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A guide for local producers to navigate the COVID-19 outbreak

COVID-19’s arrival in Indiana has created unprecedented disruption to local production cycles that bring food, fiber, flowers and more to our restaurants, farmers markets and communities.

Now is the time to determine the best methods to find and connect with your customers during a time of confusion and challenge. You can play an important role in improving this connectivity along the supply chain and ensuring continued access to fresh produce and products in our local economies, and it is imperative to establish and implement plans before any additional drastic measure occurs that could affect your bottom line.

As the indefinite cancellation of the Indy Winter Farmers Market illustrates, the potential postponement or cancellation of farmers markets across Indiana could have a major impact on your business. Although the regular farmers market season is still six to seven weeks away, there exists significant potential that these markets will be postponed or potentially canceled. 

Additionally, many of your businesses may derive income from sales to Indiana restaurants — which recently shifted to takeout or delivery orders only under a government mandate.

Further restrictions, cancellations and closings related to COVID-19 also could have a major impact on demand for your products. This means you must become proactive in connecting with your customers.

People will still want to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, animal proteins such as meat, eggs, and dairy, and value-added food products, and they will still want to purchase flowers and vegetable seedlings.

This guide can help you navigate these uncertain times by offering ideas on:

  • Changing your business model.
  • Meeting the needs of the market.
  • Reaching your customer base without increasing potential exposure to COVID-19.
  • Continuing to generate income during this difficult period.

Please consult the links throughout the article for more information and consult the Resource and Contact Information at the bottom of the article.

Online/Phone Sales

As more people choose to stay at home rather than venture out for goods, you could capitalize through online sales that allow them to purchase your products from their residence. (If insufficient broadband limits your capacity for online orders or marketing, you can set up service through telephone or text.)

Make sure you have a form for payment set up, and then explore online sales by:

  • Using Google Sheets or other online-software ordering forms.
  • Selling through Facebook.
  • Opening a webpage with your ordering form.
  • Starting a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) enterprise.

As you adapt to potential farmers market closings, a CSA may be your best answer. A box of goods — often called a “share” — that you pack for your customer can reduce the number of people handling products and can eliminate possible cross-contamination.

CSA options include:

  • Pre-established shares with certain types/quantities of goods.
  • Customizable shares where the consumer determines selection and size.
  • Collaborative shares coordinated with other farmers to consolidate into one box of goods.

No matter what option you choose for online sales, you must follow all food safety standards and take appropriate measures to reduce possible product contamination. These include:

  • Ensure that you and your employees maintain good hygiene.
  • If you or any of your employees are sick, they should not work around food or food packaging and be sent home.
  • Encourage your customers to wash fruits and vegetables before use.

You also must establish a delivery system for orders — either through a coordinated drop-off point or pick-up at your farm.

It also is important to keep customers aware of what is coming in their order so they can best utilize its contents. Providing recipes and produce storage tips is a great way to help customers fully use what they receive and feel good about their purchase.

Indiana has existing online-sales platforms to help you more easily connect with customers, manage orders and coordinate delivery locations. However, they primarily serve producers in the state’s urban areas.

Market Wagon is an online grocery store/farmers market that sells hundreds of locally produced goods  — including meats, vegetables, fruits and value-added products — from hubs of local producers across the Midwest. Its delivery system reaches a number of different Indiana communities. You can sign up as a vendor to sell in this space.

Hoosier Harvest Market (HHM) is a farmer-owned online farmer cooperative that features locally grown and produced goods. The members deliver primarily to central Indiana. Producers in the state’s northern or southern regions may want to contact them to gauge how to start your own cooperative with multiple farms or coordinate new areas of operation for the HHM cooperative.

A shift to online sales may not be easy, and there are no hard or fast rules about what works and what does not. However, online sales can help you stay connected with existing customers and perhaps gain new customers, and continue the safe, timely and profitable delivery of your farm products.

Delivery Systems

Delivery may be the trickiest part of changing your current business model and processes, but several options exist if you sell directly to customers:

  • Establish a pop-up stand for customers to pick up products on your farm or elsewhere.
  • Designate coordinated drop-off points for your products.
  • Deliver directly to customers’ residences.

Considering a pop-up stand? Consult your local zoning department. Some communities do not allow stands unless an area is zoned for commercial use or has a variance under consideration. People may also express concern about increased traffic if your stand is in a residential area.

It is also critical to remember that any home-based vendor must involve a physical venue of a farmers market or a roadside stand — and that their products can only be those described in Section 29 of Chapter 5 of the Indiana Code.

Having customers come to your farm? Your stand or retail space must protect your products from weather and minimize potential to spread COVID-19. These steps include:

  • Consulting your county health department to ensure your area is not a hotspot for COVID-19 transmission.
  • Packing boxes in a way that prevents customers from touching one another’s products.
  • Staggering pick-up times to reduce crowds.
  • Undertaking additional cleaning and sanitation protocols, such as:
    • Regular cleaning of contact surfaces.
    • Hand-washing or hand-sanitizer stations at your pickup site.
    • Signage and communication encouraging customers to wash their hands before handling produce at a pickup location.

Managing Inventory

You may need to account for inventory challenges, including larger amounts or longer periods of product storage. What options do you have to accommodate those needs? Now is the time to review best practices and storage conditions.

Selling to distributors or processors that are able to take on more local produce can allow you to preserve an early-season harvest when markets may be closed. However, you will need to search for such outlets and determine whether you meet their criteria for quantity and/or quality.

If you are a meat or poultry producer, animal production cycles may already be underway — particularly with beef, lamb and goat production — and must continue regardless of COVID-19’s spread.

With shorter animal-production cycles — such as poultry or broiler production — explore modifying future orders with hatcheries to reduce production. But you can neither slow or delay animal growth in any meaningful way nor delay scheduled slaughter dates at inspected slaughter facilities. If sales decline despite your best efforts, you may need to explore options for additional freezer storage capacity.

Additional freezer storage options include: 

  • Renting pallet space from food banks in their large freezer facilities.
  • Renting portable freezer.
  • Renting large freezers from local appliance-rental businesses.

If multiple farmers in your community face similar challenges, it may benefit you to pool your resources toward cost reduction.

Adjust Crop Scheduling

You have options to adjust crop scheduling based on when you plant, how you harvest and, for some crops, how you manage growth.

Now is the time to generate realistic estimates of what you expect to sell in the coming weeks, as well as your options to adjust harvest timing and quantity. 

Many short-season spring crops also can be grown in late summer and fall. Properly stored seeds can remain viable for a year or more, depending on the crop. For fruiting-vegetable crops, removing early-set fruit can allow more energy for vegetative growth and later yield. 

Use Social Media

If you aren’t already on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, you can establish a presence that helps you connect with consumers and stay up-to-date on the latest developments in your local foods system.

Purdue University and Purdue Extension cultivate regular content and engagement through Purdue Extension’s Diversified Farming and Food Systems social media channels:

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