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Coronavirus Update: Farmers markets, local independent grocers working to meet West Virginia’s food demand

By Lexi Browning

For The WV Press Association

CHARLESTON, W.VA. — When the coronavirus pandemic began to spread in West Virginia, Shelly Keeney, market director of The Wild Ramp in Huntington, W.Va., wasn’t sure what to expect. 

For the first time, the farmer’s market had closed its doors to the public, only allowing orders to be phoned in and picked up on the curb. All spring produce and inventory had already been ordered from local producers before the outbreak began, and the items were still getting delivered soon.

“Our farmers count on us,” Kenney said. “We’d done our planning, and we wanted to continue doing right by them.” 

In an effort to keep their customers updated on their incoming inventory and the business’ hefty safety measures, she and the rest of the team took to posting daily on social media. 

“We’ve never had to close before, but we wanted to keep our staff safe and our customers safe as well,” Kenney said. “We were worried our sales may not be so great, but it was the opposite. Sales were good and a little bit above where they were last year. They felt safe shopping with us.” 

The call-ahead service allowed the staff to spend time with customers one-on-one, making each shopping experience personal. Customers are asking questions about the food they’re purchasing and their origins, she said. 

“When people are calling, they’re asking lots of questions — more than we’ve really ever gotten,” Keeney said. “They’re buying closer to home, learning about the farmers and their practices. They’re choosing healthier options.”

The market itself hosts a variety of locally grown produce, canned goods, dairy and meat, along with a collection of handmade art and goods from local artisans. 

“I’m really happy that I’m a part of this, especially during this time,” Keeney said. “I think that our market, or any farmer’s market, we’re the voice of the farmers. We’re here to pass along information. That’s part of my job and I’m proud to be associated with the farmers that I know here in our community.”

Recently, many of the new customers have remarked on the difference in taste and quality of The Wild Ramp’s locally grown products in comparison with items they’ve purchased from chain retailers. 

“So many people, especially with produce and meat, the newer customers say, ‘this tastes like what I remember from when I was younger,’” Keeney said. “It’s true. When you’re used to grocery store meats, it’s different from what’s right on the pasture. People say the kale tastes so much better and flavorful.”

Keeney said she’s optimistic about the future and hopes the quality of their products will keep The Wild Ramp’s new customers shopping on a local level. 

“I hope that after this they remember us, that they think about us,” Keeney said. “They’d heard of us, but didn’t realize everything we had available. It has given us a way to do … personal one-on-one talking about our farmers and how far our food travels. Our farmers are happy, and the one thing I’ve heard [from customers] is for us to thank our farmers for providing during this time.”

Jim Oppe, president of Oppe’s Markets, can also attest to the quality of local goods. Oppe’s Markets owns four Piggly Wiggly stores in West Virginia, one in southeast Ohio and a Shoppers Value in Spencer, W.Va. Each of their independent grocery stores still have butchers on-site.

“We’ve seen a lot of new faces, and a lot of it has to do with the meat,” Oppe said. “That’s our niche.”

Processing their own meats locally has allowed the stores to keep up with the customers’ demands at a time when major competitors’ supply chains have been interrupted by the closure of many meat processing plants across the United States. Some meats, including beef, have nearly doubled in price on the market, he added.

“A lot of folks don’t realize that if you’ve got a big beef plant that processes 12,000 to 15,000 cattle a day, shutting those down, it gets tight,” Oppe said. “That’s what’s happening. The Walmarts, the competitors, they rely on the plants for fresh meat, and a lot of those are shut down due to the virus.”

Independent grocers have certain advantages that chains may not, Oppe said. Buying dairy and meat items from local producers, for example, has helped both the local retailers and farmers prevent the supplies from going to waste.

“A lot of people don’t think about it, but milk goes to schools, and they shut down, so there’s a backlog of milk,” Oppe said, adding that they’d supported some meat suppliers who normally sold to restaurants when some of those businesses were closed. “They had meat at first when we were struggling to get it in during the mid-March influx. Everybody’s kinda worked together.”

Customers are also being more intentional about the items they’re buying, he added. 

“Folks are planning their meals and eating three at home, whereas when they’re working they may get Wendy’s or McDonald’s,” Oppe said. “Now they’re eating breakfast, lunch and dinner at home. It’s interesting to see what we’re selling. With coffee, we’re selling a lot more. It has to do with the fact that they’re at home instead of grabbing a cup at McDonald’s or [stopping] at Tudor’s for coffee and a biscuit.”

Before each store opens, Oppe said they do a deep cleaning and wipe the carts and other frequently touched surfaces. Then, throughout the day, cashiers clean their registers. They’ve purchased “several hundred” cloth and disposable face masks for employees. 

While new customers have ventured in during the ongoing pandemic, Oppe said the biggest increase in sales is coming from regular customers who may be buying slightly more each visit. 

“We’re not seeing as many influxes of customers; we’re seeing a big increase in that they’re buying more,” he said. “Folks who spend $25 a basket are now spending $35 a basket. It’s the same number of customers, but that extra $10-12 a customer is adding up.”

Oppe expects sales to level out over the next few months as folks return to work. 

“The industry gurus expect a slow decline back to normal, but we’re hoping to hang onto it,” Oppe said. “We’ll see if folks get used to eating at home and cooking again. When mom works and dad works and the kids are in sports, it’s easier to run through the drive thru when everyone’s busy. It’s going to be a slow recovery. Folks have to feel comfortable.”

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