Local food producers learn to navigate social distancing to serve customers

By Christie Welch
Direct Marketing Program Manager

The impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic has swiftly changed our world. Who could have anticipated the shutdown of America, more or less within a 24-hour period?  While this pandemic has changed many things, one thing has not – farmers are still farming. 

With the manner in which they market their products to consumers having changed, The Ohio State University’s Direct Food and Agricultural Marketing Team has been there to help producers source the information they need.

Over the past month, our team has heard from many local food producers needing questions answered and factual information to determine how to operate their businesses in the current environment of social distancing and the stay-at-home order.

One of the first steps we took was to collaborate with the OSU Produce Safety team on a number of webinars as part of the AgMadness Tournament of Education. Dr. Sanja Ilic and Dr. Melanie Ivey conducted three webinars on produce safety in light of COVID-19; these webinars provided the fact-based information our producers were seeking.  

Secondly, we developed a COVID-19 working group consisting of OSU educators and researchers and many additional organizations that serve Ohio’s local food producers including Ohio Farmers Market Network (OFMN), Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA), Ohio Farm Bureau Federation (OFBF), and Ohio Produce Growers and Marketers Association (OPGMA).  This working group came together to help identify producers’ needs, resources to help meet those needs, and to address additional concerns that may be forthcoming related to COVID-19. This working group has met weekly, collaborating to assist our local food producers with accessing needed resources.

With the high demand for personal protective equipment (PPE), we worked to identify suppliers that could provide access to these items.  Collaborating with this working group and the Ohio Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), we were able to share information on where producers could look to access PPE. One source is Ohio’s distilleries.  Many of them have begun producing hand sanitizer, which is not only needed by frontline works and first responders, but also by our local food producers. MEP developed an exchange where businesses that have these items can be listed, and those needing this equipment can more easily find these sources.  You can view the exchange at repurposingproject.sharetribe.com

We also worked to provide information on managing farm and farmers markets in a manner that still allows consumers access to Ohio’s locally produced foods, while at the same time maintaining social distancing and no or low contact purchasing. We offered a webinar on drive-thru farmers markets, how to use online platforms to sell locally produced foods to consumers, and expansion of the senior farmers market nutrition program in Ohio.  All are available for viewing at southcenters.osu.edu/direct-marketing/covid-19-webinars-and-resources 

Throughout all of this learning, sharing, and identifying concerns, we are hearing from our local food producers that consumer demand is high. While the way in which consumers can access locally produced foods has changed, our farmers are still farming, our consumers and still demanding it, and we will get through this together.