman cooking with recipe displayed on a tablet on the counter
man and woman cooking with recipe displayed on a tablet on the counter

The website began with 70 local producers in southern Portugal and has since expanded to include 263 local producers nationwide. More work remains. In Portugal, the Ministry of Agriculture has created a direct sale platform that consists of a distribution and payment system for smallholder and small-scale farms. "The small-scale producers who were almost condemned to perish are seeing things a different way," said Gregório. "They see a future with a much brighter perspective." That's the type of resilience that may encourage and sustain small-scale farmers well beyond the pandemic.