Coronavirus' silver lining for small producers

Farmers markets, online food sales, thrive during the pandemic

Coronavirus
ONLINE SELLER: When the Euroa Farmers' Market closed Renata Cumming and Shirley Saywell set up Strathbogie Local on the Open Food Network.

ONLINE SELLER: When the Euroa Farmers' Market closed Renata Cumming and Shirley Saywell set up Strathbogie Local on the Open Food Network.

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Farmers markets, online food sales, gain legitimacy, due to coronavirus pandemic.

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The coronavirus pandemic saw a tenfold increase in people selling and buying food online, through the internet platform the Open Food Network.

Those already on the platform saw their sales triple, with 700 new shops or profiles opening up, this year.

The network operates an online platform, allowing food producers to sell over the net, and wholesalers to manage buying groups, or supply through networks of food hubs and shops.

OFN's Kirsten Larsen said there had been a huge increase in the recognition of the value of short food supply chains and the need for alternative ways to get products to market.

Coronavirus had shown the value of direct relationships between producers and consumers, as well as having locally operated food hubs and aggregators.

It also highlighted the need for farmers to share resources, rather than having to deliver individually.

"It was a real recognition these things were not niche, or cutesy," Ms Larsen said.

'They are a really important part of a resilient food system, particularly the depth of relationships and networks that underpin these kinds of supply networks, and how adaptable and flexible they have been shown to be.

"It's good for us to be able to have that recognised and support lots of producers and communities, to get food moving quickly."

Ms Larsen said she felt it had accelerated the shift away from traditional food shopping.

"COVID was a really big jump, and while we are not operating at the peak we were, we have stabilised at about five times what we were before COVID."

It had also been belatedly recognised that a short-supply chain was very important.

"It needs to be understood, and invested in - even if that is taking a little bit of time to come to fruition, it is definitely on the table."

Farmers' markets

And Victorian Farmers Markets "came of age", during the pandemic, according to the executive officer of the peak body.

Many producers saw their restaurant trade dry up overnight and there was also a significant impact on supplies to wholesalers and butchers.

At the height of the pandemic, several farmers markets were closed, due to concerns about the spread of coronavirus.

Victorian Farmers' Markets Association executive officer Kate Archdeacon said it had been a difficult, but inspiring, year.

"It was quite inspiring, to look back and see how we stepped up, particularly around connecting with the communities we feed and working together to keep those market and stallholder guidelines, up to date and relevant," Ms Archdeacon said.

"That was a massive collective effort, for all our markets in our network."

She said one highlight was the contact from an elderly couple, at the height of the pandemic.

"They wrote in, right in the middle of August, and said 'thanks for keeping the markets open' because we don't feel safe anywhere else, at the moment'."

Ms Archdeacon said reflecting on the pandemic had given the VFMA a chance to understand how its role in the Victorian food supply chain and community had been consolidated.

"In the past, we struggled to be seen as relevant," she said.

"But this year, we were able to supply food where there were shortages everywhere else - we were able to provide safe shopping spaces, from the very beginning."

There were no cases of coronavirus connected to any of the farmers markets.

"We are adding to the resilience of the local food system," Ms Archdeacon said.

"I see farmers markets as something where, if someone wants to try something different, maybe test something out, try new crops or products, you can do that and get a retail return."

"We are incredibly lucky we have the spaces where new farming systems and foods can emerge, in a retail space, direct to the public."

She said even in the VFMA's "darkest months" it never went below 70 pc of operational markets.

"We always maintained 24 of the 36 were running, even when things were really tough," she said.

The pandemic saw rapid adaptation, by stallholders, with many incorporating online sales into their business.

"There was a sense, in March, that online sales were going to replace farmers markets, which I think is a very simplistic way of thinking about what a farmer's market does," Ms Archdeacon said.

"I am quite relieved online sales have been able to be included, rather than replace, what the farmer's market does."

She said between the bushfires and COVID there had been a great deal of state government support to try and reconnect people with producers.

"I really feel like this year has reminded everyone how lucky we are that we have this diverse community of makers, artisans, farmers and food producers, who want to talk to their customers directly and are willing to try different things out."

She said there had been a spike in sales, during the early stage of coronavirus, but that had started to drop off as people started to move around and eat out again.

"They have used up all their recipes for the year.

"I feel like we have shifted from being disregarded, as a hobby sector, and a events type sector, and can show we can provide food, safely, and we do have a part to play in Victoria's economy."

Coronavirus challenges

Belinda Hagan, of the Beyond Free-Range Pork brand of McIvor Farm Foods, said one of the biggest changes was a sharp increase in on-line deliveries.

Prior to the pandemic, McIvor had predominantly been supplying farmers markets and selling from the farm gate.

"People have been able to gain access to us more easily, and it's something we are going to pursue," Ms Hagan said..

"One of the biggest changes for us has been an increased customer base, an increase in people wanting to know where their food comes from and supporting local producers," Ms Hagan said.

"It's been a crazy year, in like, really busy - a massive increase in demand."

But she also said it had also allowed the family to focus on "work-life" balance.

"We don't need to spend all our weekends at farmers markets every weekend - we need to start looking after ourselves, and spending some time, with our family."

She said the pandemic made the business adapt and get creative, as to how they could get products to customers.

Sue Jones, Miramonte Farm, Strathbogie, started working with a local food hub, Strathbogie Local, which formed after the Euroa farmers market closed.

"That was online ordering and its's continuing on a weekly basis, even though the farmers market has started back up again," Ms Jones said.

Miramonte runs a Murray Grey herd and sells products under its Strathbogie Ranges Grass Fed beef brand.

"We found that we were doing some deliveries, as well, to our customers."

That built a stronger bond between Miramonte and its customers, she said.

"We are looking to gear ourselves up to have people access our product, at other times, other than just at the farmers market."

Miramonte would continue to partner with Open Food Network, in the new year.

She said the sales, at the markets Miramonte attended, were stronger than in pre-coronovirus times.

"I am really pleased consumers have become more connected with where their food is coming from." Ms Jones said.

"Farmers markets have been a great platform for consumers to make that connection.

'When the supermarkets and butchers were running out of food, people were able to connect with producers like ourselves.

"A lot of those people are continuing along that journey."

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