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Farm-to-table took off during the pandemic. Is it here to stay?

Direct sales helped producers and consumers alike during the pandemic. If demand continues to grow, some observers think it could help the small family farms that once thrived in Kansas, along with local butchers, dairies and flour mills. 

Sure, Evelyn Diederich knew about COVID-19. People were getting anxious about the spread of the virus. But she still wasn’t prepared for what happened on a trip to Wichita in March 2020.

“We had stopped at the grocery store because I just needed to pick up a few basics,” Diederich says. “And I mean, it was chaos. I was just shocked.”

Shelves were bare. Meat was scarce. There was a palpable sense of panic.

“I told (my husband), Mark, and he had the foresight, ‘Oh, my gosh, I see this coming,’” Diederich says.

Would their livelihood be a casualty of the logistics logjams being generated by the pandemic?

The Diederichs are fifth-generation farmers and ranchers in Washington County in northern Kansas. They raise cattle and sell most of them to meatpacking plants in Nebraska and southwest Kansas. Mark had begun selling a few head directly to neighbors, but when his wife told him what she had seen in Wichita, he called nearby meat lockers and booked more slaughter dates.

That still didn’t prepare them for what would come only weeks later: meatpacking plants shutting down because of COVID-19. The Diederichs had more than 100 cattle ready for market – but nowhere for them to go. The prospect of financial disaster was all too real.

“My husband was just getting really, really nervous,” Diederich says. “He was like, ‘OK, I guess we’re just going to have to hang on to these for a while and slow them down with their feed.’”

But the animals would only get heavier and heavier, meaning they would suffer greatly in the summer heat even with shade and sprinklers.

“We were … hoping to goodness we weren’t going to have to destroy them like we were hearing some hog operations were having to do,” Diederich says. “That just made me sick to think about that.”

Then an idea emerged out of the blue that might save their bacon, err, steak.

One night in April, Diederich received a message from a friend suggesting she post something about their cattle on a new Facebook group page called Shop Kansas Farms. Diederich took a look at the page, thought “Why not?” and posted a few photos along with a description of their farm. Within 20 minutes, someone from Wichita ordered a quarter of beef.

“It was unbelievable,” Diederich says. 

By the next morning, there were still more orders and they kept coming.

“It just kind of snowballed,” Diederich says.

Within a month of Shop Kansas Farms’ launch at the end of April, it had more than 130,000 members.

Livestock producers, produce growers and others were connecting with hungry consumers frightened by empty store shelves. Right before founder Rick McNary’s eyes, “a very unorganized but incredibly powerful” local and regional food system was blossoming.

It was a response to something that was nothing short of a crisis, McNary says.

“For the first time in my life, grocery stores were empty, especially of meat,” says McNary of Potwin, who launched the Facebook page after his wife reported there was no meat at the grocer’s. “Often, food insecurity is used to describe hungry people who are hungry because they can’t afford food. 

“However, for the first time, food insecurity was for those who had money to buy it but couldn’t find it.”

The Diederich family of Washington County benefitted from Shop Kansas Farms

Last year as COVID roiled the meatpacking business, the Diederich family of Washington County – (from left) Ryan, Evelyn and Mark – had cattle that needed to go to market and no place that would take them. Evelyn got word of a new Facebook group page called Shop Kansas Farms and posted that they had meat on the hoof available. Orders rolled in. (Photo by Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle)

REVIVING LOCAL MEAT PROCESSING

The pandemic laid bare a vulnerability in the food system, McNary says. He still remembers a comment by a lecturer at a conference he attended that the average calorie travels 1,500 miles to reach a consumer’s plate. While it speaks to how effective the global food system can be, he says, it can be vulnerable to terrorism and – as 2020 showed – to a global pandemic.

“What people don’t realize is how much food insecurity we have in the state of Kansas,” says Jessica Gnad, co-founder of and executive director at Great Plains Regeneration in Manhattan.

While nearly 90% of all land in Kansas is farmable, she says, more than 90% of what Kansans eat comes from out of state. The imbalance showed itself in a variety of ways.

Walnut Valley Packing in El Dorado was poised to open a branch in Augusta at the end of March last year when local grocery store shelves began emptying. Shoppers began going to local meat processors in response.

“We had an entire store’s inventory in our freezer” in anticipation of the branch opening, owner Matt Carselowey says. “It was chaotic for a couple of weeks. We were turning over the whole store almost every day. Then things started to calm down.”

