The COVID-19 pandemic has ignited a movement of consumers seeking out farmers and ranchers for more direct connections. And it all started on Rick McNary’s couch one evening in April 2020.
“My wife said she had been to the store that day and the meat counter was empty,” Rick said. “I’ve got my computer in my lap and I thought, ‘I wonder how I can connect my friends with people like Kregg and Katie Carothers of KCK Farms.’”
Rick created the Facebook group, Shop Kansas Farms, expecting to help a few hundred people find locally produced meat, eggs, dairy and vegetables. Rick said that after he published the group, he checked in on it a few hours later, and was amazed at the response.
“I thought, ‘Holy cow,’ and I’ve been saying that ever since,” Rick said of the group that’s grown to more than 140,000 members across the state.
“What is driving people in this is the exact same motivation that made them scarf up all the toilet paper, and that’s fear,” he said. “It came when the food system was breaking so they quit trusting the system that’s been a great system and still is. There was a hiccup.”
Runaway Freight Train
The exponential growth has gone beyond the purpose of connecting buyers and sellers. There’s a dialogue happening where each party is learning more and more about the other.
“There’s been a wonderful education opportunity between consumers and farmers and ranchers as they learn each other’s lingo,” Rick said.
There are limits to using a social media platform for such an endeavor. Facebook prohibits selling live animals, the group’s size requires constant moderation from volunteers and it’s a magnet for brash opinions.
“The monitoring of the vitriol has been a real challenge, but I think we’re getting better at it,” Rick said.
Rick is understanding of Facebook’s rules on the platform, and he said Shop Kansas Farms has put its own rules in place to create a wholesome, supportive community.
“Be nice and share or you’ll end up in timeout,” is still the number one rule for the group.
“We want to create civil discourse where there’s learning and mutual respect,” Rick said. “This is about connecting people who are looking for food to the wonderful farm and ranch families in Kansas who are growing the food.”
Building A System
Rick sees Shop Kansas Farms outlasting the pandemic because of the connections consumers are making with farmers and ranchers across the state.
“There is a regional food system being built just by the nature of what’s going on,” he said. “There’s tremendous economic development going on right now. Frankly, I think we’re watching rural revitalization.”
The group was full of testimonials over Memorial Day weekend as people received their mail orders and used them for family cookouts.
“One of the best ribeye steaks I’ve had the pleasure of cooking,” Ian Horne wrote. “Thanks Walnut Valley Packing in El Dorado.”
The group also has become a template for similar projects across the country. There’s even a section of the group dedicated to helping others start similar pages. That’s directly related to the success local producers have seen using the platform.
“The thing people are willing to pay for is the story,” Rick said. “What I’m seeing transpire is consumers now have a story for the products they’re buying. They not only know their food, they know their farmer. It’s not just a catchy phrase.”
Jacquelyne Leffler’s custom beef business, Leffler Prime Performance, has benefitted from customers who want to buy meat directly from a rancher. While her business was growing before Shop Kansas Farms came online, it’s helped her reach a larger audience. She’s sold 140 head of cattle to nearly 500 customers since the pandemic began.
“These milestones would not be possible without Shop Kansas Farms,” Jacquelyne said. “It has given my family’s farm and ranch a second avenue to market our fat cattle and ensure we at least break even.”
Beef, pork and chicken producers have received plenty of attention on the group, but so have specialty producers hurt by scaled-back farmers markets, delayed festivals and canceled fairs.
There’s a cornucopia of products available from fresh milk and dairy products to jams and jellies. Local honey, fresh pork rinds and homegrown produce are just a few of the items available at the virtual farmers market Rick has created.
One limitation of wrangling a market of several thousand buyers and sellers in a state the size of Kansas is simply sifting through the bevy of information available to find what’s relevant. There are regional units within the group to help, but Rick wanted to have more robust features.
Rick worked with several of the group’s volunteers to create a website, Shop Kansas Farms, which features an interactive map, as well as an opportunity to sell cattle and other livestock.
Rick thinks those two things are key to making it convenient for consumers to find local products in their area, to make picking up eggs and milk on a farm or ordering beef from a nearby rancher as simple as a few clicks.
Like Shop Kansas Farms, the website continues Rick’s original mission of connecting his friends with farmers and ranchers across Kansas, including the tens of thousands of new friends he’s made in recent months.
“It’s just people connecting to people,” Rick said. “That’s what’s growing this.”