A row of stone fruit in wooden boxes at a Farmers market.
Farmers markets disrupted during COVID-19 pandemic.

UC Davis Study Examines How California Direct Market Farmers Fared During COVID-19 Pandemic

Farmers who increased their use of online sales and marketing were more resilient

Finding digital solutions to help bring fresh produce from the farm to the table was a viable way for many farmers to stay afloat during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A team of UC Davis researchers conducted a survey among 364 direct market farmers and ranchers in California to assess their resilience and vulnerability during the beginning of the pandemic, from March through December 2020. The findings, published in the journal Agricultural Systems, show that 46% of respondents reported using online marketing channels during that time frame.

Jennie Durant, a research affiliate with Department of Human Ecology and Agricultural Sustainability Institute, said that farmers who increased their use of online sales and marketing were more resilient to the shocks of the pandemic. She suggests that the study highlights the importance of helping more farmers operate retail sales online.

“For some people, that’s out of their comfort zone, but it can really help,” Durant said. “Strengthening an online presence will help farmers prepare for the next crisis we may have.”

Researchers found that farmers with a greater diversity of crops and livestock were more likely to agree that they were able to respond to the pandemic and reported either no change or an increase in profitability, compared to farmers with less diverse offerings.

Shifting sales

Shelter-in-place and social distancing practices caused disruptions to many regularly used direct-to-consumer channels, including farmers markets. According to the survey, the market outlets farmers reported losing the most were farmers markets and restaurants.

The survey also found that respondents adjusted how they sold goods to include Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), a model that allows consumers to subscribe to a farm or group of farms to receive regularly scheduled boxes of produce or other goods.

Durant said that overall, shifting the ways farmers sold items created little change, a 2% net increase, across all market channels.

“That suggested that while there were losses across all market channels, for the most part, the market change was pretty stable, indicating that farmers were able to pivot quite well and tap into other markets,” Durant said.

While state and federal policies and programs could provide support for direct market farmers, Durant hopes the idea of buying from local and regional farmers is here to stay.

“One key thing this study is showing is that local and regional farmers were able to be more resilient and that shows the power of the connection between consumers and the farmers they’re supporting,” she said. “Taking that time to connect to local farmers and support them really makes a difference and creates a stronger food system.”

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