A tech-driven renaissance in local-food production is underway as the coronavirus pandemic exposes gaps in the global supply system.
In the small city of Florence, a farmers market has thrown a lifeline to the predominantly elderly population of this Central Oregon coastal community.
The farmers market used to open every Tuesday, when up to 300 people would shop for local produce. Because of COVID-19 and social-distancing policies, the market went completely virtual in May, taking online orders only through a new app, WhatsGood.
Now on Tuesdays, vendors line up in the parking lot and customers drive by to pick up their preordered food. Volunteers put the food straight into the customers’ vehicles. Older residents are especially grateful for the service. Many are afraid to go to the supermarket because they are more susceptible to falling ill from infection.
Lia Roussett, manager of the Florence Farmers Market, says that although the market feels much less like a social event in this time of COVID-19, its ability to stay open and provide fresh produce has proved critical to the local community.
She recalls one customer who emailed her to thank her for the service, explaining it was the first time they had eaten fresh vegetables in months because they had not felt comfortable going to the supermarket.
Farmers markets across the state have become important food outlets for both consumers and local food producers since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Local farmers and vendors have been able to pivot easily, making products available that large grocery stores, which rely on a small number of dominant and consolidated distributors, have been unable to stock on shelves.
And it is not only markets that are doing well. Community-supported agriculture, more commonly known as CSAs, have anecdotally seen membership numbers soar as consumers turn to locally sourced food that is delivered directly to their doors.
Many of these CSAs have acquired new customers through a multitude of new apps and online platforms that connect farmers to buyers through a direct-to-consumer sales model.
Emily Cooper of Full Cellar Farm and graduate of the Headwaters Farm Incubator program
Photo: Emma Browne Media
All this demand bodes well for local producers who have found it hard to compete in a food system dominated by large, industrialized processors and distributors that for decades have crowded out smaller food purveyors.
The coronavirus pandemic has arguably done more to raise awareness about the vulnerabilities of relying on a centralized, global food supply system than any other recent event.
Americans are not used to seeing empty grocery store shelves and shortages of certain foods, because the system has — until the past few months — worked efficiently.
Take the national supply chain for meat. News stories of farm animals being slaughtered en masse because farmers have been unable to find markets for meat have exposed the limitations of a consolidated food sector.
There are only a handful of meat processors in the U.S., the result of years of consolidation. Many of the largest meat companies — including Tyson Foods, Cargill and Smithfield Foods — have periodically had to stop slaughtering animals at processing plants because of COVID-19 outbreaks.
In addition, the closures of restaurants and schools that bought meat and other products, such as dairy and vegetables, created an oversupply of food because large producers could not pivot easily to selling to grocery stores. In the case of the meat sector, this meant farmers had no choice but to slaughter livestock as they lacked space to store and feed animals.
In Oregon and Washington, large potato and onion farmers in particular were left in the lurch. Farmers were forced to leave large piles of the vegetables to rot because they could not sell to their traditional customers of restaurants and schools, which were forced to shut because of the lockdown.
Local producers are seeing the benefits of relying on short supply chains. Wild Rose Foods, which contracts with small organic farmers to sell their products through its own retail stores, has been able to stock foods that larger grocery stores have not been able to make available.
Chuck Eggert, owner of Wild Rose Foods, says the company’s meat products have sold particularly well during the pandemic. Most of its meat is sourced locally. It recently opened a meat market in Beaverton that sells difficult-to-find cuts. “People don’t have a lot of [meat] choices,” says Eggert, adding the new store was profitable in its first week.
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Abigail Singer, executive director of Rogue Farm Corps, an organization that trains young farmers, is seeking to leverage the momentum created for local food. “There is a lot of possibility to build out a local food system,” says Singer.
“We know how broken the industrial food system is — the mistreatment of workers, emissions. Now the pandemic is breaking down its ability to get food to people. It is a challenge but also a big opportunity and an opening.”
Technology is the linchpin of local producers’ success. Small farmers are more networked with customers and vendors than ever before through online platforms and apps. The pandemic has brought this technology to the fore.
Take the WhatsGood app, which enabled the Florence Farmers Market to go virtual. Launched in 2014 by a chef, Matt Tortora, who wanted a way to buy easily from local vendors, the app has become the de-facto platform for buyers to find out what fresh food is available at nearby farmers markets and pay online in advance.
Farmers markets have been critical for local producers who lost business selling to restaurants and retail outlets. Sales revenue in prepandemic times in 2019 totaled $63 million.
Farmers markets have stayed open during the pandemic because they were deemed an essential service. Some have struggled to stay open as they operate under social-distancing restrictions, with limits imposed on the number of people who can enter.
Despite the restrictions, some are performing well and, like in Florence, are an important outlet for elderly residents to access fresh food.
