Interest in finding local foods from nearby farm families continues to be strong during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In April, we wrote about “How to find local foods and local farms during the COVID-19 crisis” and included links to sites in almost every state. Most are managed by state departments of agriculture, but one that has witnessed exponential growth is the “Shop Kansas Farms” Facebook page. It was started three weeks ago by Kansas writer and photographer Rick McNary, who is also a Vice President of Strategic Partnerships at Outreach, Inc.

“Shop Kansas Farms” aims to connect people who want to buy from Kansas farmers with those who are selling. When the page was first launched, it gained over 800 members in the first 18 hours. Three weeks later, the group has over 123,000 members.

McNary says he had “no idea” the following would grow so large and adds that he couldn’t have done it without support from five volunteers who moderate the posts, handle administrative duties and provide resources, including help from the Kansas Farm Bureau and resources from the Kansas Dept. of Agriculture.

In his own post to farmers and ranchers, he noted that “our role is to prosper and protect you,” and to make sure that people follow the guidelines of the group and Facebook rules. That’s required some “policing,” McNary said and deleting a few people who were critical of farmers and the prices charged, or made political comments.

“If you attack farmers, you’re gone,” McNary added. “We have tried to create a place of respect.”

“Some of the best things I’m hearing is that farmers who thought they would not make any money this year are now making a profit," he said. "That’s very encouraging."

McNary says he’s also excited about the regional food system being built as people are connecting with each other online and sometimes in person. In addition to Kansas, buyers and sellers in Colorado, Ohio, Texas and other states are working with McNary’s team to replicate this online model.

For example, Shop Texas Farms now has over 5,000 members.

“A very excited honey producer shared with us that his sales had jumped enough to allow him to hire his first employee. This is such a positive step for small farmers and ranchers; and the entire rural community,” says Bethany Reynolds, Owner and operator of The Farmer's Garden in Tyler Texas, who serves as one of the administrators on the site.

McNary wrote in a post that "this new form of commerce is providing economic opportunities for both large, and small-scale family farms that are being tapped into like never before."

“This has never been an 'either/or' questions about food supply chains," he told Agri-Pulse. "Of course, we need grocery stores and food chains, but this regional food supply is emerging,” he added. “Perhaps this is the key to rural revitalization.”

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One of the other things he’s learned about this process of building relationships through a Facebook page: “Hope.”

“Farmers are probably the most faith-filled people that there are to be able to continue to plant year after year. Just by the very nature of what they do, they are hopeful people.”

At the same time, he said, “consumers are fearful and the agriculture community is doing what it’s always done. It’s just that the American public has not recognized it. So, the local foods community being built and the hope that’s being provided by the agriculture community is giving people in America a sense of calm.”

Editor's Note: This story has been updated with a new comment from Rick McNary and Shop Texas Farms.

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