Market disruptions because of COVID-19 are far from over for the ag industry, but quick, innovative thinking has helped some Ohio producers get the food they produce to people who need it. Although these solutions may not be financially sustainable for the long term, they have helped clear product backlogs and filled a need for consumers.
Social media promotion
In late April, when Brennco Farms found out the packers that normally process their hogs were shutting down, they were left without a market for their finished hogs. That left them short on space for the 2,500 piglets being born every week. “We just didn’t have any barn space for them,” explains Keaton Brenneman, who helps manage the family farm business in Elida, Ohio, with his dad, Kim; uncle, Stan, and brother, Kyle. The family runs a 5,000-sow hog operation, working with 25 nearby contract growers to raise about 120,000 hogs each year.
As soon as the Brennemans heard about the packing plant closures, they put their market hogs on a maintenance diet to limit weight gain and began making plans to double-stock barns to hold more pigs; they were worried they’d be forced to euthanize animals when they ran out of room. When Stan asked Keaton to try selling them on Facebook, he was skeptical at first. “I thought maybe we’d be able to sell 50, but that was better than nothing,” Keaton recalls.
As it turns out, Keaton’s Facebook post traveled much faster and farther than he expected. The first post went up April 30 explaining the situation, and offering finished hogs for sale for $140 each. By May 2, they had buyers lined up and sold 300 hogs. During the following week, even more interested buyers contacted him. They limited sales to buyers who could take at least 10 hogs, and they still attracted more buyers than they expected for the May 9 sale. The Brennemans were hoping to get two barns emptied, but demand was so great they started emptying a third as well, selling about 1,500 hogs. The two sales gave the Brennemans enough room to manage pig flow through their production system until the packing plants began reopening later in May.
Offering hogs for sale from the farm required more work than shipping hogs to the packers on semitrailers, Keaton notes. He estimates they spent twice as much as usual to pay their load-out crews. On the other hand, he adds, “We don’t have to pay for trucking.”
The Brennemans underestimated the traffic jam the sale would create the first week, and traffic got chaotic, Keaton recalls. Trucks coming in blocked those going out as well as customers parking trucks in the grass. The second week went better because they had people on hand to direct traffic.
Keaton initially put his phone number and email in his Facebook post, but he quickly realized that was a mistake when his phone blew up with calls and messages. He removed his contact information from the post and set up a special page to handle the second hog sale — but his contact information was still circulating, and he continued to get calls.
Some buyers told the Brennemans they planned to butcher the hogs themselves. Others intended to keep them for a few weeks until they could arrange for processing with custom butchers. One farmer from Georgia was planning to put the hogs he bought on pasture for a while before selling them as pastured pork. Buyers came from several states as well as Ohio, Keaton adds. “We had one guy come from Louisiana that wanted 50 pigs.”
The Brennemans set the price at about 50 cents per pound, based on the price they had been getting from the packers. However, that price isn’t profitable for the long term, Keaton points out. Even so, selling the hogs at a loss was better than the alternative. “It’s so much better than putting them down.”
Courtesy of DFAJOINT EFFORT: Dairy Farmers of America’s Mideast Area donated surplus milk to be made into cottage cheese. Daisy Brand donated the processing and packaging for the 120,000 pounds of cheese, which was distributed through food banks in northeast Ohio.
Donations, not dumping
When schools, restaurants and hotels closed due to COVID-19, processors saw a quick drop in demand for products packaged in bulk, even though some grocery stores were seeing increased milk demand. “COVID[-19] significantly disrupted the supply chain,” explains Heather McCann, director of public affairs for Dairy Farmers of America’s Mideast Area. “The processors could not easily pivot to packaging smaller packages.”
DFA’s Mideast Area covers Ohio and parts of all the bordering states. The dairy marketing co-op has 375 member farms in Ohio, and those members produce a little more than a third of the state’s milk.
Due to the pandemic, the cooperative saw a sudden drop in orders. However, McCann points out, “The cows don’t get that message.” Since milk is so perishable, the co-op didn’t have much time to find a use for the milk.
Previously, Mideast DFA’s farmer council had coordinated a milk donation program with Kroger, through the grocery chain’s Tamarack Farms processing plant. DFA built on that idea to set up a larger donation program, with the co-op donating the milk and Kroger donating the processing. “Our dairy farmers are very generous people and never want to see their products wasted,” McCann says. Starting in May, Mideast DFA and Kroger have been jointly donating more than 2,700 gallons of milk each week in 1-gallon and half-gallon jugs to several central and western Ohio food banks and pantries. That program is scheduled to run through August. Similar donation programs are also underway in other states where DFA operates.