Out in Meade, Chad Ziebart started getting calls from ranchers looking for someone to process cattle. Zeibart had processed deer and other wild game for friends as a hobby for a few years. When the pandemic struck, he began getting call after call from farmers asking if he could come out and butcher livestock onsite. State regulations prohibit that, but when the number of calls topped 50, Chad and his wife, Tiffany, recognized a need too great to ignore.

“We both quit our jobs and dove into building a facility,” Tiffany says.

They bought an old bowling alley on the west edge of town and gutted it, installing new processing equipment, freezers – everything they needed to run the business. Within a matter of days after its opening in February 2021, Meade Locker was booked solid for six months without spending a dime on advertising.

A $60,000 grant from the Kansas Department of Commerce helped pay start-up costs. The state awarded $9 million in grants covering 183 projects as part of the Securing Local Food Systems grant program.

The grant was one of several made possible in the second round of the federal CARES Act funding and approved by the Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas Task Force. 

The grant program was created to increase the capacity of local food systems – among them direct-to-consumer producers, growers and vendors; food processors; slaughter and processing facilities; food banks; soup kitchens; pantries; farmers markets; and grocery stores.

The greater capacity was needed: Throughout the state, local meat processors remain booked. Many have no openings for the rest of 2021, and several have orders well into 2022.

“I’m booked up for two years,” says Rodney Kempke, owner of Ellsworth Packing in central Kansas. “I’m still trying to see light at the end of the tunnel.”

While the pandemic crushed certain sectors of the economy, it revitalized small meat processing operations. The Kansas Meat Processors Association once had hundreds of members, a reflection of how Kansans used to shop. Membership now runs at about 30, says Carselowey, who is president of the association.

“There’s quite a few of them that were only doing custom processing,” he says. “Those numbers have always been steady, but there just wasn’t a lot of life in the business” until the pandemic hit.

“It’s definitely been great for the meatpacking industry,” he says. “I’ve talked to a lot of suppliers that were maybe thinking about going out of business, just because nobody was buying new machinery and stuff like that. And this has happened. There’s just a lot more demand for smaller packers.”

Walnut Valley eventually opened that new branch in Augusta and opened another in Winfield last fall.

“We’ve had the opportunity to just have a lot of new customers come through the door that might not have come through the door otherwise,” Carselowey says.

It’s opened carnivores’ eyes to a different world, he says, and they’ve been able to retain most of those new customers.

  • Customers flocked to Matt Carselowey’s Walnut Valley Meat Market locations after meat shortages began to crop up in area grocery stores. (Photo by Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle)

LEARNING TO COMMUNICATE

Of the more than 148,000 members in the Shop Kansas Farms group, little more than  800 are producers. The rest are consumers.

One of them is Marina DePiesse, who lives in Miami County, south of the Kansas City metro area. She was used to shopping in Johnson County on her way home from work, but stay-at-home orders and capacity restrictions at stores prompted her to consider alternatives. When a friend told her about the Facebook group, she was intrigued – especially when she learned its members included meat suppliers.

“I’ve never really purchased bulk meats or anything like that,” DePiesse says. “It was a learning experience for me. I tried a little bundle of stuff here and there. It was just such an amazing product. I decided I couldn’t go back to buying whatever was on the store shelf.”

She’s found a couple of local livestock producers she particularly likes and now buys regularly from them. One, R Family Farms near Lebanon, “has turned my husband back onto pork,” she says. “He didn’t think he liked pork.”

But after trying the Roush family’s pork, he admitted, “I just haven’t had good pork.”

Like DePiesse, most of the consumers who joined the Facebook group hadn’t bought meat in bulk. Many were in for a jolt. They didn’t realize there would be a substantial up-front cost of buying all or part of an animal, or that there’s a difference between  the hanging weight – the weight of the carcass after slaughter – and the take home weight – how much will land in a home freezer.

“My first experience, it didn’t start well,” says Junehee Kwon, a professor and the graduate program director for the Department of Hospitality Management at Kansas State University.

Kwon, who readily acknowledges being risk-averse – she’s much more upset about losing $100 than she is happy about gaining $100, she says – decided to purchase a quarter of beef in March 2020 from a local rancher as a way of supporting local livestock producers. But meat lockers were so slammed with orders that her cow didn’t get to the locker until October.

