As Americans were first being told to practice social distancing and shelter in place last year, many farmers were trying to figure out how to reach consumers who used to come to their farms and buy direct. Many worried that they would lose income for months on end.

However, others learned new ways to connect with consumers online or through remote pickup. By pivoting to new marketing channels, some small farmers reported that 2020 was their best year yet.

A glowing example of this type of marketing savvy hails from the heartland, where author and photographer Rick McNary launched “Shop Kansas Farms” on Facebook almost one year ago. In less than 18 hours, he had over 800 members and just a couple of weeks later, there were over 4,400 members. Now, membership in the group tops 147,000.

McNary says he had “no idea” the following would grow so large, and adds that he couldn’t have done it without support from five volunteers who moderate the posts, handle administrative duties and provide resources, including help from the Kansas Farm Bureau and resources from the Kansas Department of Agriculture.

In his own post to farmers and ranchers, he noted that “our role is to prosper and protect you,” and to make sure that people follow the guidelines of the group and Facebook rules. That has required some “policing,” McNary said, and deleting a few people who were critical of farmers and the prices charged, or made political comments.

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“If you attack farmers, you’re gone,” McNary added. “We have tried to create a place of respect.”

“Some of the best things I’m hearing is that farmers who thought they would not make any money are now making a profit," he said. "That’s very encouraging."

McNary says he’s also excited about the regional food system being built as people are connecting with each other online and sometimes in person as pandemic restrictions are easing.

In addition to Kansas, buyers and sellers in Colorado, Ohio, Texas and other states are working with McNary’s team to replicate this online model. For example, “Shop Texas Farms” attracted about 5,000 consumers last year and now the group has blossomed to over 20,000 followers.

Expanding to schools

In Kansas, the group caught the eye of Barb Depew, the Farm to Plate project director for the Kansas State Department of Education. She first went to the Facebook page as a consumer and then reached out to McNary to explore a potential partnership between KSDE and Shop Kansas Farms that would make it easier for schools to connect with producers to get more locally produced food on students’ plates.

The federal Farm to School program started in 2008 when the Farm Bill amended the Richard B. Russell School Lunch Act to direct the secretary of agriculture to encourage institutions operating child nutrition programs to purchase unprocessed, locally grown and locally raised agricultural products. The initiative is an effort to connect K-12 schools with regional or local farms in order to serve healthy meals using local foods.

One of the challenges for farmers with the program is providing sufficient amounts of products and delivering to schools when they need it. But this new partnership aims to educate and help local producers get their collective feet in the school door.

Now, the Shop Kansas Farms website has a Farm to School link, which provides website guidance about selling local foods to schools. The link also has a list of schools that are currently providing local foods in meals and snacks and a list of farmers who currently sell to child nutrition programs or are interested in providing this service.

Participating schools and producers — or those who are interested in participating — are encouraged to add their names to the map, Depew said.

Offering locally grown products is important, McNary said. “It comes with a value — and it comes with a story.”

One of those stories happens to be the first producer who was placed on the interactive map with the Farm to School program. Mark Jirak, owner of Jirak Family Produce near Cummings, has been working with school districts for about 12 years.

The farm provides a variety of items from mid-August through mid-October. Items include watermelon, cucumbers, jalapenos, slicing tomatoes, sweet corn, grape tomatoes, bell peppers, snacking peppers, green beans, cantaloupe, squash and pumpkins.

Jirak also recently put in an acre of high-density trellised apple and peach trees and hopes to offer apples to districts in the near future.

At times, buying local can be more expensive than buying from larger producers who have scaled up to meet growing demands. However, Jirak said districts spend less money because they have less waste, which offsets a higher price. Students tend to eat more of the locally grown items because they are healthier and taste better, and schools can order exactly what they need, which also reduces waste.

The Farm to School sales represents just another way for local producers to find new markets and hopefully, more profitability along the journey.

As McNary wrote in a post: "This new form of commerce is providing economic opportunities for both large and small-scale family farms that are being tapped into like never before."

“This has never been an 'either/or' question about food supply chains," he told Agri-Pulse. "Of course, we need grocery stores and food chains, but this regional food supply is emerging,” he added. “Perhaps this is the key to rural revitalization.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of this publication nor Forum Communications ownership. Sara Wyant is president and founder of Agri-Pulse Communications Inc. For more news, go to www.Agri-Pulse.com.