When the pandemic closed the metaphorical doors of farmers markets, Alexa Vasquez opened a window. That window—on her computer screen—quickly became larger than she could have imagined. All these months later, her initial idea has transformed into a business model that just might be the next evolution of retail and a better way for people to connect with their local farmers, makers and food community.
On March 17, 2020, Vasquez established the first iteration of NoCo Virtual Farmers Market (NoCoVFM) as a Facebook group. Like many early responses to the Colorado closures, the page was created hastily. In those first few weeks the platform was unrefined and cumbersome for shoppers to navigate. But Vasquez knew that people were searching for local products, that they were adapting quickly and that their demands were changing.
By the second week, more than 1,000 people had joined the NoCoVFM Facebook group, and Vasquez was exhausted from processing nearly 100 orders. “I sorted everything at my house,” she recalls, “and then my 2-year-old daughter and I jumped in my car and we delivered everything.”
During this time, with many grocery store shelves emptied, the sale of staples like eggs, meat, produce and baked goods soared through NoCoVFM. “I thought we’d grow in a steady upward trend, but it ended up being way more than that.”
It was gratifying work. Vasquez knew she was reconnecting customers with vendors and that making that connection was a lifeline for some on both sides of the transaction. But she also felt the weight of her labors. Although she received help from family and a few vendors, Vasquez manually entered orders into spreadsheets. The continuous problem-solving and juggling of logistics started to take a heavy toll. Maybe NoCoVFM offered a sustainable solution for sellers and shoppers, but she questioned the long-term sustainability for herself.
“My friend Candida [Marques] came to visit in April, and she watched me enter in orders from sunup until sundown,” says Vasquez. “Candida said, ‘Let me help you. There has to be an easier way.’”
Since April, the two women have worked together to build an e-commerce website with a streamlined ordering process. Customers can shop online and pay through PayPal. A backend login allows vendors to view and process their orders and a designated sorting facility has allowed Vasquez and her family to reclaim their home from a vast inventory of products.
With all these steps in place, NoCoVFM seems poised for success. The website includes a roster of approximately 100 vendors from all over Colorado. Customers can purchase anything from local eggs and grass-raised beef to frozen prepared meals, arts and crafts—even hand sanitizer. The site features themed categories such as Gluten Free/Keto, Health & Beauty, Prepared Meals and Holiday for browsing as well as a keyword search bar for customers looking for something specific.
Vasquez says she wants to educate consumers about the supply chain while helping local farmers and producers. “We don’t have to rely on consumables brought in from out of state and out of the country,” she says. “You can buy onions, potatoes, herbs and soap from the lady across the street. We can get all the imported things we buy from the grocery store right from our backyards.” Or with a few clicks of a button from our computer window.
The diverse list of vendors includes Matt Unger, owner of Pondy Mountain Produce. The shutdowns brought major shifts for Unger’s small operation. “I was supplying two to three chefs, but when COVID hit their restaurants shut down,” he says. “Our CSA shares doubled, though.” The increased demand from his CSA base, coupled with his business through NoCoVFM, has allowed him to expand his operation and grow year-round.
“We’ve been on the cusp of that change for a while and, certainly in NoCo, people are more apt to look for more locally grown food,” says Unger. “COVID pushed some people over the edge to make a commitment to eat fresh and local and reduce their carbon footprint.”
Unger wants to help people be more connected to their food sources. “Know your farmer: Book a visit to my farm and see what we do and why,” he says. “Local produce is so much healthier; it’s the energy I’m putting into your food on my farm. It’s incredibly positive. We’re caretakers of the land, and I take farming and taking care of the land very seriously.”
Pondy Mountain Produce isn’t the only NoCoVFM vendor who sees the potential for growth amid a changing market. Recognizing that Colorado imports 90% of its greens, Spring Hill Greens began growing a variety of nutrient-dense microgreens year-round. Says Jennifer Matsuura, Spring Hill Greens’ operations chief and head grower, “We really like the [NoCoVFM] platform, and we’ve built a loyal following. Alexa and Candida are really loving people to the community and trying to get good food out.”
Matsuura also appreciates NoCoVFM’s donation program, which allows Spring Hill Greens to donate any extra produce to the community through food banks and food rescues.
While NoCoVFM seems like an ideal model that could be replicated in many communities, it requires the leadership of individuals able to coordinate a wide range of logistical challenges. Although Vasquez believes her virtual farmers market was the first of its kind in Colorado, other markets have emerged within Colorado and throughout the country.
Some in-person markets have modified their approach to meet their communities’ needs, such as the Boulder County Farmers Market (BCFM), which started curbside pickups at their locations in Boulder, Denver, Longmont and Lafayette. BCFM recently launched a home delivery program, which will continue throughout the winter. This is the first time in their 30+ year history that they will offer goods year-round, and those products are available only via curbside pickup and delivery since the in-person market is closed for the winter.
“I’ve gotten phone calls and messages from people all over the place wanting to do it, too,” Vasquez says. “This model is brand new, and nobody knows what they’re doing.”
Vasquez believes virtual farmers markets serve an important need. “This is something that we’ll continue even after the pandemic,” she says. “Accessibility matters. Not everyone is able to go to the farmers markets, whether they’re homebound, work nights, or maybe it’s too much work to pack up the kids. We’re here to help.”