Consumers and farmers have found new ways to connect during the pandemic

COVID-19 forced farmers to rethink how they distribute goods.
farmer with scottish highland cows
Photo by Carrie Highman
Cows from Highland Spring Farm

With physical distancing guidelines in place and attendance limits on the number of people gathering, COVID-19 forced farmers to rethink how they distribute goods. Farmers’ markets had to be retooled while restaurants either closed or offered limited menus for delivery, causing farmers to lose sales. While in some cases there might have been fewer opportunities, farmers found innovative partnerships and new ways to operate as more people became mindful of where their food comes from, especially during a pandemic. Here are a few paths Madison producers and organizations took to maintain their businesses, help others and share local agriculture.

Meat Demand

When the Safer at Home order hit, Kevin Oppermann’s phone rang off the hook. People were seeking alternatives to grocery stores and looking for ways to support local farmers. Oppermann and his wife, Keely, own Highland Spring Farm in Oregon with their kids Liam, 4, Odin, 3, and Ainsley, 5 months. Sudden interest in their pasture-raised beef led to the launch of an online store and on-farm pickups on Wednesdays in April.

“Our sales volume on Wednesday night is triple what a good Saturday market was [last year],” Oppermann says.

family with three kids

Highland Spring Farm — owned by Kevin and Keely Oppermann with their three kids, Liam, Odin and Ainsley (pictured above) — raises Scottish Highland cattle. Photo by Carrie Highman

Customers who used to buy 1 to 3 pounds of ground beef a week started buying 10 to 15 pounds at a time because they’re eating at home more with their entire family. Opperman says people living within 5 miles from the farm, who previously bought meat at grocery stores, Google “local beef near me” and become new customers.

“These first-time customers are saying, ‘We just really want to support local right now.’ They say, ‘We know how much local farmers and businesses are hurting with the virus. We really feel strongly that we need to help out our neighbors right now instead of buying conventional stuff at the grocery store,’ ” Oppermann says.

Large meat processing plants have been hotbeds of COVID-19 transmission. The farm’s Scottish Highland beef cattle are processed at The Meat Market in Baraboo. With small-scale meat processors facing an increased workload, the lead time is nine months instead of the typical three to six, but Oppermann has processing dates secured through the end of 2021.

Cattle on the farm

Photo by Carrie Highman

In addition to a farm stand and Westside Community Farmers’ Market, Highland Spring is partnering with other producers and farmers. Partners include Blue Moon Community Farm, Vitruvian Farms, Seven Seeds Farm and Landmark Creamery. Oppermann’s customers can add pork from Spring Green’s Seven Seeds Farm for pickup with Highland Spring beef. Customers of Vitruvian Farms or Landmark Creamery can add Highland Spring beef to their home delivery orders, too.

“We’re not competing against each other,” Oppermann says of Madison-area producers. “We’re trying to help all boats rise.” –Hannah Wente

Boxes of Resilience

boxes of items being packaged

Photo courtesy of REAP Food Group

REAP Food Group, a nonprofit that works with regional farmers and manages Madison’s Farm to School program, was left with 3,000 pounds of fresh organic produce when schools shut down March 16. This excess of food “got our wheels turning,” says Helen Sarakinos, REAP’s executive director. At the same time, Mariela Quesada Centeno, manager of Roots4Change Co-op, the first Latinx/Indigenous cooperative in Dane County, was identifying issues of food access among Madison’s Latinx (a gender-neutral term) and Indigenous residents, many of whom were laid off from the service industry during the COVID-19 crisis. “We were having a meeting in March and one of our co-op members said, ‘Our families are not necessarily going to food pantries,’ ” Centeno says. “Transportation is an issue and there is a lack of trust when you have to provide an ID.”

