Eight months ago it was an aspiration, then it became a necessity.
“Where are my tomato canning people in southeast Kansas? $1.50 per pound, minimum 40 pounds.”
“Looking for Jonathan apples for sale.”
“If anyone in Topeka area is interested in local, free range duck eggs, our ducks are laying up a storm! Their eggs are a little bigger than chicken eggs and particularly good for baking.”
“Who has sides of beef for sale?”
These are mid-September posts on a Facebook page called Shop Kansas Farms. They represent a mix of “buyer in search of … ” and “seller offering … ” posts. You’ll also see posts reviewing food recently purchased from Kansas farmers and producers, many of which end with “now that I’ve tasted local, I’ll never buy from a store again.”
The concept of supporting local isn’t new but the urgency was unfamiliar when Rick McNary created the page on April 28 from his living room in Potwin, about 30 miles northeast of Wichita. He’d just finished a great steak from KCK Farms in Anthony and his wife mentioned that the meat counter was empty at the grocery store when she’d shopped earlier in the day, fallout from disruption in the supply chain during the coronavirus pandemic.
He wondered how he could get friends and neighbors who likely found the same issue at their grocery stores to shop family farms and producers, some of whom lost their sales outlets when farmers markets, fairs and festivals closed and when restaurant accounts dried up while people were mandated to stay home.
Three hours after launching the page and inviting all the farmers, ranchers and producers he knew to post what they offered, he had 400 people join the page. The next day, there were 800 members. It was up to 5,000 two days later as the network spread. Customers kept inviting friends and farmers recruited fellow producers, and the page plateaued at about 145,000 members by midsummer.
The pandemic had turned the romanticized idea of buying directly from area farmers into a necessity, and McNary’s Shop Kansas Farms page provided the missing digital hub to connect the producers and the consumers.
“Suddenly the public — consumers — were fearful and looked to the agricultural community to calm their fears,” McNary said. “Farmers said, ‘We got you. We’re still farming. We’re just a couple miles away, come down our driveway.’”
McNary started this on his own, but he’s studied regional food systems for a decade. His day job is working on international hunger relief through an Iowa-based nonprofit, The Outreach Program, and he has a side gig writing about Kansas farm families for Kansas Farm Bureau.
“I’ve seen research that the average calorie we consume travels 1,500 miles to get to us,” he said. “Suddenly it might be as close as a mile away. Through Shop Kansas Farms, people realized that the farming community wasn’t just farms you drove by, it was people you could depend on in times of need.”
Unprecedented communication happens daily on the Facebook page, which McNary wants to convert to a website because of limitations including the inability to add a searchable directory with a map. At its height of activity, there could be as many as 120 posts a day and thousands of comments. Via posts and offline conversations, consumers have learned the stories of where their food comes from, they’ve developed trust and built relationships with farmers, ranchers and producers. The platform has an educational component, too, opening up conversations about farming practices and why you can expect to pay more from small-scale producers.
McNary gets thanks from shoppers — the reach is well beyond Kansas — for introducing them to fresh foods they didn’t know were available and from countless farmers who expected to lose money this year and instead are marking more than they have in the last several years.
He believes this shop local movement will continue beyond the current crisis. Shop Kansas Farms is serving as a regional food system, he said, and has shown there are business opportunities for rural America that weren’t there eight months ago.
“We were forced to do it,” he said, “but now that we’ve done it, we like this and we want to continue to be able to go within our region and buy locally. Local and regional food systems are the key to rural prosperity and rural revitalization.”
We talked to a handful of Kansas producers, including several co-op members, and each noticed a significant spike in interest and orders whenever they posted on Shop Kansas Farms, or if a customer gave their business a shoutout on the page after receiving their product. The posts drive customers to the producers’ own Facebook pages or their business website for ordering.
Here are some of their stories.
Krafft Beef in Phillipsburg, members of Prairie Land
Jason and Myndi Krafft moved from southern California to northwest Kansas in 2017 to return to Jason’s family farm. They worked for about a year and a half to develop a direct to consumer addition to their farming and ranching, and Krafft Beef just happened to launch as the pandemic came to Kansas.
They started out with the ability to ship their home-raised, dry-aged beef across the continental U.S., which also has been key to their success within the state because of their far northwest address. They already had a loyal customer base in California from their time living and working there, and Shop Kansas Farms has helped regionalize their reach by letting more Kansans know about their product. Their premium steaks, roasts, ground beef, beef bone marrow canoes and bone broth kits receive praise on the page, but it’s the crayon-drawn thank you notes from their two young daughters that prompt the most reaction. The girls help bucket feed the animals, which are born on the farm, pasture raised then grain finished with hay and milo grown on the farm.
