Remote MU, A Special Series of Inside Mizzou: Reaching Out

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April 28, 2020

In every county and metro area of the state, University of Missouri Extension works to improve the lives of Missourians. Despite the limitations of social distancing, Extension is using technology to expand access to locally grown food, provide farmers new opportunities to sell their products and guide small businesses through this difficult time. By working with community partners, Extension is offering creative solutions that tackle the challenges of today and help everyone move forward together.

On this week’s episode of Remote MU, we talk with Lorin Fahrmeier, the Farm to Institution Project Coordinator for the Youth and Family Division of University of Missouri Extension; and Justin Keay, a field specialist in horticulture for MU Extension in St. Louis and St. Charles Counties. Together, we discuss how Extension staff and faculty are connecting Missouri producers with consumers in order to provide healthy food and strengthen local economies.

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Moderator: [00:00:27] From the classroom to the cornfield, journalism to SEC athletics, and now to computer screens around the world, the University of Missouri works 52 weeks a year, every year. This is Remote MU — a special edition series of Inside Mizzou that explores the real stories, real discoveries and real impact of our remote community. This episode of Remote MU is called, “Reaching Out.” Throughout all of Missouri’s 114 counties and metro areas, MU Extension staff and faculty have been working hard to enhance the economy, education and health care for all Missourians. Now these close bonds with our communities are more important than ever. In this time with massive change, when so many people are facing incredible difficulties, Extension is there to help those in need. Whether it’s introducing safe, innovative ways to buy locally grown produce or sharing other resources that help small businesses, our guests today demonstrate that the impact and resilience of our Tiger community can be felt in every corner of Missouri. Joining me over Zoom to talk more about this are, Lorin Fahrmeier, Farmer to Institution Project Coordinator for the Youth and Family Division of University of Missouri Extension, and Justin Keay, a field specialist in horticulture for MU Extension in St. Louis and St. Charles Counties. Welcome, Lorin and Justin. Thank you for joining me today.

Lorin Fahrmeier: [00:01:29] Thanks so much for having us.

Moderator: [00:01:31] Lorin, I’ll start with you. What is the Missouri Food Finder and how can it help Missourians during this difficult time?

Lorin Fahrmeier: [00:01:39] So the Missouri Food Finder is a website that was just recently developed with the team at the Center for Applied Research and Engagement Systems (CARES) to help local Missouri farmers and producers connect directly to Missouri consumers. So simply put, it’s kind of like a matchmaking website for eaters around the state of Missouri. So producers, local food businesses, food pantries, any local food related business operation can put their information into the Missouri Food Finder and it automatically populates like a map dot on our state. And then consumers can then search in their local area to find local food sources. And so we just wanted to make it something that was really easy for both the producers, the farmers, the ranchers to use because they’re busy working right now. But we also wanted to make it super easy for Missouri consumers to be able to find those local food sources without having to do a ton of searching and just make it a really positive experience so that they can connect to our local and regional food systems around the state of Missouri.

Moderator: [00:02:58] That’s awesome. That’s extremely beneficial, for one, and definitely innovative as well. So the Food Finder is a part of another initiative you’re involved with called the Farm to Institution Program. Can you tell us a bit more about this program and how it’s benefiting Missourians?

Lorin Fahrmeier: [00:03:14] Sure. So the Farm to Institution program has been a part of our programming with University of Missouri Extension for well over 10 years. And I’d like to say that there have been a lot of faculty and staff members within MU Extension doing local foods work even before it was an actual thing. Right? Before it was before it was cool. But really what I do is I work with my colleagues, like Justin, around the state of Missouri to try to get more locally produced and grown foods into school lunch programs and to colleges and universities. MU actually purchases local local foods, you know, into their dining services, into hospitals, and looking to make that a broader part of eating in Missouri for a multitude of reasons. You know, health implications in the state of Missouri, eating, eating fresh food will lead to hopefully healthier Missourians. And if we can do that locally, it helps our local economy and especially in times like this. This is, this is kind of a shining moment for Missouri farmers and ranchers to really be able to step up to the plate and to show Missourians just how important our local food systems and economy can be to Missouri. So that’s what I do, is I just work to try to make those connections, to help show producers a different marketing channels, but most importantly, just to help Missouri’s farm economy grow and continue to thrive.

