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When Rae Ann Scherr of the town of Sullivan started the Facebook group Farm Direct Wisconsin in late April, she wanted to connect consumers with farmers selling products in the area. She thought she might get a couple hundred people to join the group.

Less than a month later, the group has caught the attention of more than 32,000 members and 350 vendors across the state. 

Scherr has a nephew who is a dairy farmer, and he told her before the coronavirus hit Wisconsin that they were planning to sell their cattle to focus on just raising crops instead. Scherr felt bad about farmers culling their herds because "the supply chain is broken, basically."

She said she's always wanted to buy beef or eggs direct from a farmer, but no one could ever tell her where or how to do so. Scherr thought if she didn't know how to go about it, there were probably others in the same situation.

What started as a way to get some recommendations for buying food from farmers has turned into a huge endeavor that fills her days.

Farms have posted to the group selling a variety of products, including lavender, cranberries, lamb, vegetables, beef, chicken and eggs. A quick click on a specific region of the state (there are nine) directs consumers to producers in their area.

Since Scherr is laid off during the coronavirus and has time, she started working on a website for the group "since Facebook can be a funny place" and "somebody might get upset some day and shut the group down." Vendors have sent her information ,and she's working to create a map of all the farms.

She's also started working on a Farm Direct app. 

Once Scherr has the mapping, website and app done, she hopes to make some educational videos, visit some vendors "and see what they do and how they do it."

"There's a lot of questions out there. I have a lot of questions," Scherr said. "I'm really excited about where this is going."

Many people have left comments on the Facebook page asking how to buy beef direct, what to expect, pricing. They have learned that local processors are swamped with bookings and that it might take months or even into next year before an animal can be processed. 

But some farmers in the group are wondering where all these customers were before the pandemic. Why are they wanting to buy local now, and will they be there in a couple of years when the next group of steers is ready — and the pandemic has passed?

"I really think that there are a lot of people, like myself, who always thought about buying local, but didn't know how. So they never really approached it," said Scherr. 

In a Facebook post Scherr wrote, "I have always had a soft spot in my heart for our farmers, but thought I was supporting you just by living my life buying dairy and meat like every other person out there.

"I always used to look for the "Real® Seal" and would look for the 55 on milk and other dairy, use farmers markets and roadside stands. I had no idea I could drive an hour or two and get a half a cow from three different farmers."

Many comments from members of the group echoed what Scherr wrote: If you don't know, how do you know what to ask? If consumers don't know where to look, aren't even aware of the possibility of buying a quarter or half of an animal, they will continue to go to big box grocery stores.

Comments on the page pointed out that some people don't have the space to purchase large quantities of meat, but once they do, they'll never go back. Several hoped that the "silver lining" of COVID-19 would be a "surge back to local food sources and love and respect for farmers."

Marissa Fortin of Springhill Heritage Farm in Chetek, Wisconsin, posted, "As a general rule, farmers are not marketers so we're not always the best at creating campaigns to reach people and tell them we are here. So it's no surprise that people weren't aware that we're here and feeding people. I believe the small farmers can serve our communities better than large multi-national corporations, and am really glad you all are here to let us demonstrate."

Scherr realizes that 30,000 people probably won't be around a couple of years after COVID-19 has passed, but "I think that there are going to be a very large number that will be."

"Farmers do a lot during the day, I mean they're taking care of their farm, they're taking care of their animals, they're doing what needs to be done. They don't necessarily have

time to market themselves and put themselves out there," Scherr said. "I think that once people realize how easy it is, to buy directly from the farmer, I think there will be a large number of people that will be doing this in two or three years from now."

For more information visit Farm Direct Wisconsin or send email to farmdirectwisconsin@gmail.com.

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