In addition to the Kroger program, Mideast DFA coordinated with Daisy Brand to process surplus milk into cottage cheese at the Daisy processing plant in Wooster, Ohio. Over a six-week period this spring, DFA and Daisy donated 120,000 pounds of cottage cheese packaged in 24-ounce containers to the Akron-Canton Food Bank, Mahoning Valley Second Harvest Food Bank and Greater Cleveland Food Bank.
Giving away milk, obviously, isn’t an economic advantage for farmers, McCann points out. Even so, the donation programs helped clear inventory to prevent the need for farmers to dump milk that couldn’t be sold, she explains. “We knew they’d rather give it away than throw it away.”
Courtesy of Countryside Food and FarmsCURBSIDE SERVICE: Countryside Food and Farms started using curbside delivery for one of its farmers markets. Volunteers help assemble online orders from customers.
Countryside Food and Farms, a nonprofit based in Peninsula, Ohio, ordinarily operates an indoor farmers market through the winter and two outdoor markets through the summer. However, due to concerns about the COVID-19 virus, organizers converted the winter market to a curbside pickup with online preorders. The outdoor markets are expected to open this summer, but with new health protocols.
The winter farmers market is ordinarily held at Old Trail School in Bath, Ohio. Then, after the virus hit, the market was moved from the gym to the parking lot, with customers driving through to pick up their orders. The first week was overwhelming, says Serena Jones, Countryside’s farmers market manager. The market was offering items from about 35 vendors, and social media promotion of the market attracted more people than they expected. “With our small staff, we couldn’t handle it,” she recalls. The second week, the market scaled back to 10 vendors and has gradually increased vendor numbers since then.
Week by week, the market has developed a system that has been working well, Jones says. “We’re starting to get used to it now.”
The curbside market relies heavily on volunteers — but they haven’t been hard to find. The market ordinarily uses some volunteers, and when a call went out for extra help though the weekly online market newsletter, plenty of people volunteered. “In general, the volunteer base is made up of die-hard farmers market lovers, and there’s no place they’d rather be on a Saturday morning,” Jones says.
To order items from the market, customers go online earlier in the week and select items offered by market vendors in the online store. The online store is closed once it reaches capacity for pickups. As they order, customers sign up for a pickup time. “We can serve about 100 cars per hour,” Jones explains. The market was serving about 200 customers a week in May, with numbers creeping upward as they perfected the system.
Courtesy of Countryside Food and FarmsTRAFFIC CONTROL: Customers for Countryside’s curbside farmers market pick up orders at three stations in the parking lot of Old Trail School in Bath, Ohio.
On Saturdays, when the drive-through market opens, customers start at a greeting station. If they don’t already have a sign in the car window bearing their name, they get a sign at that point, and the greeter uses a walkie-talkie to let other workers at three order-filling stations know who is coming. At the order-filling stations, runners select the ordered items from vendors and load them directly into customers’ trunks. All the while, they’re wearing masks and gloves, and practicing social distancing.
The online ordering system has actually led to better sales for some vendors, Jones says. Meat vendors, for instance, have seen an increase in sales of certain cuts of meat they’ve had trouble selling in the past. Customers might not have realized those cuts were available until they saw them listed online. People are always eager for the first produce in the spring, but this year they seem especially interested in the fresh local produce, she adds. “What is available goes very quickly.”
Going forward, Jones says the market is considering continuing the curbside service, even after the traditional walk-around markets reopen. If the traditional markets aren’t able to open, Countryside Food and Farms will do what it can to help farmers get their products to customers, she says. “If we can’t run in a traditional way, we’re doing our best to make it run somehow.”
For Case Farms, which produces meat chickens in both North Carolina and Ohio, the virus caused a total market disruption, according to Brian Roberts, vice president of sales and marketing. “At the onset, the supply and demand balance was shifted immediately because of the food service and restaurant closures. At times, there was no home for the products.” As retail channels started reopening, the situation stabilized, but production was affected by labor issues, which led to meat shortages.
Early in the crisis, some processed chicken was moved at deep discounts. Ordinarily, Case Farms doesn’t sell directly to consumers, but they set up several drive-through truckload sales, offering 20- to 40-pound cases of chicken tenders, leg quarters, wings and other popular cuts at around $1 per pound or less.
As time went on, retail demand improved as retailers resolved challenges with labor and logistics. Retailers also had to overcome some resistance to accepting slightly different products in terms of packaging, trim level and size, Roberts notes. Even so, market values for most products were cut in half due to the COVID-19 crisis, he explains. “For instance, boneless breast was quoting in the $1.30 range in mid-March. By early April, we saw quotes at 74 cents and trading well back of that. Those levels are not sustainable.”
Adjustments in marketing have been necessary, but Case Farms and other producers will continue to work toward meeting demand, according to Roberts. “This has been a dark time in our industry; but for the most part, farmers have been kept afloat because of the relatively short duration of disruption.”
Keck writes from Raymond, Ohio.