Moderator: [00:04:59] Awesome. So kind of switching it over. Justin, you’re also finding ways for Missouri producers to connect with new customers. What are some of the biggest challenges that farmers are facing right now, and how is extension working to address those?

Justin Keay: [00:05:13] Farmers, just like every other business owner and member of the public, are concerned about their own health and personal safety. So a lot of things that happen on the farm, interactions that farmers have around the community, they’re having to evaluate all those interactions and find ways to keep themselves safe. They’re also, you know, making sure that their employees are safe both on the farm and, you know, at the farmers market, as well as other sales outlets that they may interact with. So just like everyone else, farmers are concerned with their safety and they’re evaluating what they’re doing and trying to adapt to be safe and and to deal with the social distancing guidelines. Some of the other challenges, you know, a lot of the farmers markets around the state, some of them are postponed or reformatted or canceled. So, some of the outlets that producers traditionally relied on, such as farmers markets, you know, they’re not there or perhaps they’re open, but they’re experiencing a lot of decrease in traffic and sales due to kind of public fear about this stuff. And there’s other farmers that rely primarily on restaurant sales and sales to schools and institutions. And those have all dried up right now. So producers have a lot of obstacles that they’re facing right now. And we’re working to really create and provide resources to help those farmers understand how they can work safely, both on the farm, at the farmers market. So our, you know, our first goal is farmers’ safety. And so we’re working on resources for that. We’re hosting webinars for farmers markets of various size to tell their story of how they’re adapting to social distancing and some of the challenges during COVID-19. We’re also putting on produce safety webinars. So the COVID-19 virus has not been shown to be spread through food or food packaging. But we’re hosting produce safety webinars to help answer growers’ questions and give them some ideas for best practices. We’re also hosting some webinars to help farmers learn how they can accept EBT and SNAP benefits. There’s going to be a huge amount increase of SNAP dollars in the community. And so we want to reduce the obstacles for growers to connect with those consumers in their community.

Moderator: [00:07:41] Great, great. And so, how are you and your team members helping farmers adapt to this new reality of social distancing and other measures that come along with COVID-19?

Justin Keay: [00:07:52] Sure. So, you know, we’re creating and connecting producers to resources to help them adapt to this new world of online sales and marketing. Producers have varying degrees of access and comfort with technology, so we’re trying to meet producers where they’re at and help them get where they need to be to develop their online sales and marketing. We’re developing resources for you-pick farms, farm stands and farmers market vendors, showing them how they can, in fact, operate safely during COVID-19 and in light of social distancing guidelines.

Moderator: [00:08:32] Ok, great, great. And so actually, a question for both of you. How could these projects help Missourians even after we get through this crisis? Lorin, I’ll let you answer first.

Lorin Fahrmeier: [00:08:43] So I really feel like we’ve been on, we’ve been so fluid in our programming, you know, since, you know, during this quote unquote “unusual moment in time.” Right? But at the same time, it has really allowed us to collaborate with with each other in a more intentional way and through these collaborations, and I think Justin will probably agree with me, that we’ve gotten really creative. And what I have seen as far as the long term implications of what’s going on with COVID-19 right now is we as extension professionals have really collaborated in unusual ways. Obviously, we’re having Zoom meetings a lot and we’re connecting more frequently with more intention. So from the perspective of our work as Extension professionals, I really see that developing into some really great different types of ideas that I think is really going to change the way that we program and reach Missourians in the long term. I can really see the MO Food Finder becoming something that producers rely on to help navigate different types of market channels. I can see the MO Food Finder turning into something that consumers will turn to that map for interaction with Missouri farmers and ranchers to find these local food sources, because things have really changed a lot recently in how consumers are purchasing their food. And I really see it turning into something that for the long haul, Missourians are going to rely even heavier on on these local food channels to really, one, connect to their food. But, two, they’re going to see the value in supporting our local businesses and in different ways. So I really, I really see it becoming something that’s a dynamic part of how we do research, how we do marketing and how we help producers sell more of their fresh local products.

Moderator: [00:11:00] Agreed. Justin?

