Article and Research via the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development

This paper examines the use by California’s direct market farmers (DMFs) of online sales and market­ing during the early onset of the COVID-19 pan­demic in the United States, from March through December 2020. The pandemic caused market dis­ruptions that accelerated the trend toward market digitalization. This paper reports quantitative find­ings based on 364 responses to an online survey of DMFs in California and qualitative findings from participant observation and 33 semi-structured interviews with DMFs and technical assistance providers. We found that online sales and market­ing tools, such as social media and websites, were important for withstanding economic disruptions associated with the pandemic, and farmers who had an online presence were more likely to increase their sales and profitability during its early onset. However, we also found that many farmers lacked the necessary resources to access these tools and use them effectively, and that technical assistance providers experienced challenges in helping farm­ers with online technology use. We argue that DMFs need reliable access to the internet, as well as advice, resources, and training to access and benefit from online sales and marketing tools. These resources must be available in languages other than English (e.g., Spanish). Research-informed programs and policies can help DMFs navigate market digitalization and strengthen their resilience to future economic disruptions. Read the full study here


Given this broad applicability, we provide fiverecommendations for technical assistance provid-ers and others aiming to help farmers adopt and use online tools:

1.Because DMFs require diverse types of online tools for sales and marketing, technical assis-tance providers should advise farmers on fac-tors to consider (e.g., budget, goals,and time investment) to determine whether an online tool is appropriate for them. Informational resources, such as flowcharts or diagrams, could help farmers assess whether certain sales plat-forms are appropriate for their operation.

2. When planning a workshop or training session, facilitators should first assess participants’ tech-nological literacy.In some cases, it might make sense to divide farmers into different groups according to their skill levels. These varied levels could be considered when deciding on the modality of the workshop. While some farmers can learn how to use online tools througha vir-tual webinar on Zoom, many farmers require direct support in person. In addition, some workshops might require a high ratio of facilita-tors to farmers so that participants can receive direct support from facilitators when they fall behind.

3. Along these lines,technical assistance providers should ensure that farmers havethe technical literacy to maintain an online tool. For example, many farmers, particularly family farmers and DMFs, do not own or use computers and some do not own or know how to use smartphones. Some DMFs also lack basic knowledge of digi-tal technology or English fluency, making learn-ing how to use online tools more challenging. This is often the case for DMFs who are olderorof lower educational attainment, and immi-grant farmers who are not English speakers. If a farmer lacks the necessary technical literacy, technical assistance providers could confirm that the farmer hasa relative, employee, or organization that will help them on an ongoing basis. Alternatively, they couldimplement a plan to train the farmer on how to use this tool. Another possible solution could be to help the farmer set up a website or social media page that requires minimal updating (excluding prices and sales locations).

4. Given farmers’ varied levels of knowledge, peer-to-peer learning opportunities where more knowledgeable farmers teach online technologyskills to novice farmers can be very effective.For example, the Tech Hub has organized webi-nars and conference presentations in which farmers share their experiences with specific online tools (e.g., online sales platforms) and how they use them.

5. Technical assistance programs should consider expanding the availability of resources in lan-guages in addition toEnglish and hiring staff who are able to support farmers in different lan-guages.In California,Spanish is especially important because, after English, it is the sec-ond most commonly spoken language among farmers of color and female farmers (California Department of Food and Agriculture, 2020). In addition, online sales platform companies should consider offering customer supportser-vices in languages other than English.