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Adaptability, mental health and trends that will remain in local foods post-COVID

Vendors and consumers are able to connect virtually on the NOCO Virtual Farmer's Market, helping consumers find local food and helping salvage sales lost to COVID closures.
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Though it is without the social aspects of gathering, enjoying live music, and the atmosphere of outdoor shopping directly from producers, farmer’s markets are adapting and opening, with additional space between booths, limited attendance, prebagged items, online ordering, and various other safeguards that allow consumers and producers to meet.

Rosalind May, executive director, Colorado Farmers Market Association, said farmer’s market organizers and vendors have been proactive and have met challenges and have collaborated with Colorado Proud to open markets. Market managers, she said, are reporting that consumers are taking the necessary precautions such as wearing masks and while opening day sales at a Denver and a Durango market were lower than in previous years, sales are still higher than anticipated given the circumstances.

Created in March 2020, the NOCO Virtual Farmer’s Market Facebook group includes over 8,000 members and connects producers and consumers virtually, making available typical farmer’s market items. Each day, vendors post which products are available and purchases are completed through a link to the market’s website. Purchases may be picked up at an outside location in Fort Collins or delivered for a small fee. Alexa Vasquez, the group’s creator, alongside Candida Marques, said the online platform is saving businesses from what could have been a disastrous farmer’s market season.

Duke Phillips IV, COO of Ranchlands, said as a producer in rural Colorado he has been removed from interaction and the changes that have taken place in more populated areas. That being said, livestock producers have experienced difficulties, especially in April when cattle were committed to enter the system. There was a delay in harvesting those animals and he said they have committed to finding ways to avoid that situation in the future. Diversification to manage around weather, markets, and now, pandemics, he said seems to be the best way to keep the operation moving forward.

Phillips’ operation includes working ranch vacations which creates a secondary level of income but also helps educate consumers about the importance of agriculture production. The other business, a leather mercantile, began as a saddle shop and though it remains a fledgling business, the retail aspect helped to support the business, as the tourism side of the business was closed during the pandemic.

Looking forward, he said there is diversification to the channels through which products are sold being considered.

ADAPTING

Kate Greenberg, Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture, said recent months have showcased the adaptability of producers.

“In terms of the changes that have been made in agriculture, they’ve been many, and they’ve been quick to pivot across the board,” she said. “This is not just market channels and new distribution channels and figuring out if you’ll be able to move your cattle or if you’ll be able to have your farmer’s markets but it’s also all of the operational changes that we’ve now got to do in our facilities with PPE and social distancing, new guidances, and for our business owners, rethinking what the staffing plan looks like to keep your people safe and your doors open.”

Greenberg said the CDA is working nearly entirely remotely but keeping the focus on best serving producers. Among the lasting changes, she said she anticipates purchasing directly from farmers and ranchers remaining a trend embraced by consumers. She said the recent months have uncovered vulnerabilities in the system and that has people thinking how to best redesign a system that can support all stops in the supply chain.

She said securing PPE and distributing it to people in the supply chain has been a priority for the Department of Agriculture. Moving forward, it is that supply chain that Pete Marczyk said will be appreciated more deeply. Marczyk Fine Foods has long cultivated relationships directly with growers and producers and he said he is seeing that trend strengthen as consumers are “voting with their wallets” to support local producers. Specializing in local products, Marczyk said his company has been more insulated from the huge price swings experienced by chains that rely upon larger scale distribution channels.

One change Marczyk made was reducing store hours from 12 per day to eight, a move he said relieved stress on his team and also still allowed customers to complete their shopping.

“I was like a frog in a pot, they put me in cool water and turned on the heat and when I realized how taxing the long hours are, we’re done trying,” he said. “We’re open eight hours a day now, everyone is getting their shopping done, they’re happy, thrilled. It’s a much more sane lifestyle and I hope we can all experience some level of sanity out of this.”

To that end, Greenberg said the CDA has a renewed focus on the mental health of producers by continuing the mental health conversation sparked by former Commissioner Don Brown and the crisis line established during his tenure.

Among the mental health resources launched by the CDA are an updated webpage (colorado.gov/ruralmentalhealth) with a short film featuring a Trinidad-area rancher’s story of mental health and suicide. Additionally, online and radio PSAs are being released and aired across the state, along with print materials. The Colorado Crisis Hotline remains an important partner of the CDA with people trained specifically to handle and connect with callers from agriculture backgrounds. The crisis hotline may be called at (844) 493-TALK (8255) or text to talk 38255. ❖

— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. Reached her at rgabel@thefencepost.com or (970) 768-0024.



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