Unsure how much meat she would get, Kwon went online and read that buyers can expect to take home about 60% of the hanging weight of the animal. When she got her meat home and weighed it, however, it was 40% of the hanging weight.

“Immediately I’m thinking, ‘OK, I guess I got shortchanged now.’ So I was very, very unhappy,” Kwon says.

She went to the group page and asked if her experience was typical, and commenters told her she’d been skimped. She contacted the meat locker to share her displeasure and warn that she was going to notify the Better Business Bureau. The owner of the locker told her, “We have nothing to hide” and invited her to visit.

Kwon accepted the offer, watched the entire process in person, as well as video of her animal being processed. She learned it had been kept on pasture much longer than normal because its processing date had been delayed so many months. As a result, it was carrying much more fat by the time its kill date arrived. 

“She literally answered all my questions, and I realized what happened,” Kwon says. “If I had just walked away disgruntled and said, ‘No way I’m going to do this again.’ and ‘I got scammed and I’m so unhappy about this.’ and that was the endpoint, then I’ll be done” with buying local.

“But because I explored more and learned more, I learned to really respect and also appreciate what they were doing. My first experience turned into a very positive learning experience.”

Even though her expectation wasn’t met, Kwon says, her purchase turned out to be a good value because the quality of the meat was so much better than the supermarket variety, and there was less waste when she prepared it. She’s already placed another order.

Kwon wrote a three-page account of her experience and posted it to the Shop Kansas Farms page, where it attracted more than 1,000 likes and more than 120 comments.

Recognizing tremendous interest in more information about buying beef locally, Kwon and her team at Kansas State applied for and received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop educational resources for ranchers and local beef consumers. A significant portion of the grant will help ranchers with their financial management, marketing and benchmarking. 

The most common complaint he’s heard from consumers about the direct-to-consumer trend is pricing, McNary says. Many expect prices on a par with grocery stores.

“They have no idea that the cheap hamburger is most likely from the poorest quality animal in the feedlot, so they don’t understand that other beef that has been raised with tender care and aged for 21 days during processing costs so much.” 

The direct-to-consumer movement has shown that some consumers will happily pay more for a better product, he says.

“For farmers who understand this, they are uniquely positioned to capture this market in such a way as to prosper,” McNary says. “I keep reminding farmers: ‘Consumers will pay far more than what you are accustomed to if you market it right.’”

Some quickly grasp how to communicate with urban shoppers, some don’t, says Meagan Cramer, director of marketing and communications for the Kansas Farm Bureau. Farmers and ranchers are good about using language that makes sense to them.

“But if you’re talking to a consumer, you have to go very, very simple,” Cramer says. “Because they would say, ‘We’re going to the locker.’ People were like, ‘I don’t know what that means. How do I order?’

“It was very much a learning process for both sides – how to speak to each other so that you’re both on the same page and understand.”

Processing meat at Meade Locker

Taylor Ziebart got help from her dad, Chad, as they packaged beef jerky at Meade Locker and Processing. (Photo by Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle)

AFTER THE PANDEMIC

More must be done, McNary and others say, for the farm-to-table initiative to become sustainable. No one expects demand to remain at or near the peak of 2020.

An analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats after the first year of Shop Kansas Farms highlighted “gaps that have left a lot of money on the table for farmers,” McNary says.

Farmers struggle with marketing and sales, he says. They’re used to taking commodities to a place, then receiving a check later for whatever the market price is. Consumers who want to buy directly from farmers have a difficult time doing it, he says, because they are used to Amazon-like simplicity.

“We are going to help farmers sell more easily and consumers buy more easily. That’s what will make this sustainable.”

McNary  has updated the Shop Kansas Farms website so that farmers can have their own pages to market their products and conduct financial transactions online. Consumers can look for providers near them or search for specific products and connect directly with producers.

“Each farmer will have their own storefront, complete with their own URL and information, so it will also provide information about the farmer rather than just a product to sell,” McNary says.

The updated website is targeted to launch this summer.

Before last year, Jacquelyne Leffler was selling about 20 cattle a year to regular customers. When the pandemic struck, her phone began ringing and she sold 170 cattle in portions to more than 550 people. She hopes to retain half or a little more of that number in the coming year.

“Because people are going to go back to the grocery stores and assess their buying cycle and what needs to be done for their family. Because we also have beef that goes to the packer, which ends up in the grocery store,” says Leffler, who farms near Americus. “So, no matter what, my beef is going to the consumer. It just looks different based on how they choose to purchase it.”

Her direct-to-consumer sales are “still just a side hustle. I’m still doing the farming and ranching full time. I just added this to my plate and do it a lot in the evenings and whenever I have some free time.”

The direct-to-consumer movement certainly won’t make large packing plants a thing of the past. 

“There’s definitely a place for that too,” Diederich says.

There are simply too many people to feed and lots of consumers whose budgets limit what they can spend. Yet Shop Kansas Farms isn’t a pandemic-driven fad that will soon fade, officials say.

“I think the farm-to-table movement was already underway before the pandemic, but the pandemic just pushed it way over the top,” says Jeff Krehbiel, owner of Krehbiels Specialty Meats in McPherson.

“I think what helped us small producers the most is when the big retail stores didn’t have meat on their shelves,” he says. “Normal consumers just took that for granted, just like milk or anything else.”

When he was young, Krehbiel says, everyone had a freezer. That practice faded, especially for urban dwellers. But the pandemic and meat shortages revived the demand for freezers. DePiesse, for example, hunted for months online and locally before being able to buy a small freezer.

Krehbiels had just completed an expansion in 2019 that expanded its square footage from 400 to 1,600 square feet and then used a state grant to add 3,000 square feet to its processing plant.

“The timing was very good,” Krehbiel says. “Our processing plant is putting out nearly double this year that we did in 2019.”

But they still had to turn away hundreds of people wanting to have meat processed, and there’s a long waiting list.

OTHER STATES BORROW KANSAS’ IDEA

The Shop Kansas Farms group on Facebook has been so successful that numerous states – among them California, Wisconsin, Texas and Colorado – have borrowed the template and established their own versions.

As successful as the Kansas effort has been, though, McNary says more needs to be done to support direct-to-consumer efforts. 

Along with updating the website, he’s developing a marketing and sales series that farmers and ranchers can subscribe to so they know how to better connect with and communicate with consumers.

“We found many consumers really wanting to buy, but farmers were just not used to selling directly, so providing them marketing and sales support is critical,” McNary says.

The pandemic showed consumers are willing to pay more for a product than they do at the supermarket, McNary says, as long as they know the quality of the product, where it came from and how it was grown or raised. That helps them feel confident that their money has been well spent.

For farmers and ranchers, he says, the margins are much higher and the volumes are lower. That means they don’t have to buy more land or bigger equipment.

It also could help spark a revival of the small family farms that once thrived, along with local butchers, dairies and flour mills.

“What we’re doing here in Kansas to produce food, actual food that we eat, is dismal compared to the national average,” Gnad says. “We think of Kansas as an agricultural land, and it is, and I have pride for it.

“But at the same time, COVID exposed the fact that we don’t produce enough specialty crops in the state. Shop Kansas Farms is going to be able to accelerate that production because we’re able to connect food buyers with food producers.”

Small operations such as apiaries that were struggling to survive are seeing surges in business simply because more people are aware of their existence.

“There are a ton of entrepreneurial opportunities in this emerging food system for people to tap into,” McNary says.

Eric Castle  of Pleasanton has expanded his hog operation as a result of the increased interest in locally produced products. He was raising “show hogs” for young people in 4-H, timing breeding so piglets were born a few times a year. But he began getting so many requests for pork after the pandemic set in, he increased his sow herd from 15 to more than 30.

Demand for pork remains so strong he has orders for pigs yet to be born. 

“We sold hogs all the way to Texas, to Iowa, clear out to western Kansas … just to help people get the meat that they need,” Castle says. “That has been awesome. You know, to have someone call you from Texas and say, ‘Hey, we hear you got a really great product.’ And they drive all the way up here and pick up the meat from the butcher shop. You can’t get a better feeling.”

He’s already hearing of new farms sprouting around the state in response to demand created by the pandemic, and officials say there’s reason for the optimism.

The pandemic showed “people that weren’t already in the game that there was an opportunity here,” Cramer says. 

“I think there’s going to be some long-term good stuff that comes out of it – especially when you have younger people coming back to the farm,” she says. “Because I think those are probably the ones that are like, ‘This is a new opportunity. Let’s try it and see what happens.’”

This story was produced as part of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of seven media companies and three community organizations working together to bring timely and accurate news and information to Kansans.