“Local foods are having a moment,” says Kelly Crane, executive director of the Oregon Farmers Markets Association “Farmers markets are not just something you do with families. It is about buying local, extra-nutritious foods and supporting your neighbor. It is a dollar in the pocket of somebody in your area. It means more than a dollar in the pocket of a global corporation.”
Most farmers markets use a hybrid model in which consumers can preorder food using the WhatsGood app and then come to the market for pickup, while still staying open for foot traffic.
The Hollywood Farmers Market in Northeast Portland uses such a hybrid model. It has stayed open as a walk-in market during the pandemic as well as having an area designated for preorder pickups.
The WhatsGood app has taken a lot of time and labor out of getting produce into the hands of consumers, says market director Pritha Golden. Vendors have been able to “coordinate the increase in preorders and drop-offs and minimize labor,” she says.
Pritha Golden, market director at Hollywood Farmers Market Photo by Jason E. Kaplan
The success of CSAs and online platforms that connect farmers and local food producers with consumers is evidence of the momentum building for locally sourced food. CSAs that deliver boxes of food to people’s homes have grown in popularity.
Membership to CSAs is at an “all-time high,” says Flynne Olivarez, Portland chapter coordinator for Rogue Farm Corps.
Recent new platforms include MilkRun, an online food marketplace founded in 2018 by Julia Niiro, a former farmer. The website allows consumers to shop from more than 100 local farms and producers in Oregon and Southern Washington. The business, headquartered in Portland, delivers groceries to customers two days a week.
MilkRun claims to provide farmers with between six and seven times what they would make from selling to a normal grocery store. In 2020 the business landed venture-capital investment from Social Impact Capital, a venture-capital fund.
Agricultural Connections, a Bend distributor of local food from farms in Central Oregon and the Willamette Valley, has seen a four-fold interest in consumers and business owners seeking deliveries of local produce to homes and retail stores.
With demand for local produce growing exponentially, advocates say it is a good time for new farmers to enter the business. Rowan Steele runs Headwaters Farm Incubator in Gresham, a sustainable-farming education program that leases land and provides access to capital to new farmers.
“There is a lot of interest in farming,” says Steele. “But it is probably not a good time to be a commodity farmer or rely on the global supply system.”
Rowan Steele, Headwaters Incubator Program director for the East Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District
Photo: Emma Browne Media
There is a shift in markets for local farmers that Steele says is driven by the CSA and subscription-farming model. In this model, buyers subscribe to the harvest of a certain farm or group of farms, providing small farmers with a consistent source of revenue.
The demand for local produce that is boxed and delivered into neighborhoods has grown exponentially, says Steele. “A lot of farmers were doing business with restaurants. That has evaporated. But demand for local produce that is brought into neighborhoods has increased.”
To cut down work and time spent delivering food, CSAs are partnering with other associations to deliver food using a drop model in which one house accepts deliveries for a whole neighborhood, eliminating the need to deliver to every doorstop.
In the past few years, larger corporate food groups, such as Imperfect Produce, have entered the CSA sector, a development that until the pandemic had crowded out the market for local farmers.
“The CSA model got popular five to 10 years ago. A lot of farmers got into the market, including agri-business sourcing product out of California,” says Steele. “It is seeing a boom. But I am excited by the model. There is way more collaboration among small growers than large farms and agri-business.”
For several years, Ecotrust, a Portland nonprofit, has sought to support a local food system through Redd on Salmon Street, a centralized warehouse in Portland’s Central Eastside, where farmers, ranchers and fishers can make one efficient drop for their produce. That food is then distributed throughout the Portland metro area.
Although a local food system is growing, small farmers still face barriers to getting established. One of the largest hurdles is the lack of affordability of farmland, particularly land that is close to urban centers.
Justin Simms of Glasrai Farm and his employee Andrew Rae harvest greens.
Photo: Headwaters Farm Incubator
This lack of affordability, coupled with farmers’ small margins and the challenges of competing with large food producers, has resulted in a decline in young people entering the profession. The average age for a farmer in Oregon is 60 years.
“We need more young people owning land,” says Maia Hardy, Ag of the Middle program manager at Ecotrust. “It is important for the viability of a local food system.”
She adds that a large amount of land will change hands in the next 20 years as farmers retire. It is critical that pathways are created for young farmers to become landowners, says Hardy.
Oregon’s local seafood industry is a large beneficiary of the buy-local momentum. Most seafood caught by U.S. fishers is sent abroad as part of a global supply chain that relies on large processors and distributors. Despite a plentiful market for locally caught fish, 80% of seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported from abroad.
The pandemic upended the global supply chain for seafood. The closure of restaurants, large buyers of fish, shut down an important market. The global supply chain for seafood dried up at the height of the pandemic, leaving large buyers and processors with a glut of seafood.
