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To Survive Crisis, Small Wisconsin Farms Pivot to Direct Marketing

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Several months into the pandemic, a number of small Wisconsin farms continue to shift their customer focus to keep from shutting down. Instead of restaurants and larger retailers, some operations primarily are selling their products directly to consumers.

As the pandemic unfolded and shutdowns kept people at home, smaller farms lost outlets to distribute food they'd grown. Since then, many producers have decided to boost their online presence and hit the road making home deliveries.

In southern Wisconsin, Janet Gamble runs Turtle Creek Gardens, which specializes in organic vegetables. During the shutdown, she said they tried different forms of marketing, which came with some risks.

"We got a better marketing strategy on Facebook than we did some Google ads, those aren't necessarily very cheap," Gamble said.

But she said that investment was worthwhile, because they saw an uptick in demand for their retail service with restaurant and grocery store orders taking a hit. However, not all small producers were in a position to make the switch, because they didn't have a store with specialty items or a website ready for online transactions.

That's where producers such as Jeremy Lynch stepped in. He and his wife own a farm and catering business in Sauk County that already had an online presence. The couple raises hogs, but they're also taking in products from other farmers in the area who don't have anywhere to sell right now.

Lynch said catering weddings was a key source of revenue, but now they're ramping up online orders and safe deliveries with all these products.

"People order online with our store, and then we deliver. They just put a cooler on their porch, and we put the product in the cooler - so it's completely touchless," Lynch said.

With Wisconsin still seeing a COVID-19 surge, Lynch said he anticipates direct marketing to be a key focus for smaller farms for the foreseeable future.

"A pretty fair slice of the sector has depended on the restaurant sales," he said. "We've seen some restaurants closing, I anticipate more restaurants closing over the winter here."

While his operation has had to reduce expenses and cut employee hours, Lynch said this approach has helped keep them from having to lay off workers during the public health crisis. But he said he still worries that some farmers, who don't have the tools to make the transition, will not survive.

Mike Moen is the Morning Edition producer and serves as a staff reporter for WNIJ. Every morning, he works with Dan Klefstad to bring listeners the latest Illinois news. He also works with the rest of the news staff on developing and producing in-depth stories. Mike is a Minnesota native who likes movies, history, and baseball. When most people hear his last name, they assume he is 100-percent Scandinavian. But, believe it or not, he is mostly German.
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