With school closures and other food and beverage businesses being ordered to stop normal operations amid the COVID-19 outbreak, farmers and other agricultural producers along the supply chain are now faced with a lack of open markets to sell their product.
However, agricultural organizations including Virginia Cooperative Extension are stepping up to provide resources and solutions for producers now looking for new ways to sell their already-planted crops and provide consumers with the nutrition they need. One tool that could help alleviate this disruption is Virginia MarketMaker, an online platform that connects producers with markets and is free to Virginia businesses, Extension agents, and retail shops.
“There’s a lot farmers can still do to market directly,” said Extension Value Chain Coordinator French Price, who is funded through a U.S. Department of Agriculture Local Food Promotion Program grant to improve connections and build relationships to bring local foods to Virginia residents. “Producers just have to be creative, and there’s a lot of technological solutions – like ecommerce, like digital platforms – that will make things a lot easier. We hope that MarketMaker can be one of those tools.”
The platform, which is part of a larger nationwide network, has been available in Virginia since 2015 and already has a database of producers and other food processors around the state.
Funded by VCE, Farm Credit of the Virginias, and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the platform allows new users to set up a profile for free, which gives them access to enter their own business information, appear in search results for markets, and post product needs and availability. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, MarketMaker has also made it possible for individual farms to set up an online store for free.
“It’s a great tool for extension agents or anyone trying to do market research around local foods and agriculture in the state,” said Price, who is also a Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences alumna. “You can overlay the data that’s been entered about local food businesses and farms with secondary data like income and household expenditures – say you’re a creamery, you can log in and search for dairy product expenditures and find promising markets based on the information returned to you.”
Working with Virginia Tech Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics Associate Professor Kim Morgan, Price helped to integrate Buy Fresh, Buy Local with MarketMaker so that the two databases are now streamlined into one and cover a larger swath of Virginia producers and food businesses. Morgan and Price received the 2019 first runner-up MarketMaker Innovation Award from Farm Credit for this effort.
Price and Extension Agents around the state can help producers and other businesses learn how to use the more detailed features of the platform to identify potential partnerships for producers, processors, and food sellers.
Given the online nature of the platform and current orders to maintain social distancing measures, MarketMaker has the potential to ease logistics issues that the COVID-19 crisis has initiated by helping to connect producers with excess supply to consumers. The resulting new supply chains will help relieve economic pressures while sustaining Virginia consumers and keeping everyone healthy.
“It’s amazing how much Virginia does have,” Price said. “It’s just that those relationships aren’t there right now to quickly move through the value chain. We’re working on reducing the immediate impacts of coronavirus and trying to find a home for products.”
In addition to producers, food banks and other emergency feeding programs can use MarketMaker to find products when traditional avenues from warehouses may be less reliable. The platform is also available to community gardens, hydroponic growers, and other non-traditional producers and businesses who may be struggling to replace now-closed lines of operation.
Price sees MarketMaker helping communities during the ongoing coronavirus crisis by finding processors to take on fresh, local products and process them to a point where they’re shelf stable and also connecting school nutrition programs with processors who can package food into single servings, as required to meet federal nutrition requirements.
While VCE, Farm Credit, and others work to advance the agricultural sector through the COVID-19 crisis and beyond, the Virginia MarketMaker online portal could have significant benefits for the industry now and well into the future by providing an ever-present network of opportunities for producers and others along the local food supply chain.
Helping Virginia farmers utilize technological advancements including programs like Virginia MarketMaker, the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is committed to elevating Virginia agriculture in an increasingly digitized world. The college continues to promote such efforts through its SmartFarm Innovation Network, which connects Virginia Cooperative Extension offices and Agricultural and Research Extension Centers across the state to provide producers and businesses with timely and relevant information to help Virginia communities prosper.
For more information about the Virginia MarketMaker online portal and how to use it, contact your local Extension office or go to VCE MarketMaker. To register and use Virginia MarketMaker, visit https://va.foodmarketmaker.com/signup.