Prompted by pandemic, digital markets connect small farms to consumers

a man hands a bag to a woman in a car
Erik Heimark hands a bag of fresh produce to a customer at a Farmers Market Hub pickup point.
Courtesy of Allison Rian

When it launched two years ago, the Farmers’ Market Hub was piloted as a way for small farm operations to sell produce to large customers at wholesale prices, all online.

It didn’t quite take off.

"Honestly, we were having a hard time getting farmers to get their products online and it took a lot of work to get the institutions to start buying,” said Jan Joannides, executive director of the nonprofit Renewing the Countryside, one of the three organizations behind the project.

Since then, COVID-19 has changed some farmers’ options dramatically. And some of the Farmers’ Market Hubs started pivoting to take orders from the general public, instead of just hospitals, schools and restaurants. Most are a virtual extension of traditional farmers markets.

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This time around, it’s really taken off.

Erik Heimark was among the farmers who didn't think the original idea of selling wholesale online was worth the work.

fresh produce in a box
Produce is packed for delivery to customers of the Aitkin Farmers Market Hub.
Courtesy of Allison Rian

"But then, when COVID happened, it really allowed us to reach customers we wouldn't have thought to reach before. And it really brought us more into a modern sales type of business," he said.

Heimark runs Maple Ridge Produce farm near Aitkin with his husband, Jay Rigdon. They grow a variety of crops on about five acres.

They take online orders through the market hub and coordinate with other farmers to fill them. It's a bit more work than just hauling produce to a farmers market, but the expanded sales are worth it, Heimark said.

Market hubs are now operating in seven communities across the state — Rochester, Grand Rapids, Aitkin, Wabasha, Red Wing, Cook and Richfield — and Joannides likes to see smaller communities engaged.

"Some of the bigger cities have things like food hubs or distributors who are able to aggregate from local farmers, but in smaller towns in rural areas, it's much more difficult," she said.

The seven hub farmers markets have made a total of more than $250,000 in sales this year, and have connected about 1,000 customers with 130 farmers, according to data from Renewing the Countryside, which partnered with the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture and the Minnesota Farmers’ Market Association to pilot the program in 2018.

several people stand next to a row of paper bags on a table
Produce is delivered to customers of the Aitkin Farmers Market Hub.
Courtesy Allison Rian

One especially successful option this summer has been a market share box, which people can order online and pick up at the farmers market. Heimark said local farmers have also teamed with a group that provides services to senior citizens in Aitkin County, to distribute several hundred boxes of produce.

Heimark said he’s surprised to be selling more than he expected through the market. Typically, farmers market sales flag late in the season, and he often discards leftover produce, like squash.

"We've got 80 of our butternut squash, that are already picked and sold,” he said. “I had a pile and I thought, ‘Oh, I'm not going to move all this’ — and it's gone."

Heimark said he wishes he had more late-season produce to sell. He continued watering plants in his protected high-tunnel hoop houses longer than usual this fall, to extend crop production because of demand.

"You know, I can continue to sell my winter squash, potatoes and onions way deeper into the season — through November, December. I couldn't have done that before," he said.

Some of the online market hubs will shut down over the winter, but Joannides said others, like Rochester’s, will continue to operate, selling items like honey, bread and locally grown meat.

There are other agricultural e-commerce experiments happening around the state, as small farmers react to market changes caused by COVID-19 — and the state Department of Agriculture is now offering cost-share funding for them. Joannides estimates it costs about $2,000 for the infrastructure to set up an online market hub.

Heimark sees online sales as the future of farming for small farms like his.

"This is how people are going to expect to shop,” he said. “They like to online order and they like it to be at a certain place or delivered to them, and it's just a new trend in buying — and I think even farmers are going to have to do that.”

Joannides says she expects the idea to expand, as more consumers look for ways to connect with local food — and more farmers look for ways to connect with consumers.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.