‘Yard to table’ movement gets pandemic boost

Sept. 24, 2020

By Jane Lawson, for SiouxFalls.Business

Call it a pandemic poultry pivot.

Stephanie Peterson, who raises chickens on her small Brandon farm, predominantly sells her eggs and other locally sourced eggs wholesale to area restaurants.

When the pandemic began, “I lost all my business right there at the beginning because all the restaurants closed, and I had this huge inventory I had to get out the door,” Peterson said.

Swiftly, she started a page on her Fruit of the Coop website that allowed individual customers to place orders by the dozen and pay online. She arranged four drop sites in Sioux Falls with coolers to allow for no-contact pickup.

Then Peterson watched business soar. “I’ve never sold so many eggs in my life,” she said. “I was normally selling about 90 dozen a week to restaurants. And during the pandemic, when I was selling to individuals that way, I was up to 250 dozen in one week. It was insane. I was losing my mind.”

She eventually had to hire someone to help her keep up with the demand.

Peterson is one of many local producers who have adapted to changing customer needs during the COVID-19 pandemic and have found that it has led to solid business growth.

“With all the local producers that I know, that’s what’s happening. They’re selling out of everything,” said Peterson, who serves on the board of Dakota Rural Action and is heavily involved in the Homegrown Sioux Empire Chapter.

“Their sales are up 100 to 150 percent each month from the year before.”

Seeking or growing local foods

Food supply issues early in the pandemic sent many consumers in search of local sources for their cooking needs. Dakota Rural Action was well-prepared to help them connect with a farmer. The grassroots group advocates for family agriculture and conservation, and it offers a South Dakota Local Foods Directory that lists local producers. In addition, when COVID-19 arrived, Dakota Rural Action published two guides to help in navigating the pandemic, one for producers and one for consumers.

Peterson said the group saw “huge growth” in people who wanted to try growing on their own this summer too. The Homegrown Sioux Empire Chapter typically offers a variety of sustainability classes on growing, harvesting and preserving food, including one Peterson teaches on raising backyard chickens. Classes have gone virtual this year, with several getting more than 500 views.

Peterson will hold her class, Backyard Chicken Keeping 101, live on the Homegrown Sioux Empire Facebook page from 6 to 7 p.m. Oct. 1. But before that, the chapter’s annual Tour de Coop will be live from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday on the page. Celebrating urban and rural sustainable agriculture in the Sioux Falls area, the tour will spotlight a series of stops live throughout the day.

After years of educational work that the Homegrown Sioux Empire Chapter has done, Peterson said, “it really got noticed this year.”

Consumers had something else to learn this year: From local growers, they can’t always get what they want when they want it. “This is seasonal, this is natural, and it’s not going to work that way,” Peterson said. “So when we run out, we run out.”

Meat producers can face a variation of that challenge, too, as they try to get an animal butchered and processed locally. Consolidation in the meatpacking industry, Peterson said, has led to fewer small butcher shops, which has led to longer wait times.

“Once we had this uptick in consumer demand for local meat” during the pandemic, Peterson said, “the producers then have the animals, and they’re ready to go, but they can’t get them processed.”

Robust summer for Falls Park Farmers Market

Nate Van Zweden serves on the board of directors for the Falls Park Farmers Market, another organization that had to adapt quickly earlier this year to serve producers and consumers.

“We were really, really nervous back in March and April,” Van Zweden admits. For a lot of vendors, he said, the Falls Park Farmers Market is their main source of income. Van Zweden sells his Silver Maple Woodshop items at the farmers market, and his wife, who owns Alissa’s Flower Farm, sells floral arrangements.

Van Zweden was involved in the market’s decision to launch an online ordering system this spring. “It started off really well,” he said. Orders have decreased throughout the summer, he added, but the market still may continue to offer online ordering next year.

The physical market opened on schedule in May, with vendors stretching into the parking lot to locate farther apart, and consumers responded well. Van Zweden and his wife have had more sales this year than last year, he said. He attributes that partly to people staying close to home and not traveling as much. A trip to the market now represents an outing.

Van Zweden thinks the Falls Park Farmers Market had more inquiries from people about how to become a vendor, and the number of vendors grew by a couple from the year before. The market will continue to be open 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays through Oct. 31.

“Meeting people was a little different” this year, Van Zweden said, with a focus on their eyes above the masks. But the market still serves as a place where people get to know each other – not just as customers, he said, but as friends.

Homegrown Resiliency connects producers

The pandemic inspired the Homegrown Sioux Empire Chapter to begin a Facebook connecting point for producers to be able to lean on each other and work together to their mutual benefit. The page is called Homegrown Resiliency and has grown to nearly 1,000 members.

“We are actually connecting people to coordinate on how to grow the food, share materials, share labor – questions on how to do this, that or the next thing,” Peterson said.

People can post inquiries about how to do something, or offer or request something to trade, buy or sell.

As a personal example, Peterson had a compost pile containing mostly horse and chicken manure standing about 6 feet tall. Starting in the spring, she bartered compost with gardeners for whatever they had to trade. Some took home compost and brought harvested produce back to her later. Peterson emptied two piles that size throughout the summer.

“It’s been a really great resource and really fun to see the connections that people are making – and people coming to the local food table, so to speak, who had never done it before,” Peterson said.

“I’m hoping that all of this awareness on the consumer side is going to continue, educating consumers to continue to buy … local as much as possible.”

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‘Yard to table’ movement gets pandemic boost

“I’ve never sold so many eggs in my life.” It’s not been a bad year to be a local producer — or become one! Take a look at how the ‘yard to table’ movement is taking off.

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