photo © Bro vector

If there is one word that has taken on many new meanings during the COVID-19 pandemic, I would say it is “connectivity.” Connecting with consumers, both in person and digitally, has been challenging for us all. From production to distribution to getting the fresh produce in the hands of the end customer, making connections may require redrawing not only distribution chain lines, but also your entire business model.

If you are a small grower, the cancellation of community farmers markets may have caused a great deal of loss and anxiety for you these past six months. While grocery stores are still trying to operate as best they can, most restaurants have either shut down completely or are doing only pick-up orders with limited sales. I suspect significant challenges such as these will continue for the near future. That said, there is no time like a crisis to force overdue innovation into your business operations.

During these challenging times, you may have realized you must do more direct marketing than you ever have before. To connect directly in new ways with your customer, and create new market opportunities, where do you start?

Look for unmet needs

When it is not safe to go to a grocery store in person — or a customer can’t shop due to risks or quarantine — how do you get them the fresh food they need and want? Some of the most innovative and attractive distribution strategies I have seen are between local restaurants and bakeries, and their local vendors and growers. As restaurants began losing their customer traffic, a few savvy joints started putting together curated boxes of fresh food grocery supplies and produce from their local vendors and growers. The restaurants then marketed these grocery boxes to the community. Customers could order online and do curbside pickup of their boxes. It was brilliant: restaurants could keep their vendors moving products and consumers could still support their favorite local restaurants. Community connections keeping everyone afloat.

To me, this type of partnership represented the very best of local businesses supporting one another during a crisis. Further, distribution partnerships such as these may represent the new face of farmer’s markets for some time to come; until we can all get back to safely congregating for in-person shopping. This type of “share” box hearkens back to the traditional CSA model, with a rebranded distribution and marketing chain. If you have not yet done so, consider reaching out to your local quality restaurants to see if partnering on a share box makes sense for you both.

Fresh and organic produce is important to me. But I have not stepped foot in a grocery store since March. Obviously, I have not hit any local farmers markets either. I have tried to get as much of my grocery and produce delivered to my house as possible. I’ve arranged for pickups, and I have also taken part in a few curated food box options from local restaurants and bakeries. I love them and I do not want these services to go away in the future.

Direct sale opportunities

Another new direct-to-consumer opportunity may be “ugly produce.” You know, those online subscription companies that offer less than perfect produce share boxes delivered direct to doorstep. Imperfect Foods is one such example. They are not exactly local to everyone, but you get the gist. As consumers become more accepting of “imperfect” produce, and get more of their food delivered, you have an opportunity to step into that space locally.

If you do not already have a direct-to-local-consumer CSA membership program, now is the time to consider launching and aggressively marketing one. Consider partnering with other local food producers. If you are looking for some good examples, Johnson’s Backyard Garden is a large CSA that operates here in Texas, offering pick up stations around the state for locally grown produce. Eden’s Organic is another local small grower here in the Dallas area that has developed a robust CSA model.

As restaurants began losing their customer traffic, a few savvy joints started putting together curated boxes of fresh food grocery supplies and produce from their local vendors and growers.

I have noticed a big uptick of use of both “ugly” produce box shares and traditional CSA memberships by many of my friends, who post pictures of their deliveries on social media. Some post images of their imperfect produce or CSA box hauls weekly, then post multiple follow up photos of recipes they made using the produce. That is a lot of free organic marketing for you if you are committed to a digital marketing strategy.

This crisis is forcing growers to innovate and adapt business models and marketing. Consumers communicate personally and professionally online more than ever before. Now, they are being forced to order online for many or most of their needs. If I can order something online, I will. That includes produce. Time has always been my biggest pain point, and that of many consumers. Now, access to product — and produce — rivals that pain point. It is important to consider that customers are being re-trained in their buying habits right now. You may be forced to sell online now as a reaction to the COVID-19 crisis; but that does not mean you are going to be able to stop when it is over. Don’t expect to go back to your old business model once the “new normal” conditions shake out.

If you have lost touch with your local community or did not have good local touchpoints before COVID, now’s the time to reach out and make new connections. Your business and local economy may depend on it.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies.