Missouri Farmers’ Markets make innovative changes to address COVID-19 concerns

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As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, marketplaces around the globe are making major changes on how they operate to remain safe and viable. This has been especially true for community farmers’ markets, which have long been considered the bedrock of grassroots entrepreneurial activity.

In economic development we get this question a lot: how much do farmers’ markets contribute to our economy? Although this is a relevant economic question, it must be noted that farmers’ markets’ contribution to the economy goes far beyond the direct and current dollar amount. Professor Sarah Low, who recently joined University of Missouri Extension after 10 years with the USDA’s Economic Research Service in D.C., conducted research on Missouri’s economic growth, as well as the entrepreneurial activity captured in our state. She finds that, while Missouri lags behind most Midwestern states in terms of economic growth rate – as measured by its contribution to the Gross Domestic Product’s (GDP) – on the other hand, it ranks among the highest nationally in terms of entrepreneurial activity as measured through various factors.

These important findings link to farmers’ markets because they are rich in entrepreneurial “vitamins.” Through their direct interactions with consumers, farmers can intuitively capture what their markets want as opposed to when connected through intermediaries. The interaction with consumers helps farmers think more as entrepreneurs as opposed to strictly focus just on the production aspects. Further, the less intermediaries a farmer has between her business and the consumer, the higher the margin she will get in dollar amount.

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Simple forms of value-added farm products can also greatly increase a farmers’ income when, concurrently the number of intermediaries are reduced. Farmers’ markets cut these intermediaries. This is an important point to consider when we account for the fact that farming is hard work and that most of our farmers do not make much money. Hence, increasing the possibilities for their future income growth, also raises the chances our farmers will be there tomorrow to continue to provide consumers with fresh local foods.

One example of simple value-added provided by farmers locally is clean and cut chicken parts in sealed packages sold at the Webb City Farmers’ Market. Another example is filtered and packaged local honey sold at both, the Joplin Empire Market and the Webb City Farmers’ Market. These products appeal to the consumer seeking some value-added but who also wants to stay away from say, highly processed pre-cooked chicken with preservatives, or imported honey that possess no benefit against local allergens.

Unfortunately, 2020’s first rite of spring – the opening of the annual local farmers’ markets, has been challenged by the fallout from COVID-19. Even though, foods businesses are considered “essential”, we were hearing that many farmers’ markets, were not planning to open this year. However, there were some successful models already being explored at year-round farmer’s markets across Missouri. So a team of University of Missouri Extension faculty intervened to see if some of those innovative approaches implemented by these markets could be shared more broadly with other market operators through online forums.

University of Missouri Extension hosted the first farmers’ market forum entitled “Innovative Ideas during COVID-19: Three Farmers Markets in Missouri Share Their Stories” on April 8, via Zoom. This roundtable discussion, which featured representatives from three year-round markets included: Rachael Lynch, manager, Webb City Farmers Market; Corrina Smith, manager, Columbia Farmers Market and; Karissa Kary, executive director, and Jesse Stone, manager, Farmers Markets of the Ozarks. Maria Rodriguez-Alcala, community economic development specialist in Jasper County hosted the sessions in collaboration with other Extension specialists across the state. The participants also received extra support, such as a multipage compilation of COVID-19 online resources that recently emerged to support farmers’ markets across the nation.

The first online event attracted 175 participants across Missouri. Many market managers across the state immediately began implementing some of the suggestions with renewed hope that they would still be able to serve their vendors and customers in the coming 2020 season. Some of the successful approaches included increased use of online sales for promotions and preordering. Other proposed models included drive-through shopping, and various processes that can allow the shopping experience to be as safe as possible for customers and farmers alike.

The most relevant silver lining that emerged from the challenging moment, is that some of these innovative strategies may be here to stay, not necessarily to replace the way these markets operate – after all no one wants the community experience to go away – but more so to complement the way they’ve been doing business. This could in turn help increase very much needed revenues for these markets as well as strengthening their entrepreneurial capacity. Although many of these markets have been exploring online sales, they haven’t really taken that step too seriously until COVID-19 put pressure on them to do so. These could become critical to our state’s economy, particularly in the post COVID-19 recovery. When we pair the entrepreneurial richness aspect present in farmers’ markets together with expectations that, the already growing consumer support for local businesses may also further strengthen, there is potential for even more positive effects down the road for our local economies emerging from these markets.

The University of Missouri Extension continues to provide and update a wide array of free resources to help Missourians through the challenging times brought forth by the Covid19 pandemic. To access the video links from the two farmers’ markets panels and accompanying handouts go to: https://extension2.missouri.edu/news/mu-hosts-webinar-to-help-farmers-markets-confront-covid-19-challenges-4471 For the most comprehensive listing visit:  https://extension2.missouri.edu/covid-19-resoures-public

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