“Every animal has 100% traceability right down to what they eat,” Myndi Krafft said. “Then when they’re ready, we work with a small, local butcher to produce quality cuts.”
Perry’s Pork Rinds in Bronson
This is the definition of mom and pop business but they’ve gone beyond mom and pop volume, thanks in part to Shop Kansas Farms and enthusiastic customers who post often after opening a bag of the pork rinds made by Kelly and Thaddeus Perry.
The southeast Kansas couple turned a hobby into a home business that is now expanding into a newly constructed licensed USDA production facility in Bronson, about 50 miles north of Pittsburg, that will allow them to expand into wholesale. Kelly made it her full-time job in December 2018 and Thaddeus, a butcher for 23 years, had to go full-time in October 2019 so he could cook two to three times a week instead of just once to keep up with demand.
Thaddeus hand fries each batch, which are then seasoned in one of 10 flavors including garlic Parmesan, sour cream and onion or cinnamon sugar. They are packaged and shipped within a day or two. The freshness of the rinds and the array of flavors not found on grocery store shelves has created a loyal following.
When their main distribution method, festivals and fairs, were being canceled left and right earlier this year, a friend invited Kelly to post on Shop Kansas Farms. The initial orders overwhelmed them. Then a new customer posted a review, and they again got slammed with orders. That included several bulk orders and interest from stadiums and vending machine companies that want to carry the Keto-friendly snacks when they get the new facility built.
Jason Wiebe Dairy in Durham, members of the Flint Hills Electric Cooperative
Jason and Sheri Wiebe’s third generation dairy farm in the middle of the Flint Hills, along the Santa Fe Trail, found many new commercial and direct-to-consumer customers on Shop Kansas Farms for its 18 flavors of natural raw milk cheese and pasteurized milk cheese using hormone free milk from their own cows.
“We got on Facebook about six months before, just trying to get community interest,” Sheri said. “Then we posted on Shop Kansas Farms and orders just exploded. It’s surprising that people can live 15 miles away and they’ve never heard of us, and we’ve been making cheese here for 20 years now.”
They are still making about 1,800 pounds of cheese a week, but their business model shifted significantly because of COVID-19: away from supplying 60-pound blocks of farmstead cheese to grocery stores and upscale restaurants on the East Coast and instead shipping as many as 100 orders a day with 3 pounds of cheese at a time to homes across Kansas. They were thrilled to have the business but it required quickly adapting (and stocking) shipping materials and processes to make it affordable for smaller orders. Among the most popular, Sheri said, are the Cottonwood River cheddar, the jalapeño habañero and cheese curds.
Bruce’s Bullseye Farms in Augusta, members of Butler Electric Cooperative
Joel and Lori Bruce’s first-generation farm also relied on craft fairs and festivals to sell its value-added jams, jellies, apple butters and other food items, and did not have a website or a retail space for their one-year-old venture before the pandemic hit.
Lori, a schoolteacher who hopes to grow the business to support them both working full-time on the farm, quickly built a website to get their products online. They saw a little traffic, then it took off once they posted a link on the newly created Shop Kansas Farms Facebook page. As the Facebook page traffic grew, though, their posts got pushed down on the page quickly as others posted. Lori said she got creative by posting video clips and interacting with customers to help keep interest and to find out what consumers were looking for.
“It was more than just the sales, it was also the encouragement to keep going, to keep making our products and keep getting them out there,” said Lori, who also is now selling the jams and jellies at Griggs Bros. Farms market in Augusta.
Her handcrafted jams and jellies are made in small batches and some unusual flavors, including turning sodas and wines into jelly. Among her most popular items are those made with Kansas-grown ingredients, such as sand plum jelly, apple pie jam, apple butter and sunflower seed cookies.
MC- Meat Co. in Johnson City, members of Pioneer Electric Cooperative
When Lettie McKinney came back as the fourth generation to farm the family’s Johnson City land, she started MC- Meat Co. to sell homegrown sustainable beef directly to consumers. Bridging the gap between producer and consumer has been a struggle, though.
“People didn’t understand the value of buying local,” she said. “They didn’t want to pay for the premium product.”
COVID-19 has been eye-opening for consumers as well as for local grocery stores that two years ago said no to carrying her beef and this year reached out to ask her to supply them. Business has improved tenfold and she attributes that to not only the pandemic making people more aware but also the education Shop Kansas Farms has provided.
She came back full time in 2019 to help her dad, who continues to work on the farm with a brain tumor. She’s actively marketed MC- Meat Co. on social media but found it hard to get the word out, even in her immediate community. Shop Kansas Farms has been invaluable, she said, and the growth in Kansas sales has made her realize her target market isn’t Colorado or Oklahoma as much as it is the rest of the state of Kansas.