Together, REAP, Roots4Change and Rooted launched the Farms to Families Fund in early April. The initiative worked with regional family farms and farm producers to bring boxes of fresh, locally produced food to up to 200 Latinx and Indigenous households. Known as “resilience boxes,” they contain a mix of proteins, produce, grains and other staples that were delivered directly to families’ doorsteps by people who were out of work due to COVID-19.

look into items in a resilience box

Photo courtesy of REAP Food Group

Juan Gonzalez Torres, owner of Los Abuelos Farley Farm and Los Jalapeños CSA, provided spinach, lettuce mix and green garlic for the boxes. Gonzalez Torres, who has been farming in Verona since 2010, says it was very helpful to be able to sell his early spring harvest to REAP. “It’s a great way to keep revenue up when the farmers’ markets are shut down,” he says. Cesar Luis, a cheesemaker in Sheboygan Falls, provided cheese for the boxes at cost. “I’m doing this because I think sometimes in life you need a [boost],” Luis says. –Erica Krug

Staying Power of Local Food

Almost all 45 FairShare CSA Coalition’s members sold out of their Community Supported Agriculture shares in record time this spring, despite declining numbers last year.

“People want nutrient-dense food right now,” says Carrie Sedlak, FairShare’s executive director. “They don’t want to go to a grocery store, and they want to support local.” She also says some people felt their normal food chain was threatened, so they wanted to make sure they had access to good products.

Despite increased demand, farmers are coping with decreased restaurant revenue and rapidly changing business plans. The Dane County Farmers’ Market reached out to FairShare in March to start an emergency fund for farm members. Grants of up to $500 can cover payroll, an online store or equipment. The grants can also be used to resolve debt from restaurants unable to pay for previous orders. In May 2020, the fund reached $50,000 with a $5,000 matching donation from Willy Street Co-op.

Spring share from Squashington Farm

Spring share from Squashington Farm, a FairShare CSA Coalition member. Photo courtesy of FairShare/Squashington Farm

Roots Down Community Farm in Milton received one of the grants. “We’re just trying to keep the lights on,” Roots Down owner and farmer Kyle Thom says.

Like those of other farmers, his CSA share sales more than doubled this year, from 65 to 140. But twice as many members and online preorders require more time away from the fields.

“Even though the demand is up, it’s a very challenging year — all of these extra requirements take a lot of extra energy,” says Thom.

Still, he’s hopeful new CSA members will recognize the health, diversity and sustainability offered by small farms.

“I don’t see this renewed interest in local food systems and what they provide going away,” Sedlak says. “[COVID-19] has really elucidated how valuable local food is. Hopefully it’ll be even stronger next year.” –Hannah Wente

Partnering with Producers

Decisions about what we eat and where we buy our food can be glossed over when the national and global marketplace is operating at full tilt. Madison has always been a hub of progressive food attitudes, offering fertile ground for small scale food producers. In the current economic landscape, some of the best adept for the challenge have been farmers who are accustomed to adapting to evolving variables.

For farmer Tommy Stauffer, co-owner of Vitruvian Farms in McFarland, the omnipresent demands of a changing climate and the ever-shifting restaurant scene, have given him wisdom and fortitude when confronted with the unprecedented challenge of the pandemic.

With 90% of Vitruvian Farms’ sales coming from restaurant orders, Stauffer and his business partner, Shawn Kuhn, needed to find an outlet for their products, primarily specialty greens and mushrooms.

“In the initial talk of a shutdown, we hadn’t planted any greens,” Stauffer says. “So we had an opportunity to figure out how to hedge our bets early and figure out what we knew we could sell.”

They shifted from a wholesale model to a direct-to-consumer model by launching an online store. Vitruvian was able to incorporate other local producers’ products, including bread, meat, dairy, honey, and vegetables bought in from other farmers, along with products from other locally owned food companies. Some of the partners include Highland Spring Farm, JenEhr Family Farm, Willow Creek Farms, Sassy Cow Creamery, Ledger Coffee Roasters and Madison Sourdough. “We went from an average of 10 to 20 pickups on a weekend when we just had a little side pick-up to now reprocessing almost 300 orders a week,” Stauffer says. –Jonnah Mellenthin-Perkins

Giving Back With Milk

Effects of the pandemic have been hard on everyone, and the dairy industry is no exception. Dairy farmers are familiar with hardship, as the market for milk was struggling before COVID-19 set in. Farmers were faced with lower demand and an abundance of products, which led to “milk spills”. Fortunately, Sassy Cow Creamery in Columbus, WI, has been able to keep a balanced business market while also lending a helping hand to the local community.