One of the biggest markets for Oregon’s smaller day-boat fishers is Dungeness crab, which dropped in price as demand fell for the popular shellfish.
An initiative to support local day-boat fishers and keep fishing communities viable on the North Coast was in progress before the pandemic. Ecotrust, among other organizations, has led an effort over the past three years to help local fishers sell directly to consumers rather than relying on large buyers for their catch.
Many day-boat fishers do not have the infrastructure to establish their own distribution. Coastal communities have started to set up initiatives to support smaller businesses. The Port of Garibaldi, for example, recently installed a fishing hoist for everyone to use.
The Port Orford Sustainable Seafood initiative is a recently established CSA for fishers. Members pay in advance for local, line-caught seafood. All fish is processed in Port Orford.
Before this initiative, which was set up in 2009, locally caught fish was purchased by only two corporate buyers, leaving fishers with few options for selling their catch.
Tyson Rasor, fisheries and food systems program manager for Ecotrust, says the pandemic has revitalized community-supported fisheries as consumers seek to buy fish from local fishers.
“A lot of people, because of COVID, have aggregated their own product. They are interested in buying from somebody they trust. A lot of people have moved into community-supported fishery or an online marketplace where they drive and pick up [their orders],” says Rasor.
A new partnership between the Oregon Department of Agriculture, the seafood industry and the Oregon Sea Grant, an Oregon State University program that supports commercial fisheries, is aimed at encouraging people to buy and prepare local seafood at home.
The Eat Oregon Seafood project is recruiting the region’s top chefs, bloggers and influencers to post recipes, photos and cooking videos of seafood-themed dishes on social media.
Because most Americans eat seafood in restaurants rather than at home, the idea behind the initiative is to provide consumers with help preparing seafood. It is hoped the project will boost the market for locally caught seafood as well as keep restaurant workers employed.
To help consumers find fresh, local seafood, the Oregon Sea Grant’s Eat Oregon Seafood webpage lists areas where local seafood can be bought.
Amanda Jean Gladics, assistant professor at the Oregon State University’s Coastal Fisheries Extension, says that although a local seafood system is not a new concept, the Oregon Sea Grant is trying to expand a regional market for Oregon-caught seafood. The hope is that more grocery stores, specialty seafood markets and online marketplaces will sell locally caught fish.
Restaurants could play a vital role in supporting the state’s seafood sector as they reopen from the shutdown. A recent new venture is DockBox, an initiative started by Local Ocean, a seafood restaurant in Newport.
DockBox delivers seafood meal kits to Portland, Eugene and Corvallis pickup locations. It also does home deliveries along the Coast. The boxes contain all the ingredients and instructions to make the restaurant’s signature recipes.
Jess Paulson, Oregon Department of Agriculture market access and certification programs director, says many restaurants are ideal places for storing food, such as fish and meat, and could play more of a food-warehousing role to support a local food system.
Many restaurants will have to pivot to takeout and semiprepared dishes rather than relying on dine-in service, requiring a rethink of the role they play in the food supply chain.
“There is still demand for some level of preparation [of food]. Restaurants that have small kitchens and large dining areas will need to find ways to provide service and receive income,” says Paulson.
As the summer beckons, Oregon’s farmers will soon harvest produce the state is famous for. Farmers of cherries, strawberries and raspberries, among other crops, will need to find markets for their produce.
Farmers export more produce than is consumed in the state, and export markets will remain an important outlet. The export for Oregon-grown fruit and nuts is worth $300 million a year.
When the pandemic hit in March, it was fortunately not a time when the state’s crops were set for export as most exports happen in the summer. Several overseas markets are still importing Oregon-grown produce, such as China, Japan, Canada and Mexico, says Paulson at the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
The department encourages more local purchasing and increased outlets for selling local food, such as CSAs, grocery stores and farmers markets. But Paulson cautions that the state still needs to import a lot of food it does not grow or produce, and that a lot of locally grown food traditionally destined for export is too costly for many Oregonians to afford.
The department’s mission is to increase all avenues for selling locally produced food, says Paulson. “When it comes to food that is seasonal, it is not a forgiving market. We want to find ways to help farmers adopt new practices and find new markets,” he says.
Those new markets — which, through online platforms and apps, could become more established and viable — mean more financial security for local farmers as well as enhanced food security for consumers.
Back in Florence, the farmers market continues to be virtual for the time being. Technology has transformed the business model of a walk-in market that is as old and traditional as it comes.
So far, the coastal community has been protected from COVID-19 cases, and Florence Farmers Market manager Roussett thinks the online approach will be here to stay. “It is hard to imagine it will change to a walk-in market anytime soon,” she says.
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