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Virtual farmers’ markets finding customers during pandemic

By Doug Graves
Ohio Correspondent

URBANA, Ohio – Producers in Champaign County in Ohio boast that they were first in the state to offer home-grown goodies using a virtual farmers’ market. Ah, yes, but now they’re not alone. The Covid-19 pandemic has spawned numerous county virtual farmers’ markets across the Buckeye state. These online markets are available in Miami, Butler, Allen, Fairfield and Hancock counties.
The delivery of goodies from farmers markets actually began prior to 2012, but in those days customers had to accept a pre-determined box of items dictated by growers and sellers. With help of the Internet, consumers can go online and view the items they wish to purchase. The Covid-19 pandemic has created a surge in these online markets.
Champaign County’s online market started with a grant from Activate Champaign County and the Champaign Family YMCA. “The goal was to provide increased sales opportunities for local producers and consumers while keeping sales dollars in the local economy,” says Pam Bowshier, the online market coordinator.
The original goal of this particular market was to provide access to fresh local products while combating the rising problem of obesity. The current market offers such products as farm-fresh eggs, fresh vegetables from a local hydroponic growers, fresh milk from a local dairy, home-made dog treats, artisan soups, honey, raspberries, maple syrup and local meats. A long list of vendors offers a constantly-evolving variety of products.
The operating procedure of most online markets is roughly the same. The online market operators build a website that includes a complete list of available products with accompanying photos, quantities, vendors and pricing. After customers go through a one-time account setup, they can shop from any of the available vendors and add products to their virtual carts.
Customers have until a set day to modify their orders, with the ability to add or subtract their items before the market closes the following day. Vendors will deliver their ordered goods early to the pickup location. There the online staff will assemble the products into packages for customers. Most online markets require a minimum order amount and accept payment with either a credit card or EBT at Saturday pickup.
The owner of Cosmic Charlie artisan breads, Bowshier is a partner in the food business called Hippie and the Farmer. Her partner, Mark Runyan, is with Oakview Farm Meats. After the pandemic closed the YMCA in early March, the farm market’s pickup spot quickly moved to Oakview’s retail location. Each Thursday afternoon, the two collect, coordinate and fulfill the orders.
As with any start-up business, there are success stories and pitfalls. Nothing but good stuff to report, Bowshier said. The pandemic, she said, has provided a spark that has ignited an increase in orders. “We’re experiencing an off-the-hook market with record sales, record amount of new people and a huge dose of love,” Bowshier said.
In April, Bowshier and company saw orders quadruple in size, something they had not seen in five years.
There’s been nothing but success in Miami County in west central Ohio as well, where the Miami County Locally Grown group has been ongoing since 2016. A non-profit organization, the virtual farmers market has also been designated an essential business and was not included in the shutdown order back in April.
“People like to eat,” market manager Jennifer Ruff said. “We’re like a grocery store, ordering from Kroger online and then going to pick it up at the store is no different than ordering from us and then just picking it up. We talked to the health department about doing the curbside pick-up and since it’s very little interaction among anyone, and it’s really just running everything out to the vehicles, then it’s not different than the restaurants who are doing curbside pick-up.”
Miami County Locally Grown features more than 30 local farmers, artisans and producers offering an array of meat, eggs, honey, baked goods, craft, soap and more. This online market was modeled after the one in Champaign County. The organizers obtained a grant to start the market. This group has growers with greenhouses, which allows online shoppers to obtain year-round produce such as potatoes, bulb onions, beets, turnips and carrots.
Online farmers markets are in other states as well. 
In Traverse City, Mich., the virtual Sara Hardy Downtown Farmers Market garnered a stunning response, with nearly 400 shoppers placing $16,000 in online orders in the first three days. The Iowa City Parks and Recreation is now offering a contact-free online farmers market for the 2020 growing season.