The demand for milk from Sassy Cow Creamery has been about the same overall, says co-owner James Baerwolf. The closing of restaurants and coffeehouses resulted in a significant decline in product demand, and the farm is selling less heavy cream and half and half as a result, but a decline in milk has been balanced out by an increase in grocery store business and a busier retail store at the creamery.

And, in an effort to further service customers and the community, Sassy Cow started the Kindness Cooler towards the end of March, and for a few weeks the company was refilling a refrigerator outside of the creamery’s store fully stocked with about 300 gallons of milk a day. When the Kindness Cooler ended in May, they had given more than 10,000 gallons of milk to those in need. Sassy Cow has continued to send milk to local food banks and pantries. –Hannah Twietmeyer

No Longer On The Square

For almost 50 years, the Dane County Farmers’ Market has been a defining feature of Madison. As the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the country, DCFM connects rural Wisconsin with its urban neighbors and attracts visitors from around the region with an unparalleled selection of local foods. The COVID-19 outbreak has forced DCFM to adapt quickly in order to meet the needs of farmers and market customers hungry for locally sourced goods.

Unable to do business as usual, the DCFM is hosting Local Food Pick-Ups on Wednesdays and Saturdays at Willow Island at the Alliant Energy Center. Customers and vendors are connected through an app called “WhatsGood,” which serves as an online marketplace. Patrons can place their orders in advance and pick them up at an assigned time.

Market Manager Sarah Elliot says there are more than 60 vendors participating. They also started a walk-up component to the Saturday market. While the new set-up has proved effective for the time being, there are limits to what it can do for farmers.

“As someone who sells a premium product directly to a customer, it is important to have that trust and connection of face to face interaction for at least some of my sales,” says Josiah Hertzler of Sparrow Hill Farm. Despite the lack of personal interaction, Hertzler has seen a surge in sales from app, as well as from his personal site, which launched prior to the pandemic.

“Our fundamental mission to connect Wisconsin producers to Wisconsin eaters is perhaps even more critical now than ever,” says Elliot. – Henry Michaels

Making It Work

Back in March Ben Zimmerman, the market manager of the Westside Community Farmers’ Market, says organizers knew the structure of the market would have to change to account for COVID-19 guidelines.

Zimmerman says he knew if the market could exist in some fashion, they were going to make it happen for the farmers, food crafters and greenhouse growers who participate weekly.

“We know that the effects of COVID are really far-reaching,” Zimmerman says. “For a lot of our growers who are say heavy in restaurant accounts or multiple markets, we knew that we could use that space to provide an experience to get their product out there.”

The market start was delayed by a couple of weeks to figure out the best structure, which he says was a walk-through market with adequate spacing, directional foot traffic, pre-orders and face masks. While not all farmers offer pre-orders, some do to allow for quicker pick-ups. The farmers also handle all the produce in order to limit the number of people touching the products.

The Westside Community Market was able to find a way to keep almost all of its vendors as participants, but Zimmerman has had to turn down new farmers who are looking for opportunities to sell now that their typical avenues have been eliminated or modified.

“Unfortunately we are full and it’s definitely a little heartbreaking to see these people who have done markets for however many years not have a place to sell their stuff,” he says. “We got to look out for our historical vendors first.”

Almost everyone wears face masks and make sure to adhere to all the safety guidelines in place. He says there are new people at the market who keep coming back, many of whom are people that previously only shopped at the downtown markets.

“There’s a real appeal for good, safe food is not going to go away, and I think if anything it’s heightened it in a time like this and coming out to the market really gives you that chance to do that,” Zimmerman says. –Maija Inveiss