Iron Shoe Farm in Minnesota is finding new ways to connect farmers and consumers and keep their business afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic. The farm’s founder, Carla Mertz, is hoping to do this by transforming food supply chains and building strong local communities.
“If you are ever going to do anything, you need to focus on your local community,” Mertz tells Food Tank. Her farm produces microgreens, vegetables, poultry, and cattle. But Mertz also sees Iron Shoe as an epicenter of change, where she can advocate for farmer’s needs and sustainably produced, local food. This vision was reinforced at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which challenged local producers.
In March 2020 Mertz says that she lost every retail and restaurant customer. “It was devastating,” she says. She explains that typically microgreens alone bring in US$75,000, but last year that number dropped to US$3,200.
To keep her farm in business, Mertz opened an e-commerce store showcasing honey, sauces, pasta, flowers, oats, and dairy from local producers, along with her own products, including cuts of meat, microgreens, and vegetables. The decision helped her and her community gain customers directly.
But Mertz says that she was facing challenges, such as a lack of meat processors, even before the pandemic hit. “It is a dying industry and over monopolized too,” Mertz tells Food Tank. She explains that existing facilities for meat processing in the state are overbooked and insufficient for 2,500 small farmers in Minnesota, including Iron Shoe Farm. This results in the loss of animals, money, effort, and time.
Hoping to address this issue, Mertz partnered with local chef Stephanie Hedrick to open Diamond Leaf Farm. Designed as an agricultural education center to help the public better understand what it means to run a farm, it will also house a meat processing plant for small, independently run farmers in the area. Currently, Mertz and Hedrick are running a GoFundMe campaign to raise the capital needed to open the farm.
Despite the challenges, Mertz and others are facing, she acknowledges that the pandemic has helped consumers understand the importance of local food producers and small farms. She hopes that this interest does not fade moving forward. “I would love to see all the grocery stores in Minnesota selling products from the area,” says Mertz. “I think that those products tell the story of who we are as a community.”