Going digital: Pandemic drives rapid growth for local online food sales

Hands hold a phone and place orders for food, a van drives with a basket of food on top, a variety of food sits on top of a cell phone.
(Farm and Dairy image)

After years of taking his products to farmers markets in Cleveland, Kevin Henslee, of Yellow House Cheese, stopped this spring.

“It didn’t make sense to go out during a pandemic,” he said.

If his wife, Kristyn, gets sick, she can’t make cheese. Henslee worried that farmers market crowds would be too concentrated and would lead to a greater risk of illness. They also lost some of their other markets, like restaurants. So, instead, they shifted their focus to online sales.

The Henslees raise lamb, beef, pork and chicken, and make cheese from sheep’s milk and cow’s milk from neighboring farms. They partnered with friends who grow produce and other products to open an online store.

So far, it’s gone so well that they’re planning to make online sales a permanent part of their business.

But the Henslees are far from the first farmers to explore online sales, which were some farmers’ avenue of choice even before the pandemic hit.

New sales

Christie Welch, program specialist of direct agricultural marketing with Ohio State University, said the university doesn’t have research on how many farmers in the state use online sale platforms. But she knows it has gone up recently.

“I think that the pandemic was just kind of the catalyst,” she said.

Even before the pandemic, many farmers were interested in online stores, Welch said. Before the pandemic, millennials were predicted to soon have the most buying power in the country, Welch said. That has helped drive online sales. The pandemic forced some to take the leap.

“That’s really increased the number of producers that are using online sale platforms,” Welch said. “I think customers were very interested right from the get go … it just took a little while to get all the details worked out.”

Starting out

Henslee said they’ve been thinking about an online store for a long time, but weren’t sure how shipping would work. And while he knew some produce farms that had CSAs, he wasn’t sure if that would work with just meats and cheeses.

For the Henslees, working with other farmers was the answer.

“We’re better off sticking together, offering a variety of products,” Henslee said.

It only took them about a week to get the store up and running. They started out working with someone who had e-commerce experience and set up a website for them for the first couple of weeks. After that, they came across Local Line and started using that, since that platform was more efficient and easier for Henslee to use. It left him with more time to work directly on the farm.

Logistics

On Mondays, the farmers involved send in their inventory for the week, and the Henslees get it online. They send out a newsletter to customers highlighting what’s available and any special packages — for example, they offered grilling packs for Independence Day. Once the online store opens for the week, customers place their orders.

Henslee sends the other farmers a list of what they sold, and those farmers drop off their products at his farm on Friday. Then, he takes the orders to four drop off points: two in Cleveland, one at the farm and one in Medina. Customers meet him to pick up their orders.

Cooperative

Some of the farmers the Henslees work with don’t go to the same farmers markets as them. Selling through the online store lets the farms pool their customer bases.

Though Henslee handles most of the online store responsibilities, he calls it a cooperative. He doesn’t make money from the other farmers who sell with him.

“I think people enjoy or appreciate the fact that when they spend money in our store, it goes directly to the person doing the work,” Henslee said.

Efficient

The online sales aren’t always easy, Henslee said, but this system is efficient for him.

Farmers markets require farmers to get up early, pack up everything in their vehicles, set up, stand at the market for hours and pack up and bring everything home to unpack again. Unsold items might be wasted. And there’s no guaranteed sales.

“With this, everything’s picked and packed to order,” Henslee said. “When I come home … I’m empty and a lot less tired.”

In between

Benji Ballmer, of Yellowbird Foodshed, in Mount Vernon, Ohio, comes at online food sales from another perspective.

Ballmer didn’t grow up concerned about local or healthy food. He doesn’t come from a farming background. But once he started looking into it, he went down the rabbit hole.

“When we started having kids, we started thinking about feeding those kids,” Ballmer said.

They started out by buying milk from a local farm. Then, they started making their own bread. Over the years, they started a garden and began raising a few chickens.

Ballmer believes strongly in the health benefits of local food. As he learned more, he also realized that there were benefits for the local economy. So, he wondered, why didn’t more people eat local?

“The answer for a lot of people is, it’s just not easy enough,” Ballmer said.

Grocery stores are convenient. You can buy everything you need for the week in one place. Buying local dairy, meats and vegetables from farms or local stores could mean multiple trips each week.

Yellowbird

So, about eight years ago, he started Yellowbird Foodshed as an online store where people could order all of their groceries weekly from local farmers.

At the beginning, Ballmer considered Yellowbird Foodshed to be a multi-farm CSA. He bought from 10-20 other farms, and started out working with friends who farmed in the Mount Vernon area. Ballmer sometimes contributes from his own garden for Yellowbird, but for the most part, he doesn’t grow enough for that to be useful.

Now, the online store offers more than 850 products, all Ohio-produced. Some customers do all of their grocery shopping through the store, and he has heard people refer to it as a food hub, or a grocery store.

Ballmer started delivering mainly in the Columbus area. Now, he works in Columbus, Mount Vernon, Mansfield and Marion, and Findlay and other small towns in that area.

His main customers are people who are concerned about their personal health or their family’s health.

“This is at the forefront of everybody’s thinking more and more because we’re unhealthier than we’ve ever been as a society,” Ballmer said. “That’s what elicits a purchase.”

Local food is also healthy for communities, he said. When you buy locally, the money stays local and goes more directly to that farmer.

Delivery

Ballmer has done home deliveries, but also partnered with hospitals, juice bars, grocery stores and other places so he could drop off deliveries for customers to pick up.

Before the pandemic, Ballmer did about 60 home deliveries per week. That number jumped to about 600.

During the pandemic, hospitals became high risk areas, so they stopped using those as pick up spots. Instead, they often used public parking lots, where the customers could drive up to get their orders.

Relationships. Not everything can be translated into an online format. Welch said one of the benefits for customers buying local food is having personal interaction with local farmers. Buying online makes it harder to have that relationship.

“It can be done, but it looks very different to continue that kind of a relationship online,” Welch said.

Henslee said he still gets to see and interact with his regular customers, since he delivers the orders. About half of his online customers came from the farmers market. Others started buying from them after they opened the online store.

“We definitely have new customers because of it,” he said.

Not going away

Nick Carter, of Market Wagon, believes that the boom in online sales is here to stay. He founded Market Wagon, a platform that allows farmers to sell online, in 2017, in Indiana.

Since then, he’s expanded to 11 locations in four Midwest states, including three in Ohio, and plans to keep expanding nationwide. Across all locations, there are about 375 farmers selling on the platform.

Market Wagon keeps the food local by having multiple locations. Farmers near a hub can sell through the platform and deliver their orders to the hub. From there, Market Wagon delivers to customers.

“There’s an increasing demand for locally grown food,” Carter said.

Throughout the pandemic, interest from both customers and farmers has increased. But online grocery sales were already growing steadily in the U.S., Carter said.

“[The pandemic] just took something that was an eventual inevitably, and it compressed the time frame,” Carter said. “These buying habits are not going to change.”

Welch believes that online sales might wane initially after the pandemic, as people might be eager to get out and socialize in person. But long-term, she expects to see online sales continue to be important for local farmers.

The Henslees are expecting to continue online sales. They are in the process of getting licensed to bottle milk, and plan to then add those products to the online store.

“This is where we want to be. It’s efficient for us; it’s good for our customers,” Henslee said. “We intend on continuing this model.”

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Author: hafiz 2012