Justin Keay: [00:11:03] Yeah. I mean, I’d like to just second the fact that the Food Finder is I think, that’s going to be a great resource long term for Missourians. The other thing that I guess I should note is, you know, the hope is that farmers and ranchers that do accept federal SNAP and EBT benefits, they’ll be able to populate that information on the Food Finder map. So, you know, it has a great ability to connect consumers in need to producers, you know, to be able to serve their communities. I really think the way that producers are stepping up right now to reach out to their customers and communities, it’s going to end up creating some really long-lasting connections. I think the pressure that we’re seeing COVID-19 is put on the national food supply, with some of the, you know, we’ve seen a lot of the closures with meat processing plants and things like that. I think this heightens awareness amongst the public of the importance a local food system. So, I really am hopeful that the connections that are being created now can help build more robust local food economies across the state of Missouri.

Moderator: [00:12:07] Awesome. No, I definitely think that it should. I think you guys both made extremely valid points in terms of this staying relevant even after we get through the crisis. And so the last question for both of you is, can you give our listeners some advice on how they can best support local Missouri farmers and businesses?

Lorin Fahrmeier: [00:12:26] So, one, going to Seeking out local farmers and ranchers and trying to support them as much as you possibly can. You’d be amazed just, to mention, how inventive Missouri farmers have become during during the COVID situation. And I think it’s best even even if you even if you can’t purchase all of your foods directly from a farmer, supporting small rural grocery stores, supporting small butcher shops, supporting all of these small businesses as they work together, you know, to help feed Missourians. I think as much as you can, stay local within your spending. It also helps set a really great example, you know, for our kids, for youth. You know, I think about programs like 4-H. Missouri 4-H is doing a ton of really great work even before COVID happened. But 4-H, which is, you know, it’s a part of MU Extension. They’ve partnered with Feeding Missouri, which is a coalition of the state’s six major food banks. And they are working on hunger relief in every single county across the state. So we have 4-H’ers that are working to help feed Missourians in a different way. There’s a coordinated effort right now with 1,500 community-based feeding programs. And right now, every dollar donated, it pays for 10 meals in a community. So that’s something that Missouri, that 4-H’ers are doing. So, if we can set the example as Missouri consumers to support Missouri farmers and ranchers, you know, that is, there’s a trickle down, which will actually turn into a kind of trickle up effect for the long term. When you’re looking at not only helping Missourians who need a helping hand, you know, at the moment, but most importantly, keeping intact these Missouri farmers and ranchers and local businesses that literally invest their money into our communities directly. And so I just, while it seems really challenging right now, I feel like our MO Food Finder map can, like I said, it can be a catalyst. It can be a connecting point that we can really use as a springboard to help kind of mobilize, you know, different types of programs throughout the state of Missouri and actually it will help us as extension professionals direct our efforts and programming to help in all of the different areas that MU Extension touches in a more purposeful and meaningful way.

Moderator: [00:15:13] Great. Justin?

Justin Keay: [00:15:13] Yeah. In terms of supporting, you know, local Missouri farmers, farmers market managers across the state are working really hard to reformat their markets to provide, you know, a safe shopping experience for their customers. So, you know, if your local markets are open, I strongly encourage folks to visit their farmers markets. You know, another thing I’d just say is, is be flexible. You know, growers and producers are having to adapt to all this new online sales and marketing. And that might require a little bit more flexibility from the customer in terms of payment, pick-up and product selection and things like that. You know, use your social media, following your local farmers market to help connect yourself to farms in your community. You know, finding out what producers are growing and raising, how they’re selling their products. There’s a lot of farms that are now offering home delivery or contactless pickup. And the most important thing, if you have good experiences with the farm or producer, let your friends, you know, your family and community know. Get the word out. You know, social media, there’s a lot of great neighborhood-based apps where you can share information like that now.

Moderator: [00:16:25] OK, those are both answers and I’m pretty sure that our listeners will definitely take heed of your advice. That’s all the questions that we have for you today. We want to thank you again for joining us. And you guys, stay safe and continue to do the work that you’re doing during this crisis.

Lorin Fahrmeier: [00:16:41] Thank you for having us.

Moderator: [00:16:42] Of course.

Justin Keay: [00:16:43] Yeah, thank you have so much.

Moderator: [00:16:44] Yeah, no problem.

Moderator: [00:17:13] Our audio engineer is Aaron Hay. Our featured music is composed by MU master’s student Niko D. Schroeder and performed by the Donald Sinta Quartet. You can find more information about Niko, the Quartet and their piece on the Inside Mizzou webpage. Make sure to join us next time to stay on top of what’s happening with our remote community. Thanks for joining us for this special edition series, Remote MU. Stay strong Mizzou.