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Iowa Ag Connection - 01/15/2021

The 2020 pandemic pushed direct market farmers into the spotlight nationwide. Consumers shied away from supermarkets for safety and because many products were in short supply. Even farmers markets suffered, as customers and vendors struggled to comply with COVID-19 social distancing requirements.

The winners in this year's direct market landscape? According to the Farm, Food and Enterprise Development program of Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, the winner was Community Supported Agriculture.

Customers scrambled to sign up for weekly pickup or delivery of boxes of produce fresh from the farm. Many CSA farmers who had been struggling for subscriptions suddenly struggled to manage overwhelming demand.

"In all the time that we've worked with CSAs, which is several decades, we've never seen a surge as we have over the last few weeks," said Evan Wiig, Community Alliance for Family Farmers, in a story by NPR in May 2020.

Two farmers posing.Farms that already had online ordering systems in place -- or quickly adopted them -- fared best. Farmer-focused nonprofits like the CSA Innovation Network churned out resources all summer to help producers navigate digital marketing.

At the 2020 Iowa Organic Conference, Jordan Clasen, of Grade A Gardens in Johnston, shared tips for CSA success. He and his wife, Whitney, grow food for 100 families in the Des Moines area through their CSA.

Clasen stressed that a farm's website doesn't have to be fancy. But it needs to offer the simplest buying experience possible for customers. He recommends offering customers as many options as possible to buy the farm's products. Those could include contactless pickup, market shares, a la carte items and more. Adaptability is key.

As a vaccine for COVID-19 rolls out in 2021, market farmers hope their customers old and new will stick around.

"What we're trying to do is turn it into a longer-term relationship with our farm and those members so that they see that there's a tremendous advantage in getting their food locally from people that they know," said Judith Redmond, of northern California's Full Belly Farm, in an NPR story in May 2020.

Many of Iowa's CSA farms are accepting sign-ups now. Find one near you on the online statewide CSA directory provided by the FFED program.

FFED has collected some of the top resources for CSA farmers in a blog post. Many focus on COVID-19 management. But best practices for safe food and easy online ordering will still matter post-pandemic.

As Jordan Clasen said, "This isn't the last pandemic, or the last derecho. Don't give up! People need real food."

If you have specific questions, reach out to the FFED Small Farms Team.


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