NewsEater: Illinois's Small Farmers Turn to Tech During Pandemic Restaurant Closures

Posted Apr 13, 2020

It’s kidding season at Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery in downstate Champaign. Co-owners Leslie Cooperband and husband Wes Jarrell are, as Cooperband describes it, in the midst of “full-on baby goat madness right now.” Her team usually spends the early months of spring bottle-feeding babies, milking does, and making chevre, which she typically sells to Chicago restaurants.

This year, just as the annual ritual began, Cooperband sent her legions of farm volunteers home, away from the farm, to keep COVID-19 from spreading. The move left behind a small group to manage the incredibly busy time. The next domino fell when dine-in restaurant closures hit, and their large goat cheese orders were slashed or canceled altogether. “Meanwhile, these girls are popping out babies left and right.” Cooperband says, referringto the goats. “They’re not paying attention to a pandemic.”

Grocery stores throughout the U.S. scrambled to keep up with demand for pantry goods during March’s early days of coronavirus-induced social distancing. But as weeks passed and as stores began rationing items in especially high demand, crowds have thinned, panic shopping mostly diminished, and customers became accustomed to new hours and procedures. Large retailers still have access to a robust supply chain and some, including Trader Joe’s and Amazon, are hiring staff in large numbers.

But for producers who have made a living by selling goods at farmer’s markets or wholesale to area restaurants, progression of nature’s seasons continues, adding to the challenges rippling outward from farmers like Cooperband to wholesale distribution companies, retail stores, and restaurants. And for farms, the path forward depends largely on reinforcing connections to customers through technology.

“It’s a huge time of uncertainty — there’s no way to sugarcoat it,” says Melissa Flynn, executive director of Chicago’s Green City Market, which organizes farmers markets across the city. “Any disruption to a farmer’s regular revenue stream is just as disruptive and concerning to them as it would be to any business... Having a continued connection to shoppers is essential for the survival of small local farms.”

As stay at home orders closed Chicago’s parks and threatened to suspend farmers market season, Flynn and her team leapt to help maintain that link through home deliveries and centralized pickup points for customers. They launched a smartphone app called Green City Market Delivered that allows customers to order from multiple vendors and aggregate selections into a single delivery. “It provides a platform for farmers to remain independent,” Flynn says. “You can still choose your favorite farmers, see their bios, and choose where your food is coming from.”