As the new Acting Administrator for USDA Rural Development’s Rural Housing Service, I know that one of the best parts of working in rural America is the relationships we build with our customers, relationships that often span many years. I was fortunate to see these relationships in action in my most recent role as State Director for Virginia. It’s rewarding to watch a customer’s efforts make an impact on the community they serve. And it’s especially gratifying to see a customer experience dramatic growth and begin serving communities beyond their geographical area. That is the case for the Virginia Foundation for Agriculture, Innovation and Rural Sustainability (VAFAIRS), specifically, their ecommerce program, Lulus Local Food.
VAFAIRS has been a Rural Cooperative Development Grant recipient for several years, as we’ve assisted them in providing technical assistance to organizations transitioning into, or involved in, value-added agriculture. That assistance helped create Lulus Local Food, which has been operating since 2008. But this year it has proved to be a difference-maker, as it helped users to quickly respond to changing market needs in the wake of COVID-19.
Lulus Local Food allows farms and markets to move from traditional bricks and mortar point of sales to an online format- all the while managing inventory, creating financial reports, and helping expand their customer reach. This was critical even before COVID-19, but the pandemic has made conducting business online essential.
Since 2020 began, the program has onboarded farms and markets from across the country, customers in Kentucky, California, Wyoming, Vermont, Maryland, Iowa, and Pennsylvania. Lulus the program has experienced a 650% growth in sales and a 522% increase in orders compared to last year. Since January, the program has integrated more than 380 farms and has added more than 6,000 new customers purchasing directly from farms by using the Lulus platform.
This isn’t the first time Lulus has gotten attention; in 2017 the program received the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 2017 New Horizon Award.
Because of the USDA grant programs helping to fund its work with Lulus, VAFAIRS was poised and ready to help farmers and markets re-imagine their current sales structure in the wake of a global pandemic.
I couldn’t be prouder of our relationship with VAFAIRS and I can’t wait to see the great work Lulus Local Foods will do in the coming months and years. We know that together, America prospers.