While not a positive event in any light, COVID-19 definitely brought to light farmers’ adaptability and resilience — from changing marketing strategies to collaborating with rural communities for the greater good.

Kansas Farm Bureau’s back-to-back Summer Summit and Young Farmers and Ranchers conferences also highlighted those unique qualities that make farmers truly shine, as well as the ability to gather with family and friends after almost a year apart.

During a general session grain farmer and social media influencer Rob Sharkey shared the unexpected way he came to fame, starting with a failed attempt as a hog producer in the early 90s.

Sharkey, who currently hosts a successful podcast and XM radio show, as well as television shows for RFDTV and PBS, said he began working odd jobs to pay off his bank note without declaring bankruptcy when his hog farm went under. Even in desperation, he was never deterred from farming.

“Even though God was sending some really good opportunities our way, I was just kind of looking the other way,” Sharkey said. “Because, in my mind, none of those things were what a real farmer does.”

The business venture that initially pulled him out of a financial hole, was on many farmers in the Midwest were attempting at the time — becoming a wildlife hunting outfitter. The business did well and is still a portion of Sharkey’s farm efforts today, even serving as the foundation for Sharkey’s first podcast.

However, he soon realized interviewing his farmer friends and neighbors created a much bigger impact than chatting with his hunting buddies and he developed a new kind of farmer-friendly media.

Sharkey encouraged other producers to not be discouraged with their own social media outreach efforts, especially with the humble beginnings of his own.

“Not everyone can be the big social media people,” Sharkey said. “But, the big social media people can come from anywhere.”

In fact, Sharkey’s big break came on Twitter, when his power company left him in the dark for several days in the middle of winter and he angrily called them out on it online. The end result of which, many years later, is a platform for ag advocacy that reaches hundreds of thousands of people.

Consumer Connections

Sudden social media success was also a theme for Rick McNary, who started the successful Shop Kansas Farms Facebook group. What began as a few, concerned individuals hoping to help Kansas farmers find an outlet for their goods, has evolved into a multi-platform tool that connects thousands of farmers to consumers across the state.

“If you boil everything down to a nutshell, Shop Kansas Farms expanded and created markets for entrepreneurs,” McNary said. “And I see every farmer listed on our map as an entrepreneur will to put in the work for the market.”

The Shop Kansas Farms group jumped from 58 members to over 50,000 members in under seven days when McNary opened the group after hearing about bare shelves in rural grocery stores. Today, the group has grown to nearly 150,000.

“Eventually, gaps were identified in our coverage,” McNary said. “We needed a directory with a map and a review system for sellers, and so we began to invest in the business and establish those aspects outside of Facebook.”

Today, shopkansasfarms.com has a wide variety of seller and buyer tools to help facilitate quality business relationships between Kansas farmers and ranchers and consumers looking for agricultural products.

“Now you can go to our website and find the farm to school programs, where if farmers want to sell to local schools, they can list themselves and schools can directly buy fresh produce or meat,” McNary said. “Similarly, rural grocery stores who can and want to use local produce can list themselves as willing to buy from local farms, so we’re helping find markets for these people.”

Most recently, Shop Kansas Farms has expanded their online platform to offer digital storefronts. Farmers can easily set up and sell to online buyers with photos and reviews through the platform, without the hassle of building a website on their own.

“We’re committed to helping farmers reach new markets,” McNary said. “And, we believe this is a way that we can achieve that.”

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