From farm to kitchen: More local farmers selling directly to consumers

From farm to kitchen: More local farmers selling directly to consumers
Many farmers take advantage of the Mexico Farmers Market from April to October. [Courtesy Mexico Farmers Market]
Dave Faries

Fifty to 60 customers used to stop by the Hedge Holler Harvest booth at the Mexico Farmers Market each week – which seemed like a good number at the time.

When the pandemic hit, however, business for the farm’s meats, eggs and vegetables boomed. Suddenly Hedge Holler had 500 customers on Saturday mornings alone.

“COVID hit and people quickly realized ‘I need to know where my food comes from,’” said Hedge Holler’s Matthew Van Schuyndle.

The surge was not just experienced by local farmers. Across the country, those who market directly to consumers saw demand increase by 30 to 50 percent in 2020 compared to the year before.

Surveys have documented a rise in consumer interest in local and sustainably produced meats, vegetables and other items over the past two decades. The trend is driven in part by millennials, who are more keen than previous generations to learn the source of their food, its lineage and the carbon footprint it leaves.

“We didn’t realize how much people were leaning to buying local,” said Kailey Bastian of Mexico Premium Meats. The family farm started selling beef to consumers in October of 2019 and realized early success.
But the spike in demand in 2020 was unprecedented. And it continued after the farmers market season ended, with consumers ordering meats, cheeses and other local goods for pick up or delivery.

“Astronomical,” is how Frank Wallace of Wallace Family Meats in Vandalia describes it. Not only did his regulars stock up on beef, but he also received a torrent of business from “people I’ve never heard from in other cities.”

Like Van Schyndle, Wallace attributes the boom to COVID-19 panic. Processing plants slowed production or shut down as the virus hit. Rumors of meat shortages spread. People bought freezers and loaded up.
Several other factors converged to make 2020 the best year yet for direct marketing to consumers. As restaurants shuttered or moved to more limited operations, many farmers began looking elsewhere.

U.S. Census Bureau data reveals the see-saw year suffered by the service industry. Restaurant and bar sales were at $65 billion nationwide in February of 2020, plummeted to $30 two months later, then rebounded at the end of the year to $55 billion.

Clarissa Cauthorn of the Audrain County Farm Bureau points out that in this milieu, “it was adapt and overcome for many.”

Some factors that enable farm to kitchen sales predate the pandemic, of course. The internet and the widespread reach of social media made access easier for both farmers and people looking for products. Farm bureaus, state extension services and other organizations put together online lists of direct market farms for consumers to peruse.

And Van Schyndle observes that realities are changing for many young farmers.

“The next generation is saying ‘I don’t have 2,000 acres, I have to make it work,’” he said.

By making it work, Van Schyndle means working organically, tending heirloom breeds and produce, avoiding chemicals and maintaining the soil naturally. Phrases like “pasture raised” and “grass-fed” are part of this culture – the very same words consumers now look for.

Van Schyndle started Hedge Holler Harvest near Mexico just four years ago, Wallace Family Meats began selling halves for… “I honestly couldn’t tell you for sure,” Wallace said.

He’s been at it for some time.

And there’s a growing list of farms in Audrain County and the surrounding area selling a wide range of products. Benoit Family Farmstead outside of Centralia offers pork, chicken, eggs and raw milk. Their beef sold out and won’t be available again until fall. Mexico Premium Meats started with ground beef. Now they stock different cuts of beef, ground beef – everything beef, including oxtail, tongue and organ meats.

“People would say ‘I wish you sold ….’” Bastian said, explaining their rapid expansion.

Near Auxvasse, Emerald Acres focuses on herbs and vegetables, from collards to catnip to a lot of things not starting with c. Spoor Farms in Martinsburg specializes in popcorn. The popular Hickory Ridge Orchard in the Mexico area grows apples and makes cider, pies and more.

Hedge Holler tends to lamb, goats, beef, chicken and turkey year-round and in the summer grows fruits and vegetables, as well as eggs and raw milk. They also make caramel, cotija and even soap made from goat’s milk.

Van Schyndle says the most popular item at the farmer’s market over the summer were cucumbers. Return customers raved about the flavor of the cool vegetable, as well as their carrots, spinach, radishes and everything else.

He explains that fruits and vegetables are like winegrapes. They respond to what the French call terroir, the way soil, weather and the whims of nature influence flavor.

“Take care of the soil, take care of the plant,” Van Schyndle said. He relies on worms, bugs, grasses and ruminants rather than chemical fertilizers, and many other small farmers are doing the same.

And there’s another factor that makes direct marketing work. Corporate farms and larger operations have no public face. Those selling directly to consumers welcome questions from shoppers.

“People want to know how the meat was raised,” Wallace pointed out.

Lierre Keith, author of thought-provoking books like The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice and Sustainability and a critic of the mono-crop farming model, said in a 2019 interview with the Monterey County Weekly in California that “When you get real food, you know it’s good instantly,” adding “there’s so much justice in the act of eating locally.”

In general, small farmers find it easier to adopt sustainable practices. It’s less about yield and more about quality. Small farmers and those committed to direct marketing tend to support each other, as well.

On Jan. 23, Hickory Ridge Orchard hosts Hedge Holler and Heartsong Family Farms from the Centralia area – along with farmer’s market favorite Bakers Heaven and Laddonia’s Big Gun Kettle Corn & Pork Rinds to a tasting event at their Mexico location.

What will 2021 bring for the direct to consumer farmers? Ron Goldy, Joyce McGarry and Bob Tritten of the Michigan State University Extension service projects that the buy local trend will continue to grow, especially as the public has become more familiar with the process.

Wallace agrees.

“People are used to the quality of it now,” he said. “I think it’s